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Gloves in portraits

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Gloves in historical dressing is an interesting field. There's been regional and cultural differences on their meaning and value, and seems to have changed meaning throughout the centuries. I came a cross a couple of passages in the book "Fashion and Fancy. Dress and meaning in Rembrandt's paintings" which I would like to share with you. Have in mind that they comment upon gloves as displayed in public. People of course also wore them to protect the hands, just as we do today!

"In mediaeval times gloves served as ritual objects in liturgy and could be a symbol of legal authority. In the age of chivalry gloves were taken up as acceptance of a challenge and served as gifts demonstrating loyalty and service to the recipient. They also served as gifts to wedding guests or provided as funeral attire.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, however, they had lost most of their former legal or liturgical significance and instead had became "just" a status symbol. Gloves, like fans and handkerchiefs, were costly as well as fashionable accessories whose primary function was to display their owners' wealth and status. The fact that these accessories were coveted luxury items was also the reason why they were popular tokens of love or gifts at weddings (...).

There existed an acknowledges difference between these wedding gloves, which were distinguished by their splendid embroidery rich in love and marriage symbolism, and ordinary gloves worn as practical accessories. Although these special wedding gloves are sporadically encountered in painting, it is usually the plainer glove, that appears in portraits". (page 85-87)

In the Netherlands, gloves went from a luxury item worn by the upper class to becoming a burgerois standard item. This shift must have happened in the mid-17th century, based on the letter a painter sent in 1662. The painter was to copy a 1630 portrait of the Prince of Orange, but he decided to omit the gloves:

"I have decided to omit the gloves in the copy, because in my opinion such a burgher-like practice is in no way fitting for such a noble prince" (page 87).

Nobility didn't stop wearing gloves in the mid 17th century, as shown in several inventory lists. There is an amazing selection of colour, embellishment and material in gloves in these lists. But they were no longer a status symbol, and was therefore not included in portraits. Note that this book is on Dutch fashion in particular! Not sure if the same applied for nearby England and Germany, or places like Italy or France.

ETA: "Fashion and Fancy", Marieke de Winkel, Amsterdam University Press (2006)

Another source for gloves worn in the past is a letter Isabella d' Este sent to (what I assume is) an agent. Isabella wants to buy some fine Spanish gloves for "handouts" to friends and allies, and sends a letter to one who can assist her:

"We understand that a shipment from Spain of a great quantitu of gloves from Ocagna has arrived, of which we have need. But we want them to be of the best quality and of the type from Valencia which yellow inside and worn with the inside leather folded over. We ask you to examine them carefully and to have them examined by others, above all by someone Spanish who will understand and know their quality and how they should be made for use by women. And if they are appropriate for our needs, spend two ducats on them and send them to us by the first means possible, and tell us whom we need to pay."

This detailed description, and the request of finding someone Spanish to judge the quality, can (according to the book) be due to previous poor experience of "post order" glove purchase in the past:

"We gave ten ducats to Sanzio to buy as many gloves of d'Ocagna for our use when he went to Spain, and being in Ferrara we spoke to him that he should serve us well. It has now been many days since his return, and since then he has sent us twelve dozens of the saddest gloves that had he searched all of Spain in order to find such poor quality I don't believe he could have found as many. In Rome, Genoa and Florence there are better ones without comparisation and using some diligence in Ferrara itself he could have found some that were as good and perhaps even better.

Therefore we have decided to return them so that you do not think that we have such little judgement in gloves that we would think that these were good enough to give to our ladies-in-waiting and to some of our friends. We would be ashamed to give them to people whom we love and they would never wear them. Can you please send them back and thell him how badly we have been served..."

Isabella d' Este (1474–1539) was literate and a fashionista, and her various letters are SO fun to read. A couple is included in the book I've listed underneath. That book is lots of fun in general, so if your local library carries it I highly recommend you pay them a visit!

"Shopping in the Renaissance, Consumer Cultures in Italy 1400-1600" by Evely Welch, Yale University Press, New Haven and London (2005)

Men wearing/carrying gloves in Italian renaissance portraits:

Women wearing/carrying gloves in Italian renaissance portraits: (love this one)

Does any of your research tell you why some portraits show the sitter holding gloves only and why some are wearing one and holding the other?


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