Mittens & Gloves

Buy Antique and Vintage Mittens and Gloves

The gloves and mittens of the 19th and early 20th centuries that survive today are not just antiques. They are a testament to a bygone era and can be appreciated, and worn, today for their fine craftsmanship and as a reminder of perhaps a more genteel era than our current one. By putting your hands in a piece of history you can feel like a Victorian dame going to a ball.

Victorian lace mittens.
Black silk and fuchsia ribbons.

Victorian Mittens and Gloves

In 1890, a gentleman by the name of Mr. Henry Wehman wrote a rather ambitious book titled “The Mystery of Love, Courtship and Marriage Explained.” Amongst its many revelations was a guide to the art of “glove flirtations.”  Gloves, and the hands in them, could signal a great many things in the 19th century.  A woman wearing gloves, Wehman assures us, while exposing her right thumb was inviting her gentleman caller in for a kiss. On the other hand, if she bit the tips of her gloves, it was a sure sign of her displeasure. 

While today gloves and mittens are most commonly seen as merely utilitarian, Victorian mittens in the 19th century were an essential article of clothing for nearly every occasion.  There were bridal mittens, lace mittens, riding gloves, evening gloves, gloves for the opera, and even fingerless gloves. 

Ladies’ gloves were usually white, ivory, or grey, but they could also be coloured to match a dress or an occasion.  Black gloves were, of course, customary at funerals.  It was not uncommon for wealthy women to change their clothes four or five times a day.  Men also wore gloves, for to soil a lady’s gloved hand with an ungloved hand could injure her modesty.  The only time etiquette allowed women of standing to remove their gloves was to eat and sleep.

The Meaning of Gloves and Mittens

Upper-class women wore gloves and mittens to signal their freedom from manual labour. Gloves that extended far up the arms were both a fashion statement and a means of preserving the lily-white skin that Victorian men deemed desirable. Lace gloves and mittens were especially sought after in the middle of the 19th century as they were not mass produced and affordable until the widespread use of lace-making machines later in the century. 

In the 1850s and 60s, 18 button gloves that wound their way past ladies’ elbows were all the rage and could take 20 minutes to put on even with the aid of special “glove powder.” The Victorian era was full of examples of what Thorstein Veblen has called conspicuous consumption. Displaying wealth was almost as important as having it in the first place and gloves and mittens were just one of many ways in which the well-to-do signalled their power and influence by purchasing things they did not need.

Antique lace mittens, 19th century
Vintage leather gloves

Hand Etiquette

Simply having gloves was not enough.  One needed to know how, when, and where to use them. 

Women of means never used gloves for work.  On the contrary, soiled gloves were, if one could afford it, simply disposed of or at the very least removed and replaced with fresh ones.  This was why a lady never ate with her gloves on.  A well-groomed lady knew to remove her gloves or mittens under the dining table and as soon as she was finished eating to put them back on in the same manner.  Removing and replacing ones’ gloves in the plain site of men could be a cause for scandal, or at the very least disapproving looks.  Wearing rings over gloves was consider gaudy, a woman of good breeding knew just the right amount of attention to bring to herself and no more.

French Opera gloves
Victorian handmade tulle lace

The Handicraft of Gloves and Mittens

Up until the middle of the 19th century the artisans that supplied all these gloves were specialized craftsmen and women.  Lace designers would first draw patterns on parchment paper and then hand them over to lacemakers who used either a needle or a bobbin (a short wooden dowel) to knit the pattern. 

Lacemaking was often a family affair with parents passing on their skills, and their bobbins, to their children. Tanners who made leather from cow, goat, and even chicken hides for riding and other types of gloves, did the same.  However, in 1867 an invention presented at the Paris Exhibition changed everything.  The sewing machine revolutionized the glove and mitten industry, moving it from cottages and families to cities and factories.   

For the rest of the 19th century their mass production meant that almost everyone could afford at least one pair of gloves and if you were wealthy, an entire drawer full of them became essential.  For the working classes, gloves were a relatively cheap way to accessorize, especially for women who wanted to cover up their hands worn from hard manual labour.  Fingerless gloves were very popular because they allowed them to be fashionable and practical at the same time. 

20th Century

At the turn of the 20th century, however, fashion trends and social mores were changing.  Strict Victorian codes of conduct for women relaxed somewhat and lace mittens and gloves increasingly gave way to leather, suede, and even cotton as the material of choice. 

Gloves became a fashion choice rather than a societal requirement. Still, a high society “Flapper” of the 1920s would not have considered her evening attire complete without an elbow length pair of silk or cotton gloves. Luckily for her, however, she no longer had to remove them to eat, drink, and perhaps even have a smoke. The modest and coquettish ways of glove etiquette were largely abandoned.

An increasing use of elastic in gloves during this era also made buttons unnecessary and allowed for more creativity in the way gloves were designed. In the 20s and 30s so-called “Gauntlet gloves” became popular. These gloves and mittens had wide, bold, and sometimes flaring cuffs on them, which the intricacy of lace was often replaced with equally intricate embroidery work.

For men, too gloves continued to be popular evening and sporting attire. Any occasion that required a white tie tuxedo needed a pair of white gloves to complete the outfit. And even as horse riding gave way to car driving, men still wore gloves to travel, hence the reason why that small drawer in the front of your car to this day is called a “glove compartment.”

Last 19th century black lace mitts
Pink leather 20th century gloves

The biggest hit to the popularity of glove wearing did not come from changing fashion or social trends, however, but rather from war. The two World Wars created great demand for leather and silk. The former for boots and the latter for parachutes. Gone were the days when ladies could find or afford a selection of gloves and mittens for every occasion. Even they had to get their hands dirty sometimes to support the war efforts.

By the time the wars were over, fashion trends and social mores had changed even more dramatically. Women no longer had to cover up for modesty’s sake and the hard-working modern man could be proud of his strong and calloused hands. Gloves, while no longer ubiquitous, still garnered some amount of popularity particularly in women’s fashion in the 50s and following decades.

Antique mittens and gloves have witnessed social and fashion evolution while being one of the most popular accessories through time.

Their materials, meanings and usefulness have varied a lot, but there is one constant, we like to wear them.

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