A Shared History Of Perfume And Gloves

  • Craftsmanship

Les Gantiers: Perfume and Gloves

a flower contained within a decanter

Perfume and gloves go hand in hand – sharing a long history of adorning royalty and the aristocracy. But what made them the must-have accessory of the rich and powerful?

French amateur artist: Alfred D'Orsay 

One of the greatest dandies of the 19th century, French nobleman Count D’Orsay cut a dash through Victorian London. The rakish son of one of Napoleon’s generals, he had a great deal more interest in flamboyance than firearms. ‘He was not a man to worry over bills,’ wrote Charles Creed in his memoir Maid To Measure, ‘but my grandfather found dressing him very rewarding.’ Which is no surprise, as one of London’s leading tailors of the time, Henry Creed would have benefitted enormously from D’Orsay’s extravagant tastes.

The count even made the ultimate dandy, Beau Brummell, look reserved, especially when it came to his gloves. D’Orsay was famous for wearing six pairs a day: the reindeer-skin gloves for his morning ride, the chamois for hunting, the beaver for the ride to London, braided kid gloves for the afternoon’s shopping, yellow dogskin for a dinner party, and then, for the evening ball, the lambskin embroidered with silk. Made to measure and soft to the touch, they would undoubtedly have been perfumed too.

London 1665-1666

Dousing gloves in perfume was a long-established custom, for those who could afford both the fragrance and the leather. As well as masking the pungent smell left by the tanning process, it was also seen as a precaution that could save your life. During the Great Plague of London (1665-66), scented gloves were worn as protection and became an early form of PPE, worn to ward off not just everyday smells but also the miasmas (unhealthy vapours) thought to carry the deadly bubonic plague.

Both King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell owned expensive scented gloves and, before them, Elizabeth I’s jewelled gauntlets or ‘sweet’ gloves were infused with herbs and spices. King George III also wore scented gloves more than half a century before Henry dressed Count D’Orsay. Like any self-respecting aristocrat of the time, the count would have worn scented gloves when attending the perfumed court of Versailles.

The French palace

The French palace was perfumed for a reason. In an era before bathrooms, water closets and public sanitation, life often stank. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife,’ writes Patrick Süskind in his best-selling novel Perfume, set in 18th-century Paris.

The whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank... like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat.’ Fragrances were used to ward off the pungent smells of everyday life, and everything from hair to clothes, underwear, furs, handkerchiefs, gloves and even their little lapdogs were doused in scents.

Look beyond the royal courts, though, back through all human history and you will find an intimate relationship between perfume and skin that goes beyond simply trying to mask smells. From the early Egyptians smearing oil-based salves on their necks, head and wrists to the spritz of a modern fragrance, who hasn’t wanted to smell well... fragrant?

Early Fragrances

Early fragrances contained florals such as jasmine, iris, lavender, violets and chamomile as well as spicy notes from yellow amber, camphor and cloves. There were also animal-based ingredients – extracts from civet cats, musk deer and, in the case of ambergris notes, from the sperm whale. Scented powders were carried in fabric sachets, hardened pastes were made into scented beads, and garments were sewn from fabric steeped in perfume.

The concept of work gloves

While it is thought that the Romans brought the concept of work gloves to Britain, it was probably the Normans who introduced the practice of wearing gloves for show. Gloves were soon adopted by the clergy and nobility, and making gloves became a lucrative business. Guilds were set up all over Europe – in France in 1342 and in Britain in 1349.

Difficult to make, cut and stitched by hand, well-made gloves were an expensive luxury item. Adopted as a symbol of wealth and status, they are often seen in portraits of the aristocracy. Perfume, another symbol of wealth, enabled the rich to make ostentatious displays of their standing by purchasing perfumed leather goods such as gloves, shoes, belts and sword scabbards. There were also scented jewels, scented clothing and even scented buttons.

Catherine de Medici is credited with bringing the new fashion for scented gloves to the French court from her native Florence in the 16th century, with ‘frangipani’ gloves perfumed with red jasmine made popular by the Marquis de Frangipani, an Italian courtier of Louis XIII.

Scented gloves were often paired with scented boots, and the folds of fans were scented too. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, during Louis XIV’s ‘perfumed court’, the French aristocracy took fragrance to the next level by having bespoke essences created for them and installing fragrant fountains.

Perfumed gloves became so sought after that, in 1666, Princess Anna Sophie of Denmark had a dowry consisting of 10 ‘frangipani’ gloves and 23 less expensive pairs perfumed with ambergris notes.

Where were scented gloves made?

Although scented gloves were usually made in Italy, where they were perfumed with musk, civet and orris butter, and in Spain, where camphor and ambergris notes were favoured, they were also popular and made in Portugal and England. Queen Elizabeth I is credited as starting the craze in England after receiving a gift from the Earl of Oxford of a perfumed pair – the scent on the gloves became known as The Earl of Oxford’s perfume’.

The queen was hooked and so too was the court. Soon the trend took off. Elizabeth had always been a fan of fragrance, as had her father, Henry VIII, although she favoured a syrup perfume made from musk and rosewater, and a dry perfume of sweet marjoram. However, it was France that became the home of Europe’s finest scented-glove makers and, while Paris was predictably a major player, it was Grasse that became the centre of the trade.

Grasse was located in the perfect spot to become the home of France’s fragrance industry. Its moderate climate (long warm summers with little rain) and rich soil offered unrivalled conditions for growing scented flowers such as Rosa centifolia, tuberose, jasmine, mimosa and lavender. In addition, leather tanneries were long established there (since the Middle Ages) and easy access to scent ingredients meant that the skins could be perfumed on-site.

The process of scented gloves: Mine en Fleurs

Scenting the gloves was a long and delicate process, involving a range of techniques. First, to get rid of the tanning smells, the leather was steeped in an aromatic solution or rubbed with fragrant pastes. After this, the gloves were cut, sewn and dyed.

Then came the mise en fleurs, where the gloves were placed on top of several layers of flowers in a closed box. The petals were renewed every 12 hours and the gloves hung up to dry. After eight days of this treatment, the gloves would have taken on a scent, and the insides were powdered to make the gloves easier to fit.

The fashion for highly scented gloves lasted in France until the late 18th century. In 1759, Louis XV imposed a tax on French-made scented gloves, making them too expensive for anyone other than the aristocratic classes to own. In the 1760s, raised taxes on tanneries marked their decline in Montpellier and Grasse. But Grasse survived; by now it was supplying most of the floral fragrance ingredients and was able to fall back on the perfume trade.

Glove importance

As the world became a cleaner and more sanitary place, there was less need to wear gloves, and the fashion for perfuming leather died away in the 19th century. With the mechanisation of glove-making, gloves became more affordable and their importance as a distinguishing marker of taste and wealth declined.

However, gloves continued to be worn as a fashion statement into the early 1960s before, like hats, they largely disappeared from view, apart from a brief period of popularity in the 1980s.

But is the tide about to turn? Today, in a world of PPE masks and hand sanitiser, are gloves about to make a comeback? In many ways, the conditions for fashion to shift through the gears and rediscover the allure of gloves are already in place.

But if gloves do make a comeback, maybe it’s time to reinvent the perfumed glove – far better than the smell of medical latex. Perhaps this time with a modern dash of Creed’s Love in Black and its heady scent of violet.