Sunday, 20 May 2012

The SYMBOLISM OF GLOVES - by Deborah Swift.

Today I'm thrilled to welcome author, Deborah Swift, to my blog. Deborah writes highly acclaimed historical fiction - "The Lady's Slipper" is currently rated 5 stars on Amazon - and Deborah has kindly taken the time to visit and post on the subject of: 'The Symbolism of Gloves.'
Welcome, Deborah!
In The Gilded Lily, Jay Whitgift, the dashing but dangerous man-about-town, gives Ella, my feisty maid, a pair of gloves. As I researched the sort of gloves that Ella might have worn I re-connected with the idea that gloves often had a symbolic meaning. Their unmistakable form, and their manner of taking on an individual’s body shape so that they appear to be part of the person even when they’re off, must be why they have attained such social and psychological significance. And this is why I chose them as an intimate gift.
Gloves were made mostly of leather, suede or kidskin, which would stretch to fit the hand. Black ones were worn at funerals, and those attending would be expected to wear them. Relatives of the deceased would often supply black gloves for the poorer members of the congregation for fear of the shame of un-gloved mourners.
Yellow was worn for hunting and blood-sports, and white at balls or social occasions, and for the aristocracy who could afford servants to keep them clean. Hands dressed in with pale kid gloves looked manifestly unacquainted with work, and this was desirable for the upper classes.
In the 16th and 17th century  women would go to bed wearing gloves filled with marigold cream to whiten and soften their hands. Glovers often scented their gloves - common perfumes were cinnamon or cloves, but the most costly gloves were scented with musk, civet, ambergris, and spirit of roses.

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Queen Elizabeth I's gloves.
Eighteenth-century Irish "chickenskin" gloves were even thinner and smoother than kid. They were cut from the skins of aborted calves, and so fine that they came folded into the shell of a walnut.
Margaret Visser – The Way We Are.
(Not sure I like that idea, it sounds very grim! )

As with a handshake, gloves meant faith in the transaction or confidence in the person, so transactions of land or property could be made by handing over the symbol of a glove.
The tradition of “throwing down the gauntlet”, has survived in language at least, where a knight might challenge another to a duel by casting a glove at his feet – the glove being a symbol of hand to hand combat.
And Judges often used to wear gloves as a symbol that their hands were unsullied by the criminals they had jurisdiction over. Gloves "lined" with money were famous as formal bribes and judges and other high up members of society often received far too many pairs of gloves to use them all; for this reason, many fine specimens survive. These are often highly decorative, with gold braid, embroidery and sumptuous beading, as in this example. The poorer gloves, such as the ones Ella is given, that would be worn for warmth, rarely survive.
Early 17th century glove (Courtesy of V&A)
In the 16th and 17th centuries so much etiquette developed around them that men’s gloves in particular grew wider and more decorative as they were so often carried rather than worn. It was taboo to offer to shake a hand wearing gloves, or to accept a gift in a glove. Nor was it acceptable to remove them with the teeth. Approaching an altar in Church, men had to remove their gloves, and the right glove had to be removed when coming into the presence of a social superior as a mark of respect. The keeping on of your gloves indicated that you retained power by declining physical contact, whereas the removal meant you deferred to a higher position. Gloves were also to be put off when playing cards (to deter cheating, I suppose) or when eating.
From the symbolic use of gloves the custom grew up of presenting them to people of distinction on special occasions. When Queen Elizabeth visited Cambridge in 1578 the vice chancellor offered her a

" a paire of gloves, perfumed and garnished with embroiderie and goldsmithe's wourke, price 60s."

Up until quite recently women always carried matching handbags and gloves, a style now only seen as a remnant at weddings, or with the royal family who, as befitting their perceived status, keep on their gloves in public. I love this Vogue pattern, which still incorporates gloves as an essential part of “the look”.

In The Gilded Lily, Ella is delighted by her new gloves, which her sister Sadie dismisses scornfully as “trumpery”.
The Gilded Lily will be out in September, my other book The Lady’s Slipper (still ranked 5 stars on Amazon!) is out now.

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‘fabulous …her characters are so real that they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf. Highly recommended.' Historical Novels Review

Thanks to Grace for hosting me. More information about the history of gloves can be found at
Twitter @swiftstory
Deborah's cat, Tabby - obviously an intelligent cat with excellent taste!


  1. Fascinating article. I love gloves and have several pairs of various colors and lengths. Unfortunately all them - except my riding gloves - are meant to be worn with winter coats.

  2. Thank you for this interesting article. Gloves and glovelessness appear in my Victorian-era novel, which I'm working on now.

  3. I am so looking forward to reading this novel. I loved The lady's Slipper. This is a fabulous interview. I must look for your novels too.

  4. Hi Mary, mine too! It's summer now and all my gloves are away in the cupboard. Peggy, it's interesting how much these small items such as hats and gloves said so much about the past. I look forward to hearing more of your victorian novel.Carol, thanks for your lovely compliment. Aren't the covers for Grace's romances great? I's love a frock like the one on A Dead Man's Debt!

  5. Your blog is very informative.This is obviously one great post.i keep on reading articles from here.thanks for sharing..

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  6. This is really a great read. It's fascinating to read about the history of gloves.


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