Burlesque History: Gloves

We love a bit of historical info on a sunday (who doesn’t, quite frankly?) so we thought today, we’d look into the history of the glove… Not quite a history of burlesque, as in our previous posts, but something closely related.

Gloves… without these items, our hands are just plain, boring old hands! We see our hands everyday, but the minute you put a glove on and peel it off slowly on stage, something magical happens… Our hands are transformed into objects of desire; the crowd holds their breath as you peel off the glove and then gasps and whoops when the flesh is revealed. Who knew a glove could do so much for a plain old hand?


Gloves from Ancient Times

‘Glove’ comes from the Middle English word ‘glof’ from the Old Norse glofi. Gloves are well old, older than Old Norse… In fact, the earliest recorded reference to gloves is in the Ancient Greece (Minoan) frescos of boxers and Egyptian tomb art, such as those found in the tomb of Ay (#25 at the Tombs of The Nobles at Amarna). A nobleman in the reign of Akhenaten (or Amenhotep IV, around 1353BC – 1335BC), Ay was a ‘beloved scribe of the King’ and the painted scenes depict the royal family in a ‘presentation ceremony’, giving Ay (and wife Tiy) service rewards of necklaces, goblets, armlets and 1 pair of gloves (other scenes show him wearing the gloves so he must have been chuffed!). Fragments of gloves were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb (around the same era as Ay, who was said to have been King Tut’s protector) and the pharaohs wore them as a symbol of high power, while women of these times often covered their hands in honey and fragrant oils then wore soft linen or silk gloves, embroidered with coloured threads, as a fashion accessory. We say ‘gloves’ but in reality, they were more like mittens, with a thumb.

Aside from the obvious wearing of gloves for protection (eg, shepherds and peasants wore a form of glove made from cheap materials to protect them in the fields, gloves have been worn by the military since ancient Egyptian times and a simple glove-precursor hand-wraps worn for warmth in colder climates even earlier than this) for work and for eating. The Romans wore linen and silk gloves (digitalia) to protect their hands from hot meat and this tradition was carried through until Medieval times when eating gloves became more like thimbles that covered only the fingers. Wearing of gloves for dining continued right until Edwardian times where ‘polite society’ wore gloves (mainly the ladies, in elegant evening gloves) at the table.

Gloves of Symbolic values and Status

Other than for practical uses, gloves have had symbolic value to many cultures and appear to have been reserved for those of noble or religious positions and to be given a pair of gloves was a great honour. In the Middle Ages, gloves of the high powers (kings, priests) were richly decorated with precious stones, gold and silver threads and were made from valuable fabrics and the gloves of Catholic bishops decorated with gold thread, while lower-ranking priests wore white gloves to symbolise purity. Gloves have been part of ceremonies across the ages, donning a glove to hold ritualistic cups, swords and other sacred objects have been woven into ancient practices, and in the knight’s circle, being handed a glove meant you had become a vassal to whoever handed you the glove (in layman’s terms, if a king gave you a glove, you were now mutually obligated to serve), the slapping of the face with a glove or “throwing down the gauntlet” and “the gloves are off” – ie, a glove thrown underfoot mean a challenge to a duel, while a knight receiving a glove from a lady was associated with a love promise and faithfulness, some receiving a glove and sword from their lady as part of marriage ceremonies to seal a promise of faithfulness while the knight is away in battle.

Judges often wore white gloves to symbolise that their hands were unsullied by the criminals they dealt with and in freemasonry, while early engravings of operative masons depict the wearing of gloves when at work; their use is also symbolic, with ‘glove money’ being paid to masons as early as the 1300s, a practice still continued today with lady partners of freemasons presented with a pair of gloves at special events. Records from 1600s show as part of ‘entrance rituals’ a new Mason had to ‘clothe the lodge’ by providing gloves for his entire brethren while in some rites still in existence today, a new mason undergoes a ‘presentation of the gloves’ as part of the initiation ceremony, symbolising that the hands, purified by the initiation, must never be sullied again. A second pair is often given for the new mason’s partner to symbolise the high respect in which Masons hold women in general (re the Cult of Diana, the building of temples by masons dedicated to Diana Of Ephesus).

antique-Paul-Foster-kid-gloves-bookmark MinoansBoxingecclesiasticalglovesofBishopNicolausShiner1510

(Glove adverts, Ancient Minoans (around 2700-1400BC) wearing boxing gloves and the ecclesiastical gloves of Bishop Niclaus Shiner, 1510, )

Giving a Lady A Pair Of Gloves

The gifting of a pair of gloves to a lady, symbolically through the ages, has been thought of as an intimate gift to a lover (much like the gift of undies in modern times). As in Ancient Egyptian and Early Roman times, gloves have been perfumed with strong oils and centuries later, glovers carried on this tradition, senting their wares with exotic spices and for the more luxurious glove, musk or rose oil.

Gloves in Ettiquette

As our Lilly is quite fond of reading, Barbara Cartland states in her ettiquette bible, “a wife must always wear long gloves to social engagements”, and in the 1930s it was considered “disgraceful” for a woman to leave the house without long gloves and a matching hat. The Victorians liked this rule to, with the hands and ankles of women being covered in public (even lower classes such as prostitutes observed this rule, however crudely). A rule mainly for men (which still stands today), removing the right glove showed a sign of respect when in the presence of a superior, keeping on gloves while shaking hands is still the sign of superiority (eg the Queen) while removing gloves to shake the hand of a gloved superior is a sign of respect and an acknowledgement of their position.

Gloves in Fashion

The gloves really became a fashion accessory in the 1100s, with gloves for men and women richly decorated with precious gems, worked with gold and silver threads and fashioned from expensive materials. Fine skins such as doe and kid were also all the rage, prompting a search for finer skins such as that of chicken and later, by the 1500s, the fine skins of unborn calves. In the 1500s, sea travel to far flung shores brought a fashion for other fabrics such as velvets, satins and in the 1600s gloves knitted from cotton thread began to appear. In the 1800s taffeta began to appear, but it wasn’t until after the 1950s, that the post war world experimented with man made fabrics such as nylon and – in the 1960s – vinyl.


Glove Lengths

Gloves have appeared across the ages in a variety of different lengths, with their style usually donated by the task they were fit for.

  • Short Gloves – mainly for day wear in modern times (the last 100 years), but short gloves with a kind of cuff were standard length until the introduction of the ‘gauntlet length’ as gloves became more decorated, and more length and fabric was needed to accommodate the more ornate designs.
  • Gauntlets – a style of glove with a deeper, widened cuff usually worn by soldiers and those using swords to protect their forearm in battle and allow for free movement of the wrist. Also, this style of glove became fashion around the 1500s, with the inner cuff (visible) lined in contrasting colours of crimsons and reds.
  • Long Gloves – the ‘opera length’ glove started appearing in the 1700s, as sleeve lengths grew shorter and women still wanted to keep their dignity. The length depended on the dress, some would reach only to the end of the fore arm, some over the elbow while some gloves would reach way up the upper arm. These designs would often feature buttons to make the glove fit more elegantly (they didn’t have our friend lycra in those days!), some up to 20 buttons and would often be fashioned out of flesh-coloured toned suedes and skins. A very chic accessory for parlour tea, doncha think?
  • Mittens and fingerless gloves – the earliest gloves, as we’ve covered before, were more like mittens, while fingerless gloves came into play with the romans and ancient greeks and a practical need to use fingers. Fingerless gloves were also popular for those wishing to show off their wealth (although rings and other items of jewellery were often worn on top of the glove).

Did You Know:

Marigolds get their name from the 16th century tradition of women going to bed wearing gloves filled with marigold cream to soften and bleach their hands.  

The biting off of gloves (as in many a burlesque act!) is considered a taboo act in many cultures.

To ‘handle with kid gloves’ (today’s meaning, to treat someone or a situation with caution to avoid provocation) stems from falconry, where wearing kid gloves protected the falconer from sharp beaks and claws.

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