Now & Then: The History of Ladylike Gloves

Does the return of gloves this season require us to reconsider what “lady like” means?

On July 1, 2011, Daphne Guinness – whose visionary and eccentric style has captured the imagination of the fashion world – staged a mock funeral wake to debut her much-anticipated design, a glove made in white gold chain mail. Handmade to fit her arm completely, it features intricately articulated fingers and more than 5,000 diamonds creating decorative birds along the arm.

Posing in an Alexander McQueen bodysuit, Guinness lay motionless at a mock funeral with the armored glove revealing the essence of her style.

Named Contra Mundum (or Against The World), Guinness explains, “It’s sort of us against the world. It’s about wanting to watch, but not wanting to be seen. I feel it’s a pact, if that makes any sense.” The glove is at once an incredible testament to the handmade – considered to be one of the most technologically advanced pieces in the world it’s worth an estimated $1.76 million dollars – and reveals the core message of Guinness’ style iconry – the concept of fashion as a form of armor, protection for a delicate soul.

With winter’s icy temperatures chilling our extremities, you may be pulling on a (more affordable) pair yourself this month. But beyond their functionality, gloves have long been understood as an accessory able to translate the cultural expectations of women.

It’s the subtle interpretation and manipulation of what gloves can mean, that make them such fascinating fashion watching.

From their early history, gloves were emblems of status and power, worn by royalty and the aristocracy. Taking on a symbolic importance in the chivalrous middle ages, they were used as a form of guarantee, thrown down as a challenge and given as a token of affection from a lady to a suitor.

Have you ever tried to do anything with gloves on? It’s difficult. But women then found a way around the problem by slipping their hands out of the finger-part, and popping them out the opening. To this day they are a cultural signifier that remains shorthand for class. And it’s the subtle interpretation and manipulation of what that can mean, that makes them such fascinating fashion watching.

The last interest in gloves was in the middle of last century, their power cleverly manipulated by actress Grace Kelly.

Grace Kelly, the ice princess ideal of 50s womanhood was famous for her white gloves. Even then – at a time where rebellion hellions such as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Elvis Presley were emerging –  the “lady like” gloves appeared to be a throwback to an earlier time. But in an era where many female star’s careers were manhandled by big studio bosses – Kelly’s cleverly calculated image of austerity and steely resolve unnerved her MGM bosses and secured her freedom from roles that required her to “wear thirty-five different costumes and look pretty and frightened.”

Gloves in fashion now. Models in Christian Dior opera gloves. Harper’s Bazaar Spain, December edition.

It was a glove affair on Fall’s 2011 runways. Designers including Alber Elbaz, Frida Giannini at Gucci, Miuccia Prada, Jean Paul Gaultier and Donna Karan ushered in a season of forties glamour revolving around a new on-the knee skirt length replete with conservative pearls, shrugs and gloves. The mid-length opera gloves seen at Lanvin had a surprising modern look, conveying power and strength – the “lady like” characteristics now essential for life as a woman in the 21st century.

Now & Then: The History Of The Cocktail Dress

Now & Then: The Trench Coat

Now & Then: The Bold Brow

Now & Then: The History of the Cuff

Now & Then: The History of Turtlenecks

Now & Then: The History of Penny Loafers

Now & Then: The History of Tights

Now & Then: The History of Skinny Jeans

Now & Then: The History of the Chevron Stripe

Now & Then: The History of Go-Go Boots

Now & Then: The History of the Poet Blouse

Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.