Although gloves are still part of a gentleman’s wardrobe today, from the 1900s up to the 1960s they were absolutely integral to it. Join us as we explore the history of men’s gloves with a focus on gentleman’s dress gloves.
For the simple reason that gloves keep your hands warm, they will always be worn by men, women, and children alike. They don’t need to fear being consigned to sartorial history like other men’s accessories, such as the sock garter or detachable collar (although I should add that I still use such items).
This will not happen to gloves as, to put it simply, you cannot improve their very simple concept, which offers that all-important protection against the elements.
Today, men probably have no more than one or two pairs of gloves, which they bring out when it gets chilly. However, in the days of old, gentlemen would wear gloves for almost every occasion, such as riding or walking in public, or going to the theater or church. For this article on the history of men’s gloves, we’ll go through the different types of fashion gloves available and why they were worn, before examining some of the important changes that took place.
History of Men’s Gloves: Day Gloves
As the name suggests, day gloves (sometimes referred to as ‘street gloves’) were worn as gentlemen sauntered about their daily lives, whether visiting their club, meeting their tailor, or conducting important business affairs. Not only did gloves keep their hands warm, but they were also worn for health and cleanliness reasons, too. You see, Edwardian men were worried about picking up germs, so by covering their hands in a protective layer, they felt more likely to stay in good health.
As the decades progressed and life got cleaner, day gloves gradually stopped being worn unless the wearer was cold or for special occasions, such as weddings and funerals.
Certainly in the early decades of the twentieth century, a man’s social status practically dictated the fabric and styling of his gloves. For a gentleman of the upper classes, gloves had to be made of the finest leather and be a perfect fit. Like today when perhaps people may stare critically at a person going to the grocery store in their pajamas, people at the beginning of the twentieth century would notice if your gloves had even the slightest trace of dirt.
Typically, gloves would be in dark colors such as black or grey, ideal colors to be worn with black shoes. Both lined and unlined gloves were available, but were always made of soft leather. A single button at the wrist secured them. In the late 1940s, the button disappeared and has yet to return, favoring easy on and off action over fit.
History of Men’s Evening Gloves: Formal Gloves
Following on from day gloves came evening gloves. Yes, you’ve guessed it, this particular type of hand covering was worn in the evening. Unlike today, where men often slump home and watch Netflix on the laptop with a glass of wine or bottle of beer (or perhaps that’s just me), men of yesteryear were social piranhas in comparison. They would be invited to parties, be the host and entertain at home, or go out to the theater.
White evening gloves were an essential accessory as part of the formal dress uniform, particularly from the 1900s through to the 1920s. They were especially essential when dancing with a lady, as to touch her with bare hands was not considered acceptable behavior. Besides, you wouldn’t want your sweaty hands to risk soiling your lady friend’s delicate gown. Just imagine the embarrassment that this would cause.
A casual elegance raged during the 1930s, with American men following fashion and opting for new washable goatskin gloves in a pearl shade. Over in England, this style of glove was considered to be the correct wear at formal occasions, including weddings.
If they were eating or drinking, of course, the gloves would be removed. After all, they were very pale!
White dress gloves are still worn today, but largely for very formal functions where black or white tie is specified. Unless you’re keen to stand out from the crowd and be a dandy, that is. In which case, white gloves are quite ordinary, boring even. Have you considered fuchsia pink?
White dress gloves are usually made from white goatskin or kid leather, but if funds won’t allow, they are available in white cotton, too. These buttoned and later snapped close at the wrist.
Men’s Vintage Gloves: Knitted Gloves
As leather gloves were expensive, knitted gloves were often worn by working classes. The benefit of knitted gloves was that they could be knitted at home so were a more affordable option, and they also offered more flexibility for men to carry out work with their hands.
A popular type of knitted glove was one without fingers. Often favored by those that work outdoors or cigarette smokers, fingerless gloves have been around for centuries. Keeping most of the hand protected, they allowed the wearer to be able to carry out intricate tasks with their fingers. In the past, glove uses may have included embroidery, sewing or fishing. Today, it’s more likely to be texting.
Knitted gloves were knitted for men fighting in the Second World War, including the fingerless style.
Today, knitted gloves are still very popular and are probably seen more often than their leather counterparts.
Men’s Vintage Gloves: Driving Gloves
Driving gloves date back to the late nineteenth century with the introduction of the first automobile. When motorcars were first invented, they didn’t boast the mod-cons of even the most basic of models today — no air-conditioning, heaters, or electric windows. In fact, the first automobiles didn’t have any windows to help the driver keep warm (or very clean). Of course, you don’t miss what you’ve never had; besides, people were just staggered that these peculiar man-made contraptions on wheels didn’t need to be powered by horses.
Driving gloves were a necessity for drivers as they help hands stay clean, warm and protected from the wooden steering wheel (yes, really). Nothing adds a touch of class to driving than a pair of leather driving gloves, which were designed to offer optimal grip on the steering wheel.
Very early driving gloves from 1910 were very much a gauntlet style — very long in length to offer maximum protection to the driver.
Even up to the 1960s, driving gloves were still extremely popular and considered a must-have accessory for fashion conscious folk. Of course, once heaters and non-slip steering wheels were introduced, driving gloves declined in popularity. As they say though, style never goes out of fashion, meaning that driving gloves still endure today, favored by traditionalists and of course, classic automobile drivers.
Driving gloves are typically available in leather and suede and can be in both plain or mixed colors. Do bear in mind that driving gloves are a tight fit to ensure that the driver has a firm grip of the steering wheel.
How Men’s Gloves Changed Through the Decades
While the primary focus during the 1900s and 1910s was for gloves to protect and to be of a high quality, it wasn’t until the 1920s that fashion started to exert a strong influence on a man’s choice in gloves. While gloves were quite tight-fitting throughout the 1900s and 1910s, it was the roaring ’20s where it became fashionable to wear your gloves looser, with men opting for larger sizes. This more comfortable fitting of glove complemented the more loosely fitted clothing of the period.
There is no doubt that sports had a role in fashion conscious 1920s gentlemen rejecting the snug and smooth gloves that were popular only a few years before in favor of something rough, ready, and roomier. For instance, ‘pock-marked’ pigskin gloves were one of the more popular styles among men in the early to mid ’20s. Buckskin gloves were another glove very much in vogue at this time, despite being once viewed as a working class option. Buck is soft with a rough texture, in keeping with the sports influence.
However, the popularity of buckskin faded towards the end of the 1920s, with the fashion-sensitive world turning to side-vented pigskin gloves. Pigskin gloves looked like a cross between ostrich and chamois. The working class afforded horsehide gloves, a tough leather.
In the slightly more casual 1930s, pigskin remained a solid choice, with oatmeal proving to be a popular color option. During the latter half of the ’30s, impractical pale gloves increased in popularity with favored colors including fawn, pearl grey and lemon yellow.
America caught the ski-craze bug in the late 1930s, resulting in a demand for winter sports wear. Of course, gloves had a major role to play in this, with a huge variety of gloves available. Most men went for gloves with buckskin palms and thumbs, knitted wrists and canvas backs. Knitted wool gloves with leather-laced backs also proved popular as well as beaver gloves which boasted lining made from baby lamb’s wool to protect against extreme cold temperatures.
As fashions and trends constantly change, the 1940s began to shrug off the casualness of the previous decade, with more and more men deciding to adopt a dressier style.
From the 1950s and into the 1960s, it became popular to mix materials. Combinations included mocha dress gloves with a chamois lining; leather fishing gloves with open fingers and a knitted wrist; capeskin slip-ons with knitted sidewalls; and leading the men’s fashion pack, leather with knit and fur. In addition to keeping out the clod, men were having fun with their gloves.
Tips When Buying Vintage Style Gloves
When choosing a pair of gloves, it’s important to consider style, material and fit. Peccary leather is the rarest and most luxurious and the best option for gloves. Originating from South American wild hogs, it is very soft yet durable, and if treated well will last for a great number of years.
Lambskin gloves are classic for the cold season, with wool interiors to keep your hands lovely and warm. Do not mix colors either – brown gloves with brown shoes and black gloves with black shoes, please.
Vintage hand warmers can still be found today, as people did used to treat them with kid gloves (do forgive the pun). Search for gloves that are in an unworn condition, if possible, examining the lining (if there is one) for any damage. If you’re looking at knitted gloves, obviously check for signs of moth damage.
How to Care for Your Gloves
In order to protect your hands, gloves receive rough treatment instead. After wearing them, gently stretch each finger and the main body of the glove to restore its shape. Always lay them flat and keep them in a dry place. If your gloves get wet, just let them dry naturally (avoiding direct sunlight or radiators).
If you should get any dirt on them, lightly sponge with a moist cloth. To keep the leather supple, periodically treat them with a leather conditioner. I’ve used petroleum jelly before with good results.
Top Ten Gloves Idioms and What They Mean
There are lots of phrases that involve gloves, which shows the indelible mark that this item of men’s accessory has left on the world at large.
- Pick up the gauntlet – You accept the challenge that someone has made.
- Fits like a glove – To fit perfectly.
- The gloves are off – People start to argue or fight in a more serious way. It comes from boxing, where as fighters normally wear gloves so they don’t cause too much damage to their competitor.
- Throw down the gauntlet – In it’s earliest form, it was a physical action to take off your heavy, armored gloves to issue a formal challenge to a duel. In more modern times, it means to challenge or confront somebody.
- Glove money – A tip or gratuity to servants, to allow them to buy gloves.
- Drop the gloves – Similar to ‘the gloves are off’, this popular hockey term that means to engage in or prepare for a fistfight.
- Handle with kid gloves – To treat someone very gently and carefully to avoid upsetting them.
- An iron fist in a velvet glove – This is used to describe someone who seems to be gentle but is in fact forceful and determined.
- Hand in glove – Very close to someone.
- Hang up the gloves – Another phrase that comes from boxing, it means that it’s time to retire.
Well, that concludes our look at the history of men’s gloves, the different types available and how they have left such an impression.