How Evening Gloves Left the Opera, and Hit the Red Carpet

Alaina Demopoulos
Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast / Photo Getty

Kristen Wiig wore a couture Valentino gown to the Oscars, the sides of which ruffled into ruched fans that stretched out like the wings of a phoenix in flight. Yet Twitter had the gall to say she looked like a slice of lasagna. I think the dress was a work of art—especially when paired with her bicep-grazing black leather gloves.

The extra-long accessory looks near impossible to put on without the help of an assistant. How can any of us look as sleek and beautiful as Audrey Hepburn looked in the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as Holly Golightly emerged from a cab, dressed in the last evening’s Givenchy with long black gloves, peering into the eponymous store's windows with Henry Mancini’s instrumental of “Moon River” playing mournfully?

Wiig isn’t the only celebrity who has turned to opera gloves to make a fashion statement lately. Just hours after she walked the carpet, Billy Porter arrived at the Vanity Fair after-party in lilac trousers, a sweeping violet cape, and eggplant leather gloves. While the ensemble was dreamed up by designer Christian Siriano, the New York custom glove shop Wing + Weft created his accessory. 

It May Be Cold, But the Fashionable Are Rejecting Winter Gloves

At the Birds of Prey premiere, Margot Robbie became one, wearing an ostrich feather Dries Van Noten bodice and magenta gloves. Then there’s Lizzo’s take—a zebra-print number, to match the Miscreants London bodysuit she wore while celebrating her Grammys win.

“Miscreants’ gloves are designed to elongate the arm,” Lillie Hand, the designer of Lizzo’s look, said. “We have actually changed the pattern three times to get them at the right length. They come up that extra high on the arm, they give that delicate look especially when made in mesh.”

The looks is theatrical, dramatic, subverting the cliché of white gloves being prissy. But if you are a traditionalist, check out Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Zoë Kravitz. In the past few months, they have worn gloves in the style of Edith Wharton, as an accoutrement to their modesty.

It’s enough to make the New York Post declare that “stars are bringing back opera gloves.” That may be a stretch—red carpet trends aren’t exactly famous for their real-life wearability.

Still, designers at New York Fashion Week must really like the La Traviata scene in Pretty Woman, as many incorporated the look into their collections. Gloves especially captured the imaginations of Marc Jacobs (who put them on Miley Cyrus), LaQuan Smith, Christian Cowan, and Ulla Johnson. 

Katie Sue Nicklos is the production manager and owner of Wing + Weft, which created the gloves seen on Porter at the Oscars. It is the last surviving factory of its kind in New York’s garment district. Anyone can shop at their brick-and-mortar store. Jay Ruckel, the resident “glove master,” also supplies custom pieces for television, stage, and screen. 

“People know our gloves from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Moulin Rouge on Broadway, Madonna,” Nicklos told The Daily Beast. “We can [make gloves] within a day, but we prefer to have about two weeks. There are glove emergencies, and we’re able to accommodate.” 

Ruckel studied his craft in Gloversville, New York, a town at the foot of the Adirondacks that was once the center of—you guessed it—a thriving glove-making industry.

According to the science publication Undark, “about 90 percent of the gloves sold in America between 1880 and 1950 were made in Gloversville, which by some estimates had more than 100 leather and glove companies at its peak.” 

Ruckel said that the French actress Sarah Bernhardt popularized above-the-elbow evening gloves in the late 19th century. Her embrace of the style was an accident. She needed a way to hide her lifelong insecurity: thin arms. Consider this gloves’ first big celebrity placement. 

“During the Victorian era, rules for social etiquette essentially required both men and women to wear gloves to certain social occasions, especially in public,” fashion historian and archivist Doris Domoszlai-Lantner told The Daily Beast. “Taking off your gloves to reveal your hands in public could be taken as a provocative gesture.”

“It was a very formal kind of thing,” Adelaide Farah, a member of the board of the Mayflower Society, said. “There might have been the sense that a lady would wear gloves to shake hands with somebody she didn’t know.”

Today, young women who can trace their descent from one or more of the 102 Mayflower passengers can take part in the society’s annual debutante ball. “[Gloves] complete the outfit,” Farah said. “It’s part of the costume, part of the presentation of the debutante. That white glove just accentuates.” 

The accessory used to be made of kid leather, but Farah said that now some girls opt for other fabrics like nylon. That’s acceptable, as long as the material is thin and “snug on the arm.” Robin Weaver, the Society’s executive director, recommends debutantes shop at Dina’s By Invitation Only, in Syosset, New York. There, basic whites go for $12. 

“Brooke Astor always used to wear white kid gloves,” Farah added. “She bought hers in Paris.” 

One can hardly think Brooke Astor would approve of buying opera gloves at Amazon. Still, the mega-retailer sells a $12 satin option that reviewers agree works for wearing once or twice. Many more are available on Etsy, listed as “bridal gloves” and featuring embellishments like lace or pearl

Gucci’s twill zebra print iteration skews a little more glamorous. Dries van Noten’s polka dot tulle pair will absolutely not keep you warm by even the most generous measurement, but I still think they’re pretty perfect. 

The Vampire’s Wife, a British label known for goth prairie dresses, hawks a $512 pair of black gloves with floral appliqué. The look communicates, “No, Officer, I did not murder my very rich and old husband.” One Ukrainian company called Tender and Dangerous sells mesh pairs with embroidery designed to look like old school tattoos. Rebel debutantes, head that way. 

While evening gloves still seem like a trend that firmly lives in the separate, rarified fashion world, that’s part of the look’s charm. It communicates a leisure life we (probably) don’t lead. But if you want to try some society out for a day, all you have to do is slip on a pair.

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