In Marilyn’s day, opera gloves were an essential part of any glamour girl’s wardrobe. And now they’re making a comeback, at least on the red carpet. Reporting for Vogue, Alice Newbold notes that “opera gloves owe a lot to Tinseltown. Marilyn Monroe took a pair of shocking pink satin gloves (layered with weighty diamond bracelets) into mainstream media in 1953 with the release of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
But Marilyn also wore opera gloves in The Fireball (1950) and The Seven Year Itch (1955), in a photo shoot with Gene Lester, and at numerous glitzy events. In 2002, David H. Shayt wrote an article on the subject for the Smithsonian magazine, after a pair of Marilyn’s gloves was anonymously donated to the National Museum of American History.
“‘Decades before stars would not make a public move without the services of platoons of stylists and designers, Marilyn was a truly great stylist,’ writes Meredith Etherington-Smith, director of Christie’s International, the London-based auction house, in The Personal Property of Marilyn Monroe. The gloves, she notes, constituted an important element of the Monroe look. ‘She had many pairs of immaculate beige kid[skin] evening gloves, and she always wore dramatic and beautifully made rhinestone earrings which cascaded in flashing rivers of light…. All this was carefully contrived to increase the effect of her uniquely luminous quality.’
The pair ceded to the NMAH Entertainment Collection are evocative emblems of Monroe’s carefully orchestrated image. Exquisitely stitched in soft white kidskin, the elbow-length gloves bear a faintly detectable blue stain, most likely ink, lightly smudged on the outside of a cuff.
This tantalizing imperfection bespeaks a lost history. Whence the stain? Did Monroe perhaps sign an autograph for an adoring fan wearing these gloves? Scribble observations on a program note? Jot down her phone number for an admirer, even a future husband?
Joe DiMaggio? Arthur Miller?
While the story of the intriguing smudge is consigned to oblivion, there is little doubt the gloves possess symbolic significance as well. They function, says costume historian Shelly Foote of the Smithsonian’s Division of Social History, as a talisman of a vanished era: ‘Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy were among the last prominent glove wearers. In the ’50s, high school girls at proms or debutante balls would not be caught dead without gloves on. But after the mid-1960s, they would not be caught dead wearing them.'”