“There are no little events with the heart, it magnifies everything. It places in the same scales, the fall of an empire of fourteen years and the dropping of a woman’s glove, and almost always, the glove weighs more than the empire.” Honore deBalzac.
Writers and authors have never underestimated the significance of gloves. Shakespeare’s “O were I a glove upon that hand…” is the essence of secret longing. (It is interesting to remember that William Shakespeare’s father was a glove-maker.)
In Little Women; Meg discovers one of her gloves is missing and is very distressed about it because she is due to go out. The glove cannot be found but eventually she is able to leave the house by borrowing her mother’s! So strict was the social convention. This storyline peaks with the discovery that the glove has been stolen by an admirer. He keeps it next to his heart until he has the courage, or the means, to ask for her hand in marriage. Is it significant that we ask for a person’s hand in marriage, rather than any other part of their body?
In the 18th Century it was still the flaunting of a glove that would call out a man to duel. This dates back to the much older tradition of ‘throwing down gauntlets’ as a challenge between knights.
In the 16th and 17th centuries so much etiquette developed around men’s gloves in particular, that they grew wider and more decorative until they were often carried rather than worn: A gentleman would never offer his hand in a handshake while still wearing gloves. It was taboo to accept a gift in a glove, or to remove gloves with the teeth. When approaching an altar in Church, men had to remove their gloves, and the right glove had to be removed when coming into the presence of a social superior as a mark of respect.The keeping on of your gloves indicated that you retained power by declining physical contact, whereas the removal meant you deferred to a higher position. All of this communication of social posturing, is based in the premise that gloves are primarily for protection and therefore, the removal of them is a sign of trust. For the same reason, gloves were also to be put off when playing cards and while eating.
Traditionally, judges used to wear gloves in order to detach themselves from the job of condemning criminals. The idea being that they can be surrounded by terrible corruption and still remain unsullied. As a result however, elaborate gloves were often given to judges as bribes.