Gloves and mittens have been used throughout history for protection and status. Gloves minimize wear on the hands from manual labor and protect hands from the wet and cold. By the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), gloves had also become a symbol of status. A great number of the portraits from this period feature a pair of gloves in the sitterís hands. From inventories from her reign, Elizabeth appears to have been fond of gloves. She is known to have received gloves as gifts on several occasions. This may account for some of the status attributed to gloves in this period. Mittens are not as popular in portraiture, but extant examples show them to be consistent in style with gloves and will be considered the same aside from the obvious difference in cut.
Gloves and mittens are known to have been constructed of primarily two different materials. Leather was perhaps the most common material. The weight of leather used in gloves varied from as little as 1 oz. for a pair of lady's gloves to as much as 10 oz. for work gloves such as Henry VIIIís hawking gloves. From period portraiture, it appears that brown was the most common color for leather gloves until the end of Elizabeth Iís reign. In the 1590ís, white kid skin became more prevalent in portraiture and in extant examples. There is also some evidence of red becoming popular among the upper class most likely due to the discovery of a new red cordovan dye in Spain. One extant example of linen gloves from c. 1600 (fig. 1) are of similar construction to leather gloves and were probably used for summer wear.
The other common material for gloves is knitted wool. Knitted wool gloves would have been used primarily for warmth. Knitted gloves appear to have been made in any number of colors. Extant examples include blue, brown, and multicolored. One other material used for knit gloves is silk. There exists a surviving glove knitted in silk (fig. 2). From the inventories of Elizabethís silkwoman, we know that the supplies to make such gloves were present in her court. Silk was much less common in gloves and would have mostly been used by the upper class.Figure 1 Linen gloves with black silk embroidery. English, c. 1600.
Over the 45 years of Elizabeth Iís reign, there is a perceptual change in the style of gloves. Two main aspects of a glove attribute to the style: the cut of the hand and fingers, and the type of cuff. The cut of the hand and fingers was, in general, fitted at this time. The majority of change in style occurs in the cuff. The period from 1558 to the 1580ís saw short picadilled or looped cuffs on gloves (figs. 3, 4, 5, 6). Often a decoration or jewel was placed around the cuff between each picadill. The cuffs appear to be made of a lighter contrasting color or of similar color to the hand of the glove. Of interesting note is the style of the wrist ruff during this time. Wrist ruffs tended to be large and ornate which would account for the short glove cuffs. A simpler version of the glove cuff during this time was a folded back cuff also of a shorter length (fig. 3).Figure 3 Lady Mary Neville and her son Gregory Fiennes, 10th Baron Dacre. English, 1559.
With the introduction of the turned back cuff of lace at the wrist and the use of smaller wrist ruffs, glove cuffs began to lengthen and widen (figs. 7, 8, 9). The use of picadills evolved into decorated tabs (fig. 8) and a wider, solid gauntlet type of cuff (fig. 9). It is also around this time that the use of white kid skin became popular for the hand of the glove. With this change, the cuffs became more ornately colored and decorated. After Elizabethís death in 1603, glove cuffs continued to widen and lengthen into the Cavalier style of gauntlet (figs. 10, 11).Figure 7 Elizabeth I. English, 1592
Throughout this period, the hand of the glove, while generally fitted, was cut differently than a modern glove. The gussets between the fingers form deep triangles on the back of the glove (figs. 1, 6). This does not appear to apply to the palm of the glove (fig. 8). The thumbs are commonly cut separately and stitched on (figs. 1, 8). Knit gloves do not appear to have any similarity in construction and were most likely knit in one piece in the round.
Judging from the number of gloves pictured in Elizabethan portraiture, gloves should be considered an important part of period fashion.