The etiquette pertaining to men’s gloves has always been somewhat elusive. Unlike hats, which were ubiquitous until the early 1960s, men’s gloves—except for those that serve protective and/or functional purposes—have typically been associated with the refined classes. And as a result, the average person has never been aware of the etiquette particular to men’s dress gloves: when to wear them, when not to wear them, when to take them off, where to put them when they are not being worn, etc.
From the late 1700s to the early 1900s, dress gloves were a necessary accessory in a gentleman’s wardrobe: No decent man left home without them. And gloves have long been the source of much legend and even more lore, thereby enhancing their mystique: from the ultimate insult of slapping, not with the hand, but with a glove held in the hand; to throwing gloves at the feet of an adversary to signal an official challenge to a fight; to the pointed directive in one of the most-followed trials of the 20th century, “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit.”
In the Victorian Age, showing skin, other than that on the face, was taboo. In those days, couples would even copulate while partially clothed. And the words “arms” and “legs” were regarded as immodest, the terms “upper limbs” and “lower limbs” being preferred. But by the end of the Edwardian era, variably marked by the death of Edward VII in 1910, the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, the start of World War I in 1914, or the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the “age of innocence,” which describes the ethos of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, had clearly ended, and people were liberated not only from the deadly embrace of The Great War, but also from the suffocating effects of societal restraint. And as ladies’ hemlines crept upwards towards the knees, men tossed off their dress gloves, not in challenges to duels, but as a symbol of the sexual freedom being ushered in by the “roaring 20s.”
Only two men’s dress gloves would survive the new-found freedom: the gray buckskin gloves to be worn with formal morning attire; and the white goatskin gloves to be worn with the most formal evening dress, white tie attire.
Even a feral man, or one with modest common sense, would know instinctively that it would be impolite to offer his hand, covered in a work glove, for a handshake. And many a man knows that he should remove his right-hand winter glove or driving glove (Yes, even those with exposed fingers!) before shaking another person’s hand. Of course, if removing such gloves—for whatever reason—is impossible, impractical, or would have the other person waiting with his outstretched hand, the gloved gentleman must be sure to say, “Please excuse the glove” before shaking hands. Most men already know such things.
But the etiquette of dress gloves is a lot more “touchy,” so it would behoove a young man to familiarize himself with the protocol so as not to invite social embarrassment upon himself. Finger-pointing is bad enough; finger-pointing with hands gloved in white goatskin is even worse.
White Goatskin Gloves for White-Tie Dress
White goatskin gloves (and when impossible to obtain, cotton ones serve as a perfectly acceptable substitute) are worn with the ultimate in Western man’s formal wear: cravat blanche (white tie). Today, there are increasingly few occasions for white tie, but when those occasions arise, a gentleman must be prepared—not only with the necessary accoutrements, but also with the behavior consistent therewith. Not all white tie events require the use of white gloves. But at state banquets, debutante balls, opening night at major opera houses in major cities, or at formal evening weddings, for example, men might be required to wear white tie and tails—with white gloves. The nail-gnawing problem, however, always is: What is a gentleman to do with his gloves?
The best way to navigate seemingly esoteric rules of etiquette is to understand the fundamental rationale that underpins each rule. In the case of men’s white gloves, it is to conceal sweaty palms and to protect ladies’ dresses from soilure during a long night of dancing in the embrace of gentlemen. The aesthetic contribution of the white gloves to the predominantly black ensemble is secondary to the more practical purposes, and the rules reflect those priorities.
Theoretically, a gentleman’s white gloves are supposed to be cleaner than his bare hands. A man, therefore, does not—under any circumstances—wear his white gloves on the street. In warm weather, where an overcoat is not necessary, he should keep his white gloves in his jacket pocket—neatly folded so as to avoid bulging—putting them on upon arrival at the venue. In the cooler months, when overcoats are necessary, a gentleman in white tie dress en route to and from an event venue would wear a black topcoat over his tails. If the weather is such that he should also wear protective gloves, he should wear winter gloves that complement his dark topcoat. And the white gloves, which he will don upon arrival at the venue, should be kept in his topcoat pocket until he arrives at his destination. An event that requires white tie dress will certainly have a facility for checking coats and top hats; so prior to checking his belongings, a gentleman should switch his gloves, placing his winter gloves into the pocket of his overcoat, and don his white gloves.
If there is a receiving line, the men who are receiving guests will not be wearing their white gloves, the rationale being that the preferred way for a man to shake hands is sans gloves—even if the gloves are dress gloves. The gentleman being received, therefore, should remove his right-hand glove, hold it in his gloved left hand, and proceed through the receiving line. (Women in a receiving line, of course, whether receiving or being received, keep on their gloves since ladies’ gloves serve a different purpose: to stylishly enhance their ensembles and to promote modesty by covering their bare arms). Upon advancing through the receiving line, the gentleman should then replace his right-hand glove and make his way into the event venue.
Once within the event venue, he does not remove, nor does he apologize for, his gloves when shaking hands—whether with men or with women—the rationale being that a man would be forever removing and replacing his gloves throughout the course of the evening, thereby not only creating much frustration for himself and those whom he greets, but also completely defeating the purpose of requiring that white gloves be worn in the first place.
But, as always, there are exceptions: Men’s gloves—even the white ones—are never to be worn while eating, drinking, or smoking.
If white tie dress is worn at church—at a wedding ceremony, for example—the gloves are not worn during service since turning the pages of a Bible or missal with a gloved hand is next to impossible; and in churches where the Eucharist is to be received first into the palms before being placed into the mouth, it would be improper to receive the Host in gloved hands—no matter how lily white the gloves. (Besides, as stated above, a gentleman neither eats nor drinks—especially not the body and blood of Christ—while wearing his gloves).
When a gentleman wears his white gloves to the opera, he puts them on upon arrival at the opera house and keeps them on throughout the performance. During intermission, he does not remove them to shake the hands of men or women, but he must remove them if he intends to eat, drink, or smoke. And, of course, he removes his gloves when he leaves the theater at the end of the performance.
Gray Buckskin Gloves for Formal Morning Dress
There are very few occasions still remaining for a gentleman to wear formal morning dress. Consequently, the gray buckskin gloves that should be worn with such dress are also rarely used. But a man must know how to handle them when those rare occasions arise.
For the most part, morning dress is still worn at a private audience with the pope (White tie with tails may also be worn even though the audiences are scheduled during daytime hours and the general rule regarding white-tie dress is that it should not be worn before six o’clock in the evening), formal morning weddings, state funerals and inaugurations in certain countries, elegant horse racing events such as the Royal Ascot and the Derby in the United Kingdom, and at some of Britain’s most traditional boys’ schools, Eton being one of them. The last time formal morning dress was worn at a presidential inauguration in the United States was the 1961 inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Unlike when wearing their white goatskin counterpart, a gentleman in formal morning wear may wear his gray buckskin gloves on the street, the rationale being that they are less inclined to show soilure. Such gloves are not removed when shaking hands with men or women, except when receiving or being received in a receiving line; and men’s dress gloves, whether white or gray, must be removed for an audience with the pope. (See below). And, of course, they must be removed before eating, drinking, or smoking. If worn at a ceremony taking place in a church, they are removed during the service and put back on thereafter. And in the Royal Enclosure at the Royal Ascot, men are required to wear their top hats, but gloves are rarely worn once inside the Enclosure—on account of the amount of eating and drinking that goes on there.
About Ladies’ Gloves
It is also practical for a 21st-century gentleman to know the rules that govern the proper wearing of dress gloves by women since so few women today know glove etiquette; and just as men’s hats are making a comeback, so might ladies’ dress gloves. After all, Christian Dior, with his “new look” of the 1950s, almost singlehandedly revitalized the ladies’ glove industry when gloves became part and parcel to achieving his “look.” And since fashion oftentimes inspires itself years later, a 21st-century gentleman might very well need to answer questions of his date as to how she should correctly handle her gloves. And as stated elsewhere in this book, a gentleman should always be prepared.
The general rule is that ladies do not remove their gloves when shaking hands with other ladies or with men. But there are exceptions, one of them being the work-glove exception. (No lady doing her gardening, for example, would offer her gloved hand for a shake).
But there are other exceptions too. The little, just-beyond-the-wrist gloves (usually in white) that, until the middle of the 1960s, were worn by every woman of society in the Western world—to everything from a stroll down Main Street for window shopping to baby christenings—are worn to and from church, but not in church (for the same reasons stated above as to why men in white tie would not wear their white gloves in church). And the only person on planet Earth for whom a lady removes her dress gloves in order to shake hands is the pope of the Catholic Church—if she is granted an audience with him at the Vatican. In such cases, whether her audience is to be “private,” “special,” or “general,” she removes her gloves upon arrival at Vatican City. The traditional rationale for the rule—at least for practicing Catholics—is that the pope is God’s representative on Earth, so the more direct the contact, the better. After all, if Brooke Shields did not allow anything to come between her and her Calvins, certainly nothing should come between a lady and her God! Besides, if a lady is invited to an audience with the pope at Vatican City (or Castel Gandolfo), the same general glove rule applies: Gloves are to be worn to and from church, but not in church. And wherever the pope happens to be while on Vatican soil is, for all practical and spiritual purposes, “church.” (A lady, however, is not required to remove her glove to shake the hand of the pope outside the Vatican, though removing her gloves well in advance of a scheduled encounter outside the Vatican would be considered most appropriate).
Traditionally, true evening gloves, whether elbow length or beyond (the latter also called “opera gloves”), are usually made of fine kidskin and generally worn in the colors white, off-white, or black. Like other women’s dress gloves, such gloves are not to be removed when shaking hands—even if the lady is in a receiving line to receive or to be received—but must be removed when eating, drinking, smoking, or applying makeup. An evening purse is the best place to keep such gloves when they have been removed. Gloves, incidentally, should not be removed in the middle of a ballroom or at a dinner table, but in the relative privacy of the lady’s powder room. And, of course, the place to put them on again is also the powder room since maneuvering into and out of such gloves can be quite daunting.
In the 1870s and 1880s, when off-the-shoulder, corseted gowns with sweetheart necklines, hip-enhancing bustles, and “come hither” trains were all the rage—but it was, ironically, inappropriate to go about with arms uncovered—women would dine while wearing opera length, white, kidskin, mousquetaire gloves: gloves with an opening just beyond the wrist on the underside measuring about four inches long, running lengthwise, and fastened by several buttons, which allows a lady to remove her hand from the glove without removing the entire glove. (The fingers of the gloves would then be folded under and tucked into the wrist of the glove, thereby freeing a lady’s hands to handle her silverware while her arms remained covered). But from about the 1790s to the 1880s, ladies who were not wearing mousquetiare gloves would dine with fully gloved hands. It was not until the 1880s that the etiquette books of the period—emboldened by the socially influential women of the time who decided to discontinue the custom on account of its impracticality—began recommending that woman completely abandon the idea of dining with gloved hands since the gloves inevitably became food-stained or discolored by the silverware, and even women with uncanny dexterity found maneuvering silverware with gloved fingers extremely challenging.
Rings, not even wedding rings, should never be worn over gloves—and for good reason, for rings that fit a gloved finger would be too large for that same ungloved finger, resulting in even more rings, and marriages, going down the drain. A lady may, however, wear a jeweled, (preferably bold or cuff-style) bracelet over her evening gloves if it is obviously a part of a jewelry ensemble that complements her earrings and/or necklace. And a bride who chooses a wedding gown that is enhanced by gloves should be sure to wear mousquetaire gloves so that the ring can be placed upon her finger at the appropriate time without too much maneuvering in front of God, groom, and guests.