Some form of gloves, garments that cover the hands by encasing each finger in fabric or leather, have been worn for protection and warmth for thousands of years. However, their use as a fashion accessory took hold during the 1500s when famous women, such as Elizabeth I (1533–1603) of England, began wearing elbow-length gloves as a part of formal clothing. Gloves continued to gain popularity, and by the 1800s they had become an important part of the everyday wardrobe for both women and men.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) and his wife Josephine (1763–1814), the Emperor and Empress of France, introduced the nineteenth-century fashion of wearing gloves. In 1806, the emperor was said to own 240 pairs of gloves, and his wife, who did not think her hands were attractive, wore gloves for every social occasion. Dress styles during that time had short, puffed sleeves, and women, following Empress Josephine's example, covered their bare arms with long gloves that reached almost to the shoulder. Gloves were usually white or ivory-colored and made of silk, lace, or kid, leather made from the skin of baby goats. They often had many buttons to help them fit around the arm and wrist.
As the century progressed, styles grew more modest. Dress sleeves became longer, and gloves, still considered a necessity for well-dressed women, became shorter. Women of the mid- to late 1800s wore wrist-length gloves during the day, even indoors. Since evening dress sleeves were often shorter, longer gloves were worn to cover the arms modestly. It was considered almost indecent for a lady to put on or remove her gloves in public.
Gloves were an important accessory for nineteenth-century men as well, and were worn at every social occasion. The well-dressed man of the late 1800s never removed his gloves, whether dancing at a ball or relaxing at home.
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Western Dress, Prehistoric to Present . Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Yarwood, Doreen. Fashion in the Western World: 1500–1900 . New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1992.