In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, gloves were a sartorial necessity. For Elizabeth and Mary, the challenge was to determine which sort would best suit the climate of India and then procure those from England. From Elizabeth’s letters, we know that amongst the sisters’ preferred varieties were Limerick gloves. Elizabeth wrote to Hetty with her requests, first in 1802 and again in 1805:
…let us have […] 6 pair for each of us of white kid gloves and 12 pairs each of the finest Limerick gloves of a light yellow colour… or instead of the Limerick some pairs of fine soft yellowish grain kid. These carry and keep best; the browns spot and spoil, sadly, and do not wear at all well in the heat.Elizabeth Gwillim to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, March 18, 1802
…Polly says also a few yellow long gloves––she has none left––she says they are called Limericks. They are best for this country.
In 1803, Mary praised their durability. Limerick gloves, uniquely, could survive the journey overseas:
The gloves you sent are the most beautiful I ever saw, both the leather and the making, but I am sorry to say they are all spotted except the white ones––but that is always the case with all but Limerick gloves.
Limerick gloves, so called because they were originally produced in Limerick, Ireland, were a popular style of glove in both Ireland and England during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In their letters, both sisters emphasize the durability and weather-appropriateness of Limerick gloves––but, interestingly, these gloves’ distinguishing characteristic was their delicacy, a function of the material from which they were produced: the skins of unborn calves, lamb or kid. In 1789, one Irish-Englishman referred to Limerick gloves as gloves ‘of the very thin sort’; later, William Hull’s 1834 The History of the Glove Trade claimed that Limerick gloves further imparted their qualities to the hands of their wearers, rendering them soft and smooth. The gloves’ lightness was likely appreciated in Madras’s frequently warm weather; if, indeed, they helped to soften the hands, perhaps they were the ideal attire for skin exposed to the region’s fluctuating aridity and humidity.
The fineness of Limerick gloves was indicated by a popular mode of packaging: rolling both gloves up inside a walnut shell. In the late nineteenth century, it was said that “a single nut with such a kernel” was “a very costly fruit indeed,” made of rare and valuable leather. Indeed, such a fruit qualified as a “significant present from a gentleman.” The gloves’ status as an esteemed accessory is evinced by their frequent appearances in such fashionable magazines as La Belle Assemblée or, Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine Addressed Particularly to the Ladies (1806–37) and The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics (1809–28), also known as Ackermann’s Repository. The gloves feature in costume plates portraying fashionable, leisurely pursuits, such as walking, riding, and going to the opera. In 1807, Belle Assemblée stated that Limerick gloves were “those selected by the female of taste and propriety.”
In addition to their suitability for Elizabeth and Mary’s geographic circumstances, then, Limerick gloves served the sisters’ interest in fashion. From their letters, we know that the sisters were committed to dressing well and in keeping with current fashions: Elizabeth, in 1803, professed “a desire for a variety and fashion” and––finding that desire, at least temporarily, fulfilled––stated that she and Mary “are quite fashionable.” Both sisters wrote frequently to Hetty of clothing and accessories, commenting on what items had come into fashion, thanking her for the clothing sent over from England, and specifying their further needs and desires. In 1802, after requesting that Hetty send flowers, fancy feathers, shoes, and gloves, Mary asked that the relevant literature be sent, too, ensuring that the sisters would be privy to the current knowledge on how to deploy their new accessories: “Don’t forget the Magazine of the fashions, that we may see how to put them on.” It also appears that, in Madras, their style was much admired: in 1803, Mary praised Hetty’s good taste in the gowns she had sent from England, noting that “the plain muslin frock with lace down the front has been lent out to half the settlement for a pattern.”
We can thus infer that Limerick gloves suited Elizabeth and Mary’s needs with respect to both fashion and climate: these gloves not only indicated the sisters’ position at the forefront of style (and affluence) but also managed to withstand lengthy maritime journeys and Madras’s changeable atmospheric conditions. Indeed, Elizabeth maintained a practical perspective on fashion. To Hetty, she wrote: “If it fits, it fits.”
For more information on Limerick gloves, refer to the scholarship of Liza Foley; e.g., Foley, Liza. “Gloves ‘of the Very Thin Sort’: Gifting Limerick Gloves in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries.” In Dress History: New Directions in Theory and Practice, edited by Charlotte Nicklas and Annebella Pollen, 33–48. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
By Hana Nikčević