Going gloveless in New Zealand 1880-1910

In New Zealand in the 1880s, it was customary for women to wear gloves at all times when in public – at least, for Pākehā women of a certain social group. Men also wore gloves in public, but social expectations were somewhat more lax: as “Alice” wrote resentfully in the Otago Witness in 1891, “We dare not, as men do, go gloveless into the streets, although many would be only too delighted to have their hands free.”

For women, glove fashions changed rapidly, and new trends for colours, lengths, and embellishments were published weekly. Clean, tidy gloves were important not only for reasons of fashion but also as a marker of respectability. The author of 'Woman’s World' in the New Zealand Herald reminded readers: “shoes and gloves are indicative of the character of the wearer, [and so] it is well to bestow a little extra care on them.” Holes, ripped seams, missing buttons, and dirty fingertips indicated a lack of virtue, and women who wore anything less than perfectly neat gloves were denounced as “underbred” and “slatterns.” Gloves signified a distinction between women who worked for a living and those who didn’t, although there were occasional scathing references in the newspapers to servants insisting on having gloves like their mistresses and working girls dressed in gloves to go to the factories. Wearing gloves also helped women to maintain the ideal European beauty standard of dainty, white hands, by protecting them from sun, dirt, and damage.

Ref: Illustration from the New Zealand Graphic
and Ladies’ Journal, 7 June 1890. Auckland
Libraries Heritage Collections

However, contemporary newspapers and magazines reveal that through the 1890s up to the First World War, going gloveless became more common in New Zealand, for several different reasons.

Ref: Advertisement in the New Zealand Graphic and Ladies’ Journal, 28 January 1899.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

Once, gloves were the marker of a respectable lady, but in the early 1900s not wearing gloves instead became a sign of class and status for some women, because it allowed them to show off their fashionably white hands. As one writer observed in 1905: “anyone can see why a woman with beautiful hands which are beautifully kept, should want to discard gloves, and it’s perhaps because society can distinguish one’s position in life by the way one’s hands are kept that the ungloved hand is becoming increasingly fashionable. Gloved there is no difference between the hand that toils and the hand that doesn’t.”

Bare hands also allowed women to show off their fingernails, as manicures became increasingly popular. Wearing lots of jewellery on the hands became fashionable in the late 1890s, whether real, or the cheaper imitation jewels that were advertised as indistinguishable from the real thing. Initially some women would flaunt their rings by wearing them on the outside of their gloves, but this was universally decried as “vulgar” and pretentious. Auckland women were apparently particularly guilty of this “obnoxious” practice!

Ref: Advertisement from the New Zealand Graphic and Ladies’ Journal, 21 January 1899,
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

For less fashion-conscious women, there were concerns about the expense of gloves, which were typically only worn a few times before they got dirty or torn. Almost weekly, newspaper advice columns gave tips on how to care for, mend, and clean gloves to make them last longer. One ladies’ column suggested that the arms of long gloves could be cut off from worn-out hands and sewn onto another pair of short gloves. In the early 1900s, gloves were increasingly seen as an extravagance rather than a necessity. By the end of the First World War, there were frequent complaints in the papers that gloves, especially long ones, were too expensive for anyone to afford.

Ref: Illustration from the New Zealand Graphic and Ladies’ Journal, 2 August 1890.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

Those who advocated dress reform for women and opposed tight corsets, belts, collars, and boots also noted how unhealthy it was to bind the hands so tightly in gloves. It prevented proper blood circulation, was bad for the skin, restricted the development and function of muscles, and was unsuitable for the warm New Zealand climate. A writer in the Observer described the pain of putting on tight gloves on a hot Auckland day:

“Inch by inch, finger by finger, on goes the work of torture, and on go the gloves, until the hands, against every natural law, are as closely confined as if their exposure were a sin against decency, instead of against an absurd conventional notion of propriety.”

Gloves were not only restrictive in the way they bound the hands, but also in the sense they stopped women from doing anything practical, and therefore prevented them from working or being useful members of society. “Puss in gloves catches no mice,” asserted one writer; “the hand that grasps the lever of the world must be ungloved.” It is no coincidence that this push for women’s dress reform came at the same time as the movement for women to have the vote and more involvement in the public sphere of society.

Ref: Portrait of Alice Burn, President of the Dress Reform Association.
From: The New Zealand Graphic and Ladies’ Journal, 23 June 1894.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-18940623-592-1

Some ‘dress reformers’ caused a sensation with their practical outfits. Alice Burn, president of the New Zealand Dress Reform Association, went publicly in a scandalous walking costume (pictured above), which caused one writer to snidely report that it was “hard to tell” if she and her companion were female, striding as they were “at a manly pace” in knickerbockers, boys’ caps, and “no gloves, the latter being too effeminate, I presume.”

The ‘New Woman’ of the late nineteenth century was a lot more physically active than the woman of previous generations. She enjoyed being outdoors, walking, swimming, cycling, and playing sports. Gloves were not practical for many of these activities. While illustrations of tennis outfits from the early 1890s still included gloves, this one (pictured above) from the fashion pages of the New Zealand Mail in 1896 does not.

For golf, gloves were viewed as a “handicapper,” interfering with a lady’s grip on her club; in fact, an article in the New Zealand Herald in 1899 commended glovelessness, stating that “golf seems to wage war on all the superfluous airs and graces, and to have introduced an element of the rational and sensible into women’s dress which no extent of lecturing and reasoning was able to do.”

By the early 1900s, women were playing hockey in shorter skirts and without gloves, as seen in a photo of a Paeroa Ladies hockey club team.

Ref: Group portrait of members of the Paeroa Ladies' Hockey Club. From: The New Zealand Graphic, 4 July 1903.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19030704-31-2 

Articles from the late 1880s lamented that sporting activities made women’s hands brown and tough, but perhaps in the new century active women began to care less about their hands becoming suntanned, as ideals of feminine beauty - and femininity itself - gradually changed to reflect the more active lifestyle available to them.

As one writer summed up in the Marlborough Express in 1894, gloves were “a shackle of fashion,” “uncomfortable,” “extravagant,” and “altogether a nuisance.” Although glove-wearing would become conventional again and continued for women right up until the 1970s, past newspapers and magazines reveal that, many decades earlier, New Zealand women were already abandoning their gloves for reasons of fashion, economy, health, practicality, political ideology, and their changing role in society.

Author: Harriet Rogers, Heritage Collections


  1. Great article, I remember at Intermediate school in 1969 having to wear navy gloves and horrible navy rompers for sport which looked like something you would have put over a baby'
    s nappy. Then at High School from 1971 until I left in 1973 we had forest green gloves and again the awful rompers, which were cotton in summer and a type of flannel fabric for winter. The students were rallying to have the gloves and Panama hats we had to wear on the way to and from school dropped from the uniform. I'm not sure when they eventually did get dropped. They were hot and sticky in Summer but did keep your hands a bit warm in the Winter though. We abused the white Panama hats by folding them into four so they had creases in them, writing on them and generally making them unrecognisable as Panamas. When the school decided to have a uniform inspection we would have to kneel on the ground as the head of our school measured our skirts with a ruler to make sure they were no less or no more than three inches above the ground, and our Panama hats had to be starched white again with no unsightly creases in them to pass the inspection, no holes in the gloves, no scuffed shoes or you were given polish to rectify this instantly! We had a tie and a beret to wear in the Winter along with a blazer. It all cost a fortune as well, so not much has changed about that today.

    1. Yes, I remember the rigid rules in the 60's - cotton gloves (either white or lemon), white Panama hat in the summer, green blazer, tie and beret in the winter. Both summer and winter uniforms had to touch the ground when kneeling, no makeup, no jewellery and hair had to be tied up. Stocking had to be mended neatly. We used to soak them.in cold tea so that they kept their colour. Just writing this reminds me how proud most of us were to represent our school. I am not into pretentiousness in any form, but a little bit of grooming goes a long way and never did us any harm.


Post a Comment

Kia ora! Please leave your comment below.