I grew up believing there were two genders:
My mother was a big fan of ladies, especially if they were old, or pregnant. We always gave them our seats on buses, and helped them across roads and things like that.
Why did we like ladies so much? Maybe it was because they had good manners and said, ‘thank you,’ when we helped them. They also looked nice; stood up straight; didn’t slouch, and wore gloves. (I like gloves!)
All well and good. Harmless, you might say. But imagine my surprise when I went to university and discovered the lady was a thing of the past- the deeply patriarchal past, I may add! I learned that ladies and gentlemen had been succeeded by:
AND (shock, horror) that it was not ok to refer to a woman as a lady! Well, not if you were a student in the Department of Sociology and Gender Studies, in any case.
Now, thirty years later, I am free to say what I like! (Phew!)
So, on fashion friday, it is my pleasure to write a little retrospective about the lady of yesteryear and that quintessential element of ladylike dress, the GLOVE.
Why gloves? Well apart from the fact that I personally like gloves, the formidable Virginia Wolf has observed that:
“ …. a lady is known by
her shoes and her gloves.”
Let’s save shoes for another day. That’s a very big subject.
What do we know about the not so humble glove? It certainly has a long history. Up until the 1400’s, gloves were most commonly made from the skins of animals. No surprises there. What might surprise you is the range of animal skins that were used.
Historian S. Beck cites an example of dog skin gloves being sent to a certain Lady Knolles, with a letter saying:
‘These gloves, madam, are made of the skin of a dog, the animal most praised for its fidelity.’
Gloves were also made from such unlikely material as chicken skin. Chicken skin gloves being a big hit with the ladies between 1500 and 1700 as they were so light and delicate, they could fit inside the shell of a walnut!
Dogs, chickens and ladies across the country must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when glove makers discovered that they could use ‘normal’ materials like cotton, silk and linen.
A rather nice convention kicked off round about the 1500’s, with perfumed gloves becoming highly desirable. And, if you didn’t have the wherewithal to buy perfumed gloves, our historian friend S Beck has given us a useful tip. Housewives could scent their own gloves by boiling them in a bath of angelica and rose water with cloves, ambergris, musk, and lignum aloes…. ! Sounds like an old fashioned forerunner of fabric conditioner.
You might think the function of gloves is to protect our hands, keep them warm on cold days. And you’d be right. But there was more to it than that, back in the day.
In fact, there was a lot of etiquette governing when you could and couldn’t wear your gloves. For instance:
Ladies were expected to wear gloves on the street, at church and other formal situations but they had to remove them when eating, drinking or playing cards.
When lunching out, a lady was expected to remove her gloves ONLY when she sat down at her table- UNLESS the said gloves were winter mittens, in which case they should be removed when she took off her coat.
A lady was expected to leave her gloves on when she shook hands with someone. However, if she happened to be wearing gardening gloves it was OK for her to refuse to shake hands!
Believe me, it was no joke being a lady. There was an awful lot of etiquette to fret over. A lot of potential faux pas to trip you up.
Today’s modern women wouldn’t have time for all stuff. She’s too busy multi-tasking- forging a career, running a home, caring for kids, grandchildren, elderly parents. As well as being an active member of her community, she’s expected to keep fit, improve her mind, meditate, cook, and fill in forms.
I wonder if she ever experiences a pang of regret when she recalls the conventions of yesteryear?
I don’t know. Maybe.
Check out this great blog for an in depth-history of gloves:
And of course, there’s our historian friend who probably wrote the definitive text on the subject!!
(Beck, S. William, F.R.H.S. (1969). Gloves, their annals and associations: a chapter of trade and social history. London: Singing Tree Press, Book Tower)