Thursday, September 20, 2007

Hand in Glove, or Not

Long, lovely, opera gloves. Is there anything more elegant? Made from supple kid leather or fine silk, they embrace your arm from fingertips to elbow and higher. Well, okay, on me they have a distressing tendency to fall down. And what was a girl to do when she wanted to eat something from the midnight supper buffet?

The answer to that little question has made for avid discussion among those of us who write about the nineteenth century. Certainly if you’re eating a formal dinner, you’d just keep them on and use your fork. But supper buffets are notorious for having the nineteenth-century equivalent to finger food. I’ve tried eating petit fours with white gloves on (oh, the lengths we go to for research!); the gloves don’t stay white.

Unthinkable that a young lady would take them off. Why, your skin might actually touch the skin of a gentleman! Scandalous! And where would you put the gloves if you did take them off? Everyday gowns and cloaks might have pockets, but you’re unlikely to find one in a ball gown. I suppose you could stuff them in your reticule, but you probably would have left the little bag, if you’d brought one, with your cloak.

So, how do you eat with gloves on? One theory is that you unbuttoned the tiny pearl buttons at the wrist of your glove and pulled the portion off your fingers and hand to bare them. Then you tucked that portion inside the glove that still covered your wrist and arm so you could eat. This actually works fairly well (yes, I know from research), until you want to put the things back on. Ever tried buttoning pearl buttons wearing a silk glove?

It’s excellent research. You should try it. If you get it to work, let me know.

So, I guess I’ll never be certain what they did with their gloves while they ate. It’s one of those things that keep me up at night. Along with great books.


Lady Anne said...

I found this on the commonwealth vintage dancers' website:

Draw on your gloves (white or yellow) in the dressing-room, and do not be for one moment with them off in the dancing-rooms. At supper take them off; nothing is more preposterous than to eat in gloves.
(Henry P. Willis, Etiquette, and the Usages of Society. New York: 1860, p. 22.)

from - thecenterforhistory dot org - "Always wear gloves on the street, at church and other formal occasions, except when eating or drinking."

I do believe the buttons at the wrist were originally placed there so the hand could be drawn through the glove and then the smallness of one's wrist be emphasized by the narrowness of the buttoned glove.

Wonderful blog!

Regina Scott said...

Thank you so much! So, at least by 1860, they were allowed to take the gloves off while eating. I'm still not entirely sure where they put the things. Across their laps? I know I'd spill on them!

Author Leanne Shawler contacted me privately to let me know that perhaps maids were available while the gentlemen were having their port and buttoned all the ladies up again. Now, wouldn't that be nice?

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