Gloves can serve to protect and comfort the hands of the wearer against cold or heat, physical damage by friction, abrasion or chemicals, and disease; or in turn to provide a guard for what a bare hand should not touch. Latex, nitrile or vinyl disposable gloves are often worn by healthcare professionals as hygiene and contamination protection measures. Fingerless gloves are useful for cold environments where dexterity is required that gloves would restrict. Cigarette smokers and church organists often use fingerless gloves. Some gloves include a gauntlet that extends partway up the arm.
A washing glove is a tool for washing the body (one's own, or of a child, a patient, a lover). Gloves have been made of many materials including cloth, knitted or felted wool, leather, rubber, latex, and metal (as in chain mail).
Today gloves are made around the world. Most expensive women's gloves are still made in France, with some made in Canada. For cheaper male gloves New York State, especially Gloversville, New York is still a world centre of glove manufacturing. More and more glove manufacturing is being done in east Asia, however.
Gloves appear to be of great antiquity. According to some translations of Homer's, The Odyssey, Laërtes is described as wearing gloves while walking in his garden so as to avoid the brambles. (Other translations, however, insist that Laertes pulled his long sleeves over his hands.) Herodotus, in The History of Herodotus (440 BC), tells how Leotychides was incriminated by a glove (gauntlet) full of silver that he received as a bribe. Among the Romans also there are occasional references to the use of gloves. According to Pliny the Younger (ca. 100), his uncle's shorthand writer wore gloves during the winter so as not to impede the elder Pliny's work.
Gloves are also used for fashion, ceremonial, and religious purposes. British and European Ladies in the 13th century began to wear gloves as fashion ornaments. They were made of linen and silk and sometimes reached to the elbow. It was not until the 16th century that they reached their greatest elaboration, however, when Queen Elizabeth set the fashion for wearing them richly embroidered and jeweled.
Embroidered and jeweled gloves also formed part of the insignia of emperors and kings. Thus Matthew of Paris, in recording the burial of Henry II of England in 1189, mentions that be was buried in his coronation robes with a golden crown on his head and gloves on his hands. Gloves were also found on the hands of King John when his tomb was opened in 1797 and on those of King Edward I when his tomb was opened in 1774.
Pontifical gloves are liturgical ornaments used primarily by the pope, the cardinals, and bishops. They may be worn only at the celebration of mass. The liturgical use of gloves has not been traced beyond the beginning of the 10th century, and their introduction may have been due to a simple desire to keep the hands clean for the holy mysteries, but others suggest that they were adopted as part of the increasing pomp with which the Carolingian bishops were surrounding themselves. From the Frankish kingdom the custom spread to Rome, where liturgical gloves are first heard of in the earlier half of the 11th century.