Women's Fashion | Past Masters

Gloves

Vintage gloves can upgrade an outfit to occasion status or add retro style – and are often underpriced, says Avril Groom.

June 13 2011
Avril Groom

Gloves are as effective in making an outfit look special today as they were in their elegant, late-1950s and early-1960s, Mad Men-era heyday. They of course have a role to play in costume dramas – think Nicole Kidman looking consumptively gorgeous in black satin gloves in Moulin Rouge!, Leonardo DiCaprio kissing Kate Winslet’s white-gloved hand in Titanic and the refined be-gloved ladies in Downton Abbey. But today’s pop stars know their value too; Paloma Faith has a penchant for long black Agent Provocateur gloves or vintage examples from Beyond Retro to set off her quirky vintage style, while Lady Gaga’s tough patent fingerless version started a trend single-handedly (as it were).

Add to this the growing interest in burlesque in which, as Dita von Teese demonstrates, gloves are the first weapon in the armoury of seduction and, in less steamy contrast, the frisson about occasion clothes created by the upcoming royal wedding, and it’s small wonder that many glove firms are doing well.

One of Britain’s largest glove firms, Dents – which goes back to the 18th century – has made many important examples, including Queen Elizabeth’s coronation glove, and has its own museum with exhibits such as Nelson’s blood-stained admiral’s glove.

Most modern gloves, however, are not handmade in the way of even relatively recent vintage ones. Long-established Italian glovemaker Giorgio Sermoneta points out that the handmade, cutwork-leather gloves that his firm was known for in the 1960s, and still makes, cost around £200. By comparison, handmade vintage gloves are grossly underpriced, according to costume and fashion auctioneer Kerry Taylor. “My heart sinks when I’m shown a trunk of kid gloves because they’re only worth about £2 a pair,” she says. “Women kept them in drawers rather than discarding them so there are a lot around.”

Deborah Moore, a director of Dents, who also collects gloves and their accessories, says many are unwearable and sizing is a problem: “Even in the 1920s, size 5½ to 6 was normal but now 6½ is usually the smallest, so modern women cannot wear many antique gloves.” Victorian lace or crochet gloves are still popular for summer weddings and formal occasions and feature on vintage websites such as Steptoes Dog (£21-£35). Site owner Sarah Lord says: “They are easier for sizing than leather gloves because they give a little.”

Size is not an issue with historic pairs that go to museums or are bought by private individuals to display – both frequently the case for beautiful 17th-century embroidered gauntlets, says Taylor. Such styles, including a pair owned by James I, feature at the Fashion Museum in Bath. “Gloves were originally only worn by the wealthy, as an early status symbol,” says curator Rosemary Harden. “Splendid gloves are often a feature of 17th-century portraits.” Taylor has sold such gloves for between £1,000 and £4,000, including a pair of doeskin ladies’ gloves with silk pompoms made in England c1660-1680, which sold for £3,800. Also good value, she says, are “embroidered Spanish kid-leather gloves from about 1800, which usually fetch £800 to £1,200”.

But some rarities cost very little. Edinburgh-based knitter and vintage enthusiast Catriona Mitchell collects Sanquhar gloves, knitted in distinctive, complex, two-colour patterns only in the eponymous Dumfriesshire town: “Made in the 19th century with fine, two-ply wool that was difficult and time-consuming to work, they became valued gifts. Dealers know I collect examples in good condition, but I rarely pay over £5.”

If you can find an elegant occasion for glove-wearing – a wedding, ball or event such as the Goodwood Revival – the 20th century is fruitful. “Art-deco examples are often beautiful gauntlets with fine contrast trims,” says Taylor.

“Women like my grandmother would order a pair for each outfit, which are perfectly wearable if they’ve been stored correctly and have not gone brittle,” says Carmen Haid of Atelier-Mayer. She currently has examples from late-Victorian to the 1980s, from £35 to £65. And there are 1930s leather gauntlets with woven trim (£40) and bright 1950s lace long opera gloves (£24) at website Stardust – where owner Jacqueline Nash says: “People want an authentic, elegant look for everything from a smart suit to a university ball” – and pale blue gauntlets (£45) at dealer Deborah Woolf Vintage.

Well-known makers’ names such as Trefousse, the top French glove firm in the early 20th century, add some premium, according to Woolf, but top designer names bring collectors into any bidding war. In late 2009, Christie’s sold a pair of 1925 Chanel gloves with matching scarf for £8,750. The Holy Grail of glove design is Schiaparelli, and Taylor – who has only come across three pairs – estimates a price of £4,000 to £8,000 per pair, “depending on how avant-garde they are”. June Victor at Vintage Modes currently has a pair of long, blue leather, 1950s gloves by Christian Dior for just £90, while Taylor finds plain but top-quality Hermès gloves go for about £200.

Finally, you’ve got to hand it to the Duchess of Windsor, who, always a fashion icon, is having a particular “moment” as the trendsetter du jour. She was, says Taylor, “the Imelda Marcos of gloves. She had hundreds of pairs, with Hermès ones in every colour.”