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The lights have dimmed, strings and horns swell ominously, and a gloved hand looms: murder is in the air. And because of those gloves, the hapless forensic scientists will come up empty after dusting for fingerprints at the crime scene. Between all the murder mysteries I’ve been watching lately, supplemented by scores of noir film classics starring vamps in black satin, elbow-length gloves, I’ve been under a spell.
Gloves=Death? Why not? Just ask duelling victims Alexander Hamilton. Or Elizabethan actor Gabriel Spence, done in by none other than playwright Ben Jonson (serious artistic differences?). Or Alexander Pushkin. Or so many others.cThe beginning of the end for them was a glove flung to the ground. Before they knew it, they were counting off paces and aiming their pistols—but not accurately or fast enough to avoid becoming history’s ultimate losers.
My interest in gloves, approaching obsession when it comes to my own collection, is nearly lifelong. On the surface, they would seem to be a superficial object of attraction. Would a psychologist say that I’m avoiding skin-to-skin contact by the wearing of a second epidermis? Hardly. So, what else would account for my fascination? I haven’t found the answer, but I was glad to learn recently that I’m not alone.
What a relief to discover like-minded souls in the Worshipful Company of Glovers of London, which traces its origins to a medieval trade guild. In 2013-14, celebrating the 375th anniversary of its Royal Charter from Charles I to promote “the wearing of gloves and the business and training connected with glove making,” the group takes its mission very seriously.
The Glovers’ website welcomes us into their realm, governed by the “Master of the Court,” who rules with a retinue of “Under Wardens.” Ann Esslemont, the Master as of this writing, wears a serious expression with her flowing ceremonial robe and elbow-length gauntlet gloves embroidered with an official-looking crest.
The Company’s enormous collection encompasses “heritage items” from the 16th and 17th century including coronation gloves. When you enter the exalted and rarified world of the titled, you recognize that a glove is not a glove is not a glove but the embodiment of that society’s mores and customs. During a coronation ceremony for the British monarchy, the sovereign’s right-hand glove is removed so that a coronation ring can be slipped on. But if a member of royalty or the gentry is disgraced, he is stripped of his gloves. So that fine kidskin carries a lot of weight.
Not all gloves in the Company’s collection are so imposing. Among the contemporary items are gloves of eye-popping orange that could have been worn in London’s Swinging Sixties, along with one of only three 21st century examples: black gloves rescued from dullness by multi-coloured polka dots, pink-tipped fingers and matching ostrich trim around the wrists. The Worshipful website copywriter described them as “A pair of ladies’ black gloves of the early 21st Century, made in England…out and out fun gloves, suitable for parties, which show what can be done with imagination.”
In its mission to promote glove knowledge to today’s public (comprised mostly of bare-handed men and women who prefer to slouch about in sub-zero weather with unbuttoned coats for that insouciant look), I wonder if the Glovers’ work has become more difficult. I am gearing up the courage to email the question to the Master of the Court, and fantasize a lively exchange. In the old days, they played a vital role, forbidding the sale of gloves in candlelight because buyers might be unable to distinguish between properly made gloves and those of shoddy quality (“haughtie and deceitfulle gloves”). And so the Worshipful Company probably acted as a kind of early Consumer Protection Bureau. For that alone, the British public should be grateful.
My attempt to justify my passion for “clothing for the hands” through historical research has led to some interesting revelations. The ancient Romans wore gloves although Musonius, a philosopher, grumbled, “It is shameful that persons in perfect health should clothe their hands and feet with soft and hairy coverings.” Musonius who? Mainly ignored, he’s been consigned to obscurity. Practical Romans knew better, donning gloves both soft and hairy to survive winter in the Alps and the more intemperate regions of their far-flung Empire. Maybe some Roman fashionista even decorated their gloves with jangling silver denarii, or the embroidered names of their favourite gladiators.
The gloves my mother stuffed my fingers into were neither soft nor hairy, but scratchy wool. As a child, I could not leave home without all digits covered, the edges of my gloves tucked tightly under my coat sleeves so that a quarter inch of wrist might not be exposed to the extremes of a New York City winter. At some point, the wool gave way to white cotton, pearl-buttoned gloves and later, kidskin. (I skipped gloves of chicken skin, all the rage among fashionable 16th century women, who wore the super-thin coverings at night to keep their hands soft.)
By the time I was a preteen, I was subscribing to Glamour and Mademoiselle and paying inordinate attention to every item of clothing that I wore. My well-dressed mother, a fashion oracle, proclaimed more than once, “You don’t notice that a woman is wearing an inexpensive dress if she has high quality accessories,” by which she meant shoes, handbag and gloves. Men were beginning to abandon their fedoras, but well-bred women were still required to cover their hands in public, even into the 1950s.
“…If beauty comes/it comes startled, hiding scars,/out of what barely can be endured,” wrote Stephen Dunn in his poem “Rubbing.” Of course, as an item of clothing, gloves can hide physical imperfections. Chapped skin, bulbous knuckles, birthmarks or the coarsening that comes from physical labor—all could vanish, thanks to an attractive or even humble cover-up. It wouldn’t be until the late sixties that divergence from the ideal was considered the charming enhancement of an individual’s unique beauty, such as model Lauren Hutton’s famous gapped teeth.
Of course, women were abandoning their cover-ups then, defying social mores by jettisoning gloves, bras, pantyhose, you name it. But I held fast. I wouldn’t give up the gloves, which would be akin to giving up the ghost. I couldn’t imagine living without this mask that, ironically, could make a statement about who I was or at least aspired to be. I envisioned someone smart, creative, even avant-garde and found myself saving up from summer jobs for the unusual (read, “expensive”) gloves that would communicate these qualities.
No more basic black for me, except for funerals and job interviews in winter. Bring on purple, bottle green, hot pink, red. Bring on gauntlet gloves like those worn by knights who carried their ladies’ perfumed gloves in their helmets as they galloped into battle. Bring on gloves with mathematical symbols, gloves stitched with hearts and spades—all handmade in Italy, where locals know the importance of presenting oneself in the best possible light (fare una bella figura).
As an assistant editor of an Italian American magazine, I was once very inspired to read the first-person account of a jobless woman in a new city who was down to her last $50–and spent it all on a pair of hand-sewn guanti from Naples, considering them an investment in what truly mattered. I remember that the gloves were ecru, a very impractical colour, and she never regretted her very impractical action for a moment. She was my hero.
Inevitably, I’d lose one of my treasures. In 2007, it was a scarlet glove with prominent stitching and a saucy black arrow pointing towards the wrist (“Follow the arrow to the pulse of this vivacious person,” I hoped it signaled). These gloves had been my biggest splurge to date, a birthday gift to myself. I went into mourning for the missing mate as I gazed forlornly at the glove left behind whose public life had ended. Or had it? Briefly I thought of the mad scientist in “Dr. Strangelove” who wore a black glove on his out-of-control artificial hand. One red glove might begin a new trend—but then I decided otherwise.
I knew that I couldn’t part with it but neither could I bear the constant reminder of its loss, probably due to my own carelessness. Every time I opened the bureau drawer, I’d wonder about the orphan alone on a city sidewalk or subway platform or trapped in a constantly revolving door. So I did the next best thing: I bequeathed my glove to B. Amore, a sculptor and multimedia artist who has incorporated gloves into her work. She has been called “The Madonna of the Gloves” by Pellegrino D’Acierno, a professor of Comparative Literature and Languages at Hofstra University who writes about art and culture. Most of the gloves that appear in Amore’s art are the worn cloth or leather gloves of labourers—given to her or found on the street–but through bronze-impregnated resin, they are transfigured.
Amore suggested that I write a poem and that we make a small “shrine” of the glove by placing it in a deep, ornate frame, with my poem as a backdrop. I loved the idea, and still do, but couldn’t settle on the words. I kept envisioning Jenny Holzer-type truisms such as, “When I lost my glove, I saw the handwriting on the wall” or “To lose the perfect mate wrenches my heart,” etc. I picture those lines on one of the long subway tunnels in Grand Central or Times Square but after all these years, that’s where they’ve remained: in my mind’s eye.
Every glove is altered by the particular characteristics of the hand that filled its space, and by time and use, according to Amore. I’ve suspected for some time that gloves have a secret life apart from the human who gives it warmth and shape. Once in winter, having placed my gloves on a diner counter while I waited for coffee, I sat transfixed, watching my empty glove mimic my living body. It lay sideways, black leather puckered over the missing ridge of knuckles, fingers curled palm-ward as if they could not, or would not, unclench. I gripped the steaming coffee in both hands and stared as the fingers slowly straightened, then tipped back to lie flat and still. It seemed that the fingers moved by their own volition—like the mouth of a ventriloquist’s dummy without the ventriloquist (surely the most terrifying of horror films was the “Twilight Zone” episode where the dummy despises his master and eventually takes control).
The element of horror below the surface was in play when I prevailed upon my husband to drive with me to explore Gloversville—not too far from Saratoga Springs, New York, which we were visiting one long summer weekend. I had just come across an amazing cache of gloves there in a down-market store hidden in a windowless mall. They appeared to be the mint-condition, unsold stock of a 1960s manufacturer. I was elated by this mother lode of acid green, Day-Glo lemon and fuchsia polyester gloves, some trimmed at the wrist with tiny brass chains. To this day, I sometimes revel in wearing them, a “bad taste” counterpoint to staid elegance.
Surely this miraculous discovery was a sign that the fates wanted me to visit Gloversville. Even without falling into that glove collector’s dream cache ($20 for the lot, by the way), I wouldn’t have been able to resist the lure of what had been the center of America’s glove making industry, once the humming home of over 200 manufacturers. According to town history, its lush hemlock forests provided ample bark needed for tanning, and leather production began there as early as the 18th century. From 1890 to 1950, 90 percent of all gloves sold in the U.S. traced their origins to that place.
Such facts in a New York State brochure pulled me north the way a 5-star luxury resort with a spa and infinity pool might lure another tourist. Besides, the brochure tantalized with its fleeting mention of a glove museum that supposedly displayed gloves worn by the first astronauts, along with Michael Jackson’s jewelled glove (later selling for $350,000 at auction). Oddly, there was no mention of the museum’s address.
It was a hot Sunday afternoon when my husband and I rolled into Gloversville which, we thought at first, might account for the deserted streets. Where was everyone? The residential area was lined with old houses but not one soul was out washing a car, mowing a lawn, flipping hamburgers, walking a dog or even relaxing on a porch. Very eerie. Downtown was the same, except for one middle-aged man ambling past closed stores rather aimlessly. Having begun to wonder what dimension we had crossed into, we were relieved to catch sight of a fellow human being.
Pulling up slowly and rolling down my passenger’s window, I asked in my chirpiest visitor’s voice, “Can you please tell us where the Glove Museum is?” “Never heard of it,” he muttered without a second’s pause, and that was that.
I’ve learned that one man is attempting to preserve the town’s history—a self-taught glove maker named Daniel Storto, born in Toronto into a family of immigrant Italian tailors. Storto, a fashion designer who once lived in Hollywood, has established himself in Gloversville where he uses tools from the 1800s passed on to him by the town’s long-retired artisans. Called the “haute couturier of gloves” by Vogue editor Hamish Bowles, Storto told a New York Times reporter in 2009: “I thought I was a glove maker, but I wasn’t a glove maker at all until I met the old-timers. Until I came here, I had no idea what you could do with the craft.” With big-name fashion designers as his clients, and samples of his work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Storto has found success in his own eccentric way. One glove maker doesn’t constitute a revival, but still I greatly admire Storto for setting up shop in this nearly forgotten town of 16,000.
When I think about gloves I’ve loved and sometimes lost, it’s their exquisiteness rather than their utility that moves me. Succumbing to a sale against my better judgment, I recently bought a pair designed with a special fabric on the tips of the index fingers so that the wearer could stay gloved in cold weather while tapping on a smart phone or tablet computer. They proved useless, and I berated myself for wasting money on what could have gone towards one of those special pairs I covet: gloves that are objects of beauty.
It’s worth taking a stand for an eternal verity, isn’t it? To feel unembarrassed admitting that when I learned the Worshipful Company of Glovers had posted photos and descriptions of its collection online, I nearly swooned. Now, that very word evokes Victorian women of many neuroses, given to frequent fainting. No, dear reader—believe me when I tell you that’s not me. I know I’m struggling to help you understand, to help myself understand what this glove fixation is all about.
Again and again, I return to beauty. As someone who appreciates artistry and workmanship that honours the most intricate details, and as someone who honours words, how could I not be impressed with this description of just one pair of gloves owned by the Worshipful Company:
A pair of leather gloves, probably circa 1650-70, of white kid dyed mid brown, suede side up, with narrow stepped gauntlet of yellow linen embroidered in raised silver gilt purl wire and couched threads with stylised pomegranates, edged with scalloped band of bobbin lace tipped with sequins, the seams delicately overstitched then turned right side out, the stitches extending from the elongated fingers to form pointing, 31cm long.
Grateful to the Internet, I happily pored over gloves glittering with gold embroidery, adorned with flossed silk birds perched on branches, scrolled with tulips and carnations, beaded, appliqued, jewel-encrusted, crocheted, lace-trimmed, displaying scenes in miniature reminiscent of a medieval tapestry. I admired all of these, as well as the simplest gloves clearly made of the softest kidskin and accented only with exuberantly bold hand-stitching.
How to explain? Maybe I should stop trying and end with a painting—“Man with a Glove” by the Renaissance master Titian (ca. 1488–1576). The subject of this psychological portrait is a young man dressed in the fine clothing of the Venetian aristocracy—he wears a black jacket and pleated white shirt with ruffled cuffs, a small medallion on a gold chain and a ring on long, slender fingers. But there is nothing of the dandy about this poised young man, perhaps 20, whose sensitive, melancholy eyes gaze off to the side as if lost in thought. Against a nearly black background, his fine, pale face and eyes can haunt. My own eyes are drawn down to the other point of lightness in the painting, gloves of supple tan leather. His gloved left hand casually holds the other glove, wrinkled from wear and perhaps ever-so-slightly smudged. The young man, who has never been identified, is known to us by his gloves. Although I see him briefly in repose, I just know that he’s going places.