Liza Foley - From Hide to Hand

From Hide to Hand: The Leather Glove as Material and Metaphor in Polite English Culture, ca. 1730 to 1820

Adopting a material culture approach, this thesis examines the role of the leather glove within the context of polite culture between c. 1730 and 1820. Approaching politeness as a philosophy of manners based on sociability and self-improvement (Klein 2002), it moves beyond former studies of gloves by focusing an analysis on the material from which leather gloves are made: namely, animal skin. For contemporaries, leather was a unique and complex biological material. Questions about how the leather glove, a small and seemingly mundane article of dress, served to facilitate polite identities, experiences and relations are thus interrogated through the lens of materiality – a topic not typically engaged by historians of eighteenth-century dress or politeness. This thesis offers a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the leather glove by demonstrating its rich metaphoric and multisensory capacity to materialise polite social meaning. Using the concept of refinement, it begins by establishing a central metaphorical parallel between the production of leather (a process of refining skin) and the performance of politeness (a process of refining the self). Building on this parallel, a chapter dedicated to design challenges former stylistic interpretations of gloves by linking the tactile qualities of the glove to its polite interpretation. The final three chapters of this thesis interrogate the glove’s use and meaning within different socio-spatial contexts of polite consumption. Chapter Three offers new insights into the acquisition and retailing of gloves, arguing that the purchasing of gloves was a polite and socially significant experience. Chapter Four reveals the glove’s role in enhancing the ‘polite’ body, linking the glove to broader issues surrounding beauty and health. Finally, Chapter Five unveils the glove’s capacity to materialise polite social connections by highlighting the significance of its materiality within different contexts of gift exchange. In essence, this thesis argues that the eighteenth-century leather glove and its associated practices should be understood not merely a reflection of polite society but, rather, as a medium for politeness itself.