Saturday, February 27, 2010

Gloves for Show, Not for Snow

Saturday, February 27, 2010
Susan reports:

Most modern mittens and gloves have zilch style: one-size-sort-of-fits-all that reduces the fingers to fleece or fiberfill sausages. Warm, yes, but the form is a very distant follower to the function.

But it wasn't always so. In the 16th-17th centuries, gloves and glove-making reached an almost impossibly high level of artistry and expertise. Custom made to fit the wearer, these gloves were often made of perfumed leather, usually white or cream to emphasize that they were intended for fashionable display, not work. Just as luxuriously, most of these mittens were made of silk velvet. From the hand of the glove or mitten flared long gauntlet cuffs. The cuffs were the canvas for master embroiderers stitching with silk and golden threads and embellishing with rows of tiny spangles, pearls, or other precious beads. The fabric was almost entirely covered with needlework, much like the extraordinary embroidered jackets of the same era.

The mittens, above, are purple velvet with embroidery of silver thread. The horizontal slit above the thumb was for slipping the fingers through if necessary (much like the combination fingerless-glove/mittens favored today by cell-phone users.) Here's another pair of elegant mittens from the V&A, this time with red velvet hands and cream satin cuffs.

Some gloves had entire fanciful scenes continuing from the back of one glove to its mate (like this pair from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.) Others, like these in the V&A, had cuffs further enhanced with metallic thread needle-lace, gold and silver spun into a fairy's web around the hems. Still others, like this pair from the Fashion Museum in Bath, had loops of ribbon like silken bracelets to divide the ornate silk cuff from the leather hand. In later gloves, like these worn by King Charles I (the same king with the pearl earring mentioned here last week), the gauntlet cuff has shrunk and been divided into petal-like sections, though the embroidery is just as exquisite.

Of course, no one was wearing any of these gloves or mittens to keep warm. They were symbols of status, meant to impress others with their beauty and cost. They were popular as gifts to royalty, or in turn bestowed by a king or queen as a sign of favor or thanks for loyalty. The pairs that survive often show virtually no signs of actual wear, but have been preserved through the centuries as the treasures they are.

Still, velvet mittens would certainly make winter more bearable....

Above:English Mittens, 1640, from Harley Gallery, Welbeck, Worksop, Nottinghamshire
Below: Detail of Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, by William Larkin, Kenwood House, London


Unknown said...

Just the kind of gloves I have been looking for;))
That´s a pitty we don´t have gloves like those today.

Mme.Tresbeau said...

Very elegant! Such amazing embroidery.

Vanessa Kelly said...

So lovely! Sigh. I wish they still made gloves that looked something like this.

Just curious. If mittens were for show rather than warmth, when would they be worn? When would the wearer choose to wear mittens over gloves?

Thanks for another great post, TNHG!

Vic said...

As always, this blog is so informative!

ILoveVersailles said...

J'adore, j'adore, j'adore!

Wouldn't a pair of these gloves with their outrageous cuffs brighten a plain LBD or suit? I can so see these on the Galliano runway in Paris next year.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Vanessa, I'm sorry, but I don't have an answer for you about the mittens. Since mittens are warmer than gloves, perhaps they were favored for showy outdoor winter events at court? Anyone else have a more accurate idea?

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