Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society | June 19, 2018
By Valerie Wilson
When the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney appeared on the red carpet at the Golden Globes awards ceremony in January 11th 2015 she created a stir, not just for her stunning Dior dress, but for her elbow length gloves, prompting some lively debate and an article a few days later in the New York Times.(1)
I was reminded of this when working recently on a collection of gloves and glove stretchers at The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. Ireland’s tradition of glove making was centred in and around Limerick in the eighteenth century, spreading to Cork in the early 1800s. Gloves of white linen, rabbit skin and lamb skin were popular, as were those hand knit in silk or fine wool. (2)
The Limerick and Clare Examiner of 21st January 1846 carried the following advertisement:
‘T. Burke is constantly supplied with a large stock of the following articles: Limerick gloves in shells. Ladies’ and gentlemen’s best kid, Wedding and Mourning gloves, Walking, Riding, Dress, Pruning and Sparring gloves.’
The ’Limerick gloves in shells’ refers to the fashion for so-called ‘chicken skin’ gloves, so fine that they could be contained in the two halves of a walnut shell. They were actually made from the skin of unborn calves and were highly prized for their fine texture and superb workmanship. One of the best examples in Ireland today is in the costume collection at Armagh County Museum.
The UFTM collection has but one example of this ‘chicken skin’ trade. The single glove is in poor condition but the remaining half of the walnut shell, with a printed label on, reveals a story. A Mr. John Condon, ‘Glover by trade’, is listed in a Commercial Directory for 1820 -1822, Cork. The same directory lists Robert Condon, a skin dresser, with premises nearby. It seems very likely that the two were related and the businesses shared a common purpose. By 1845 one Anne Condon is listed in Aldwell’s General Post Office Directory of Cork as owning a glove warehouse at 96 St Patrick’s street. From just one, rather bedraggled object, a story of glove making and retailing emerges.
Competition from foreign competitors led to a general decline in Irish glove making towards the end of the nineteenth century. Attempts to preserve what was left of this traditional skill included the training of young women to work in their own homes, in much the same way as those who were employed at the time in the outwork industry for lace making and embroidery. A 1907 publication issued in connection with the Irish International Exhibition that year gives an indication of attempts to preserve what was left of the trade –
‘In the month of July 1906, an Exhibition was held at Limerick, and at that Exhibition there was a demonstration of glove making, as carried on by Messrs. Fownes Bros. & Co., and which exhibition was organized by ‘’the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction’’.. (3)
The glove making firm of Fownes Bros. and Co. was established in 1777 by John and Edward Fownes in Worcester. Today the firm is a global brand leader with a headquarters in New York and manufacturing facilities based in the Far East. Despite the best efforts of government bodies and manufacturers, glove making in Ireland steadily declined during the twentieth century in the face of increasing foreign imports.
Today in Ireland, the glove tradition is being carried on by designer Paula Rowan. Based in Dublin, Paula sources fine leathers from Italy to create gloves for the luxury market worldwide. Among her customers are Chloe Sevigny and Helen Mirren … all of which brings us back to fashionably elegant women and red carpet appearances!
(1) Ruth la Furla, The uproar over Amal Clooney’s white gloves, (The New York Times, January 14th 2015)
(2) Mairead Dunlevy, Dress in Ireland, A History, (Cork, The Collins Press, 1989), 134.
(3) Glove making in Ireland, Irish Rural Life and Industry, (Dublin, Hely’s Limited, 1907), 193.