Friday, April 27, 2012

Should I wear...?

An introduction to evidence based research for historic costuming

 Newcomers to costumed historical interpretation or reenacting often spend much time asking “do I need to wear …?” The natural instinct is to just ask those closest, or those you have bumped into on the internet. Sometimes that’s great, sometimes not so much. Either way, at some point you need to start doing your own research and setting your own standards based on that. Unfortunately the type of research  you need to do is far from what we were taught in high school or college. That knowledge might help you find a picture but you need to know how to “read” the picture. You need to glean the details from it not just paste it into a report. The good news is that in the past fifteen years an astonishing amount of primary sources for the 19th century have found their way onto the internet. 

How do you use those primary sources to decide if you need to wear x, y, or z? Let’s start with gloves. Partly because I’m in the midst of some research on them and they are on my mind, partly because I hear that question a lot. And, I too often hear a myth that women always wore gloves when they went outside. 

So…do I need to wear gloves when I go outdoors?
It fairly safe to start of with some assumptions to start (be prepared to be wrong once and a while though). We’ll start with the assumption that some women wore gloves some of the time. It can help you frame the real questions – who, when, where, and what did they look like.
Let’s look at a few pictures, if you want to know what people really did pictures are wonderful. Magazines will tell you what they aspired to do, just like Cosmo and Martha Stewart tell us what we are supposed to aspire to. I’m pretty sure they attained those aspirations at the same low rate we do. 

This is a picture from City Point, Virginia. Of Gen. Rufus Ingalls and some others. The women don’t look like they have gloves on. But, period gloves can be difficult to spot at a distance so the next picture is a closeup of one of the lady’s hands. Nope, no gloves. None of the women in the picture have any on, nor are they holding them or have them sitting in their laps, etc.

Gloves can be hard to spot so blow up the picture…detail of some hands.

And another of some officers and ladies at Fort Monroe

And another closeup. 

It’s actually difficult to find photographs, set outside, with women wearing gloves which are clear enough to see any detail. Lucky for us many women donned their outerwear for studio shots, like the lovely Miss Chapman.

Again, zoom in to see what is really going on. Are they bulky or sleek? Loose or tight? If we can see the outline of her nail and the creases over her knuckles they must be both tight and thin. One picture is not enough to base things off though so keep looking, also pay attention to the length. How far over the wrist are they? Are there any decorations? If they have gloves but aren’t wearing them what are they doing with them?

There is much that photographs can’t tell us about the gloves. Color for one. Museum collections come in handy to answer that, and more.

Zoom in to get a good look, what do you notice? The seams are on the outside, not inside like most modern gloves. The leather is very fine and light/thin. There is no lining. There is a slit on the inside of the wrist, you need that to be able to get such tight gloves on. The little buckle and ribbon (or elastic) would close it up to keep it snug at the wrist.

Were they all black or white?  Don’t let gray scale photographs fool you, they loved color. A lovely lavender pair from the MET,

Look closely and you’ll see they are quite similar. The cuff has some pretty decoration and the buckle has been replaced by buttons but aside from that there isn’t much different.

Genre paintings and fashion illustrations will also help us confirm that women did indeed wear gloves outdoors.
Henry Alexander Bowler’s “The Doubt: ‘Can these Dry BonesLive”, 1855

The "Cordovan" from Godey's August 1861

Lady’s magazines can help fill in the holes regarding styles, colors, types available, seasonality, etc. What did Godey’s have to say about gloves in 1861?

In April:
“Straw-colored gloves, with two buttons, and worked with lavender color”
“Gloves worked with wine-color to match the dress.”
“Gloves worked with green.”                             
Looking at the fashion plate and wondering where the gloves are? Zoom in and you can just barely see three lines on the backs of their hands, the hands also look a bit flat in color compared to their faces. The lighter colors – straw, lemon, buff – can be hard to spot in both fashion plates and photographs. Look for traces of their detail and odd lines at the wrist.

Newspapers can help you determine what was available and when. The two following ads ran in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle throughout 1861. The kid gloves were advertised all year, the silk taffeta on the other hand only shows up June through September. 

Don’t rule out fiction of the day as a source. It can be especially helpful for shedding light on the who and when. Watch for clues about context – are they in the city or the country, is the character wealthy or poor, are they lauding the person or poking fun at her, and such. Returning to Godey’s from 1861:
From “Sunshine and shade; or, the governess”: “…on the morning before Christmas we find her and her two pupils dressed for a short journey; they are going to Augusta to spend the holidays, and as they stand before the sitting-room grate, drawing on their gloves, Martha and Mary bewail the inopportune illness of the overseer…
What clues are here? Late December can be cold, even in the South where this takes place. Even in just cool weather sitting in an unheated carriage for hours might prompt the hardiest of women to want gloves. The young ladies are of a class to have a governess so they are likely better off. A few sentences  later it's confirmed that they are on a plantation.

From “A new version of Paul and Virginia”: “…They admired the folding of her veil over the bonnet, the neatness of her gloves, even the manner in which her shawl was pinned; one judges character by trifles. She had with her a crimson-lined traveling bag, not crowded but full of dainty luxuries…” when Virginia reached her destination: “Miss Rachel, divested of garden gloves and dress, in a clean chintz wrapper, superintended Virginia’s unpacking
Again, gloves for travel and someone rather better off. But, also there were specific gloves for gardening.

From “Mr and Mrs Rasher”: “…Well! You’re able to stand a little imposition, and you don’t suppose I’m going to let ’em see I ever stepped into a kitchen. My hands show it! No, they don’t; and I’m going to keep ‘em done up nights in old gloves, and oil ‘em every night with – lard oil? – stuff! with rose cream
When you wear out you gloves they still have a purpose! Take a closer look at the story though. The Rashers seem to have started in lower place and made enough money to move up in society but they are still in transition. That likely explains the switch from lard oil to rose cream.

Of course you want to look at more sources than what I have here but, hopefully, this gives an idea of what to look for and how to look at it. So, back to the original question…Should I wear gloves?
Did women wear gloves? Yes
Did women always wear gloves outdoors? No
How to choose then?
Given  your time, place, activities, and socioeconomic status what types of gloves would you have owned and would they have been worn daily, saved for good, or just for specific work?
Do you have, or can you get, gloves which look like, and fit like, their gloves?
Exactly where you draw the line depends upon your own standards as well as the wishes of the group you're associated with or museum you’re working for. Never be afraid to bring new information to the table if you think a group might have missed something, that's the only way we'll move forward instead of backward. My own standard? If it’s an accessory it's not necessary, you can go out without gloves – they did. If the only gloves you have are bulky, loose fitting modern ones and it’s 80 degrees out leave the gloves home, they will detract from the better items you’re wearing and you’ll be more comfortable without them. If the mercury dips to single digits that’s another matter. Frostbite might be historically accurate but it’s really not an appropriate sacrifice! Unless you can find someone making good reproduction gloves (and if you do please tell me who!) you need to find where you are happy along that spectrum.

Hopefully this has helped someone to get started on doing her or his own research!


  1. What a wonderful primer! Brava!

  2. Fabulous article, thank you so much for sharing! Even though I've been a reenactor for 6+ years, I still struggle with what to wear sometimes, and I think it's great to go back to the basics. :)