Evening gloves conjure up the opulence of a bygone era like tiaras and opera glasses. Every lady should know how to wield a pair, but they are fickle mistresses. Well-chosen, they’ll transform that tired old cocktail shift into something Edith Head would be proud of. Poorly chosen, you’ll be mistaken for a hen-night refugee and offered a pair of sparkly deelyboppers to go with them.
Back in the heady days of Hollywood every star wore evening gloves. And the longer they were, the naughtier – Ava Gardner’s most famous glamour shot has her in a black strapless number, her armpit-length peelables just that little bit too loose at the top.
Although gloves were big news in Elizabethan times – there was nothing like giving a pair of gloves to curry favour with the Virgin Queen – the evening variety came into its own in the Napoleonic era. Most Victorian evening gloves were cream kid, and so light they felt as though they were made of the soft tissue paper in which they were wrapped between engagements. The rule of thumb was the more décolleté the neckline, the shorter the sleeve, the longer the glove. The really long ones, reaching right to the armpit, known as Mousquetaire, would have balanced very daring necklines indeed.
The heyday of the evening glove was the Edwardian age. To don a pair of classic opera gloves (next-longest to Mousquetaire) took 20 minutes, a lot of French chalk and the assistance of a maid. The lady would put her elbow on a desk, with her hand pointing upwards; the maid eased-on the gloves – fingers first, thumb last.
For dining, the little buttons closing the gloves at the wrist would be undone and the fingers folded back from the hand. Even today, gloves are still measured in “button-length” – how many buttons it would take to keep them done up. This, and the fact that turn-of-the-century socialites had doll-size hands, makes Edwardian examples nice to collect, but rather impractical for modern general wear unless you have your own ladies’ maid.
After the Great War things were never the same again. Gloves were just too formal for flappers, despite a million fancy-dress costumes. The invention of new easy-care fabrics in the mid 20th Century – first nylon then lycra, helped but evening gloves were enjoying their last hurrah. They got shorter, and though the Hollywood sirens did their best, as did designers like Mary Quant and Zandra Rhodes, the evening glove’s death knell was tolling. The 1940s and 50s were the last bastion of the true long glove – but what a swansong. Rita Hayworth, Audrey Hepburn, Lana Turner…what a way to go.
Today, evening gloves are rare on the red carpet, especially in any colour other than bog-standard black, but they carry the same appeal as stockings; an old-fashioned pinup naughtiness at once modest and saucy.
There’s no competition – my favourites are the long satin ones, though there is much to be said for velvet. A girl can never have too many pairs (I had 76½ pairs last count – don’t ask about the half; it’s a painful subject) though do remember to check what colours look like at a distance.
I have some gorgeous satin elbow-length gloves in salmon pink that look disturbingly like Marigolds from further than five yards away. My most valuable is probably a short black pair, exquisitely embroidered with flowers, from a tiny specialist shop in Basel, but glove collecting will never make me rich.
Even the best examples are only worth a few pounds, which is probably a good thing since I wear-out gloves on a regular basis. Lamé is particularly un-hardwearing, but don’t let this put you off. It’s easy to find, relatively cheap and looks incredible (though remember that most of the knitted gold and silver varieties are from the 1960s and don’t come any longer than elbow-length.)
In fact gloves are possibly the most cost-effective way to improve your attire, an argument I have tried unsuccessfully on two accountants now. I keep telling them a new pair will set one back between six and fifteen pounds and even an antique pair only costs about twenty. So as a luxurious accessory they’re going to cost less than those saucy nylons one got from Agent Provocateur and are infinitely more intriguing.
Like all vintage looks, much of the joy of evening gloves is in that you have to make a bit of effort to find the really good stuff. Vintage stores, markets and sales are an obvious first stop, but I confess few of mine come from such emporia. Charity shops, jumble sales, crusty old Grace Bros-style department stores (they do still exist though are diminishing all the time) and elderly relatives can all bear fruit, as can a little ingenuity.
I even made a pair once (adapting Simplicity Pattern 7932, for any of you ladies handy with a needle…) It was one of the fiddliest things I ever did, all fourchettes and quirks, but I ended up wearing them to literal destruction.
The internet is an excellent source of long satin/lycra gloves in a cavalcade of colours. The burgeoning crop of Chinese retailers often don’t even charge for postage but you’ll generally need a delivery arrangement with an American friend if you’re using prom-supply stores as they rarely ship abroad.
Handy hint: creating a delivery club with like-minded foreign chums can save a fortune in postage costs for all mail-order purchases. I find it especially useful for American specialty dress patterns, which cost a fortune to ship but a couple of dollars for a friend to post-on to you.
If you still can’t find the right shade, you can dye a pair to match a new dress. It’s not hard –but it is time-consuming and the results a bit hit-and-miss.
Use cheap white gloves from somewhere like Claire’s Accessories and a small saucepan to keep the dye in strong solution. Mine’s an old egg-boiling pan; I recommend designating one especially for the job, unless you are also considering some charming one-off Easter eggs.
Hot dyes have a permanent effect but can leave bagginess in lycra; cold dyes don’t pull the fabric but can leave alarming stains on a girl’s hands. Both methods can see random outcomes, hue-wise, though I have never been disappointed (I dye feather boas with the same method – the results are even more unpredictable, but equally entertaining).
A few glove-guidelines. For daywear, cotton or string-net is best, and always wrist, or at the very extreme, mid-forearm length. White or cream is traditional, though navy can look chic. Black is too funereal without some kind of decoration.
For evening, I find it best to balance the length of the glove to the length of the skirt, rather than stick to the Victorian décolleté rules. As your skirt gets longer, so should your gloves.
Mid-length skirts look wonderful with mid-length gloves; up to just below the elbows is elegant. Full-length dresses can take opera and beyond, though I tend to only put the ultra-long varieties with sheath dresses; they can look a bit ‘demure debutante’ with 50s princess-lines.
Of course rules are made to be broken. Pairing short skirts and long gloves usually looks like you’re intending a visit to the Chippendales but gloves with a 60s mini can lend a wonderfully gamine appearance.
Not everyone can be a jazz diva like Anita O’Day who famously used gloves to disguise the needle tracks on her wrists (as, by the way, Billie Holiday used a gardenia to cover up a ironing mistake in her hair) but they can cover up a multitude of sins.
I understand that one can tell a lady’s age from her hands, which is reason enough in itself for hedonistic handwear, but frankly anything that can conceal ragged nails, the ravages of an active lifestyle and the wages of not using a certain washing up liquid is the ultimate girl’s friend.
This feature by Sandra Lawrence originally appeared in Vintage Life magazine. If you would like to syndicate this story or commission Sandra to write something similar please contact her at the following address, missing out the obvious gap…