Men's Fashion

Forward gear

Once essential kit for petrolheads, driving gloves are now racy and retro-cool. Jonathan Futrell gets to grips with a new style accessory.

November 13 2010
Jonathan Futrell

You can tell a lot about a man by his driving gloves. Or at least about what he drives. Say, for instance, a chap slips off a pair of smart “full backs” while paying for a double espresso, the chances are he’ll have a Lamborghini Countach outside drawing a crowd.

On the other hand, if the gloves tossed nonchalantly upon the counter are “open-backed” (with a round cut-away section above the fastener), the beast on the street is more likely to be something from the 1960s; best guess, either an E-Type Jaguar or an Aston Martin DB5.

As a paradigm for a man and his wheels, few have looked better in leather driving gloves than Hollywood’s best-dressed petrolhead, Steve McQueen. He wore his open-backed perforated gloves while grappling with his Jaguar XKSS along Sunset Boulevard.

“Back in the 1960s, driving gloves were a good idea because steering wheels were thin, wooden things,” says Jerry Leech, managing director of online automotive clothes emporium Grey Car and a driving-glove enthusiast. “They were always unlined to give you a better grip on the wheel, rather than to keep you warm.

“So, if you had an Austin Healey 3000 – a big hairy-chested English car – you’d have been wearing a pair of knitted string-backed gloves, as those are the type of gloves that were worn when the Healeys were around.”

Tailored to the classic- and vintage-car market, Leech’s website stocks both solid and open-backed gloves, as well as the leather gauntlets (£72) favoured by blustery vintage Bentley owners to match their leather driving helmets and goggles.

Few would claim, however, that driving gloves are an essential piece of kit for the 21st-century motorist. But like the aviator’s sheepskin jacket, military trench coats or those knee-high engineer’s boots favoured by well-heeled Harley riders, driving gloves are just too damn attractive to be consigned to the fashion history books. And they look great draped across the gearstick cowling.

Unlined, cutaway, punch-holed or fingerless, they won’t be much use away from the car in the throes of an English winter. But that’s really not the point. Driving gloves simply look cool, so much so that a number of non-motoring fashion houses are making them.

CK Calvin Klein’s come in ruched black leather, plain (£49) or open-backed (£65); Jaeger’s are also black, with perforated palms (£75); and Barbour’s Morpeths (£45) have those traditional four cutaway holes across the knuckles. Paul Smith’s super-soft lambskin Vintage Multistripe version (£159) also has knuckle holes, in addition to the designer’s trademark striped piping around the open back and between the fingers. More practical away from the car is a stunning leather/wool hybrid pair (£169), with cashmere cuffs and a half lining: good grip, cosy wrists.

Of all the fashion driving gloves around this winter, Dunhill’s are the most focused upon the road ahead. It has an enviable cashmere-lined, open-backed style (£169), but for elegance its beige handsewn pair (£125) – open-backed with perforated fingers – wins by a country mile. Dunhill says that this style offers excellent grip and they are clearly for the serious driver – but, crucially, they also look sensational.

For my money, sporty Hackett has the raciest. The Nappa Aston Martin Racing gloves (£90) have red piping and, adding a 1970s twist, Velcro fasteners: think Roger Moore and Tony Curtis in The Persuaders! Pull on a pair and imagine either a red Ferrari Dino or a Bahama Yellow DBS.

Meanwhile, the most provocative design comes from Connolly. On a pair of black leather gloves, just two of the fingers are red (£120), so there can be no doubt what the wearer thinks of other road users if tempers boil over.

Dents, a byword for gloves since the 18th century, offers 12 different men’s styles. A limited range is made from peccary leather from South America (from £200), while the Worcester-based company has recently enlisted a team of younger designers to meet the rising demand for driving gloves as fashion accessories. The result is a raft of new designs (from £39) in brighter hues such as sapphire, forest green and berry.

Stirling Moss wore Dents when he became the first Englishman to win the Mille Miglia endurance race in 1955, and the Australian Jack Brabham wore them to Formula One victory in 1959, 1960 and 1966. It’s a bit different today, with driving aces from Schumacher to Hamilton wearing the sort of high-performance gauntlets made by OMP Racing; fire-resistant with reinforced knuckles and padding. Effective, of course, but they just don’t look as good.

Proving how popular driving gloves are with female non-petrolheads was the appearance of Aspinal gloves in the catwalk shows of Ashley Isham and Clements Ribeiro. “We have seen a huge growth in sales of our driving gloves over the past couple of years,” says Aspinal’s chairman Iain Burton.

Nevertheless, slipping a pair of Aspinal’s men’s Deerskin Fingerless Gloves – in cobalt blue, red or even yellow (£79) – on Jeremy Clarkson would be tantamount to sticking a pinafore on John Prescott. Whereas Clarkson’s Top Gear colleague Richard Hammond could probably get away with them.

“Of course, nowadays, driving gloves are more often used as a styling accessory,” admits Burton. “But they also call to mind a bygone era of motoring, elegance and adventure. They have real nostalgic appeal.”

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