Think of the Queen and you immediately conjure an image of the monarch in a smart coat dress, chic hat and that elegant accessory she is never seen without – her gloves. Wherever she goes, her Majesty always wears a pair of beautiful gloves as she meets and greets dignitaries, charities and well-wishers. But why is it that the royal sticks so rigidly to this personal style rule? Is it a matter of hygiene, simply a style choice or a matter of routine? We wanted to know more about the Queen’s love of gloves, so who better to ask than her personal glove makers, the luxury fashion house Cornelia James.
The HELLO! office was abuzz with excitement when Genevieve James, daughter of the late Cornelia James, invited us to visit her workshop on a farm in East Sussex for a day back in 2018. We had so many questions to ask about her Majesty’s personal style and couldn’t wait to peruse the label’s exquisite glove collection.
Cornelia James first began making gloves way back in the 1940s and quickly became known as “the colour queen of England” as coined by Vogue magazine. She was primarily known as the Queen’s glove maker, but also made gloves for Princess Anne, the late Princess Diana and a whole host of famous names. Following her death in 1999, Cornelia’s daughter Genevieve took the reins of the company and still holds the royal warrant as glove manufacturer to the Queen.
The fashion label has quite a client list. The Duchess of Cambridge is among her royal customers, along with Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, while big names from the music world Madonna, Lady Gaga and Rihanna also adore her gloves. Nicole Kidman ordered the accessory for her role in Moulin Rouge (she faxed over a photo of her hand for the bespoke pair) and Genevieve’s team even creates costume gloves for actors in hit TV shows The Crown and Downton Abbey.
The Cornelia James workshop was everything we’d hoped it would be: gorgeous gloves of all shades and fabrics on show, royal and celebrity client photos adorning the walls and machinists hard at work on their Singer sewing machines. It’s incredible watching the small highly-skilled team create these luxury pieces from their farmhouse base.
Genevieve told us that a pair of gloves can take anything from an hour to a day to make depending on the style. On the day of our visit, glove makers were busy working on gloves for The Crown. “We did gloves for series one and series two and now we are currently in the process of sampling gloves for series three,” she said. It’s such a relaxed, charming location; the farm dog runs around outside as the machinists create gloves for the world’s most famous women.
Genevieve and her husband outside their workshop
So how did this wonderful company all begin? “My mother was a Jewish refugee,” Genevieve shared. “She came from Vienna and she had to get out very quickly in 1939 when Hitler invaded. At that time she was studying at the Royal College of Art in Vienna. She only managed to take with her – not her personal possessions – but a suitcase full of leather. That was what was important to her at that time.
“She arrived in England as a refugee with her leather and she started teaching Occupational Therapy to the soldiers. Then she realised she had to make a living so she started designing a whole range of leather gloves in all these brightly coloured skins she’d brought over. Suddenly she became quite well known, because at that time there was no money for clothing, but there was money to buy nice accessories.”
The late Cornelia James
Genevieve continued: “Shortly after that time she came to the attention of the royal couturier Norman Hartnell. He worked with my mother, he trained her and her big break came when he was invited to make the wedding gown for Princess Elizabeth. He asked my mother to make some gloves for the honeymoon – not just a couple of pairs – but they were going on the royal yacht so it was a whole wedding trousseau of gloves. After that she became really well known as glove maker to the royals and to rich and famous people.”
It’s an amazing heartwarming story: from refugee to royal warrant holder. “We didn’t get the royal warrant until 1979. I think when she received the royal warrant she felt honoured. It’s an honour. It’s something you can’t buy. It just means you’re the best at what you do.”
The Queen on her honeymoon with Prince Phillip
We can only imagine what it was like growing up surrounded by such glamour. “It was lovely,” she told us. “I did get used to it. We made gloves, not just for the queen, but we do a lot of gloves still for Princess Anne. It’s always been part of our growing up. As my husband often points out, the mind’s eye picture of the queen is of her sitting in her black limousine and from the corner of the car you see the white-gloved hand waving. I feel proud that I know it’s usually our gloves.”
We were dying to know more about the Queen’s gloves – does she have a favourite style? “She has a style that she usually wears all the time,” Genevieve revealed. “It has two points down the side of the hand. She favours white and black and sometimes parchment because her gloves are usually the finishing touch of what she wears. The queen is always very colourful because she likes to be noticed.
“You never see her without her hat, her handbag or her gloves,” she added. “Nobody apart from the queen wears gloves all the time. The queen wears gloves all the time because she likes to and she’s the queen. They are part of her integral style and she’s iconic. Also, she wears gloves because she’s shaking a lot of hands. I think they protect her hands. Primarily, she wears gloves because it’s her style. I can guarantee whenever she’s out and about, she’s always got one pair in her handbag as well in case she loses them.”
So there you have it, HELLO! readers. The Queen always wears gloves because she loves gloves.
You’d think, being the Queen and money not being an issue, she’d buy new gloves when the old pairs wear out. Surprisingly though, her Majesty often sends her gloves back to Cornelia James for repair. Genevieve shared: “I think all the royal family do, which I think is excellent. They’re quite well aware of being fairly frugal with their clothing and occasionally we have an odd pair returned because there’s a stitch that’s missing and we repair them and return them. The Queen has a lot of gloves – over 40 pairs – and she often likes to wear some of the ones that are not too current. The Queen has her own size which we’re not allowed to disclose.”
The glove-making process in the workshop is fascinating, with the company favouring older, reliable machinery. Genevieve explained: “The Queen favours a very lovely classic cotton from us, which is made up in the Midlands. It’s a double shrunk cotton because it doesn’t stretch much, it holds its shape very well and it’s not heavy. It’s very agreeable to wear, it feels very comfortable.
“The gloves are cut out by hand with a lovely old machine we have that dates back to the early 1900s. It comes from Yeovil. Then the gloves, the fourchettes (the pieces which go between the fingers) and the thumb piece go to a machinist who then makes up the gloves.” The gloves are then inspected before being boxed up. Genevieve showed us her beautiful new glove box design – a classic olive green with a pretty pink ribbon tie.
“The whole process of making a pair of gloves can be up to an hour and a half. So it’s a long process and each part is done with care and precision. The fabric has to be beautiful. The machinists have to be very experienced and the inspection has to be thorough.”
I wondered if there are any specific protocol concerning gloves that the royal family must follow. “I do know that for any state banquets gloves absolutely have to be worn. I’ve done gloves for the Duchess of Cambridge for a state banquet so I know there’s a certain protocol, otherwise not really. I think it’s very much a question of – both with the Queen and the Duchess of Cambridge – whether a certain glove would actually go with the outfit they’re wearing at the time.”
The Duchess of Cambridge in Cornelia James’ Clementine Glove
Genevieve shared with us that Duchess Kate also wears their designs and loves Cornelia James’ merino wool gloves, possibly because merino wool is wearable for ‘every day’ and they are both stylish and warm. The company doesn’t have contact with the Duchess herself, however, as it is Kate’s personal advisor Natasha Archer who normally requests the gloves when a pair is required.
And what about the Duchess of Sussex – has she ever worn a pair of Cornelia James gloves? At the time, she was waiting on the call. “If I could create a pair for her, we have our new glove which is Cornelia and it has a little brass button with a chain and it’s slightly French. I see her as French a little bit; she loves Givenchy. That glove would look really nice on her.”
Princess Beatrice‘s wedding is fast approaching, and Genevieve said they may be asked to make gloves for royal guests on her big day. “I’m sure we will be. We work quite closely with different milliners like Phillip Treacy and I’m quite sure that if they’re buying some lovely hats then – particularly as it’s autumn – gloves will probably be de rigour. When the Duchess of Cambridge was married we did gloves for Eugenie and Beatrice.”
Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie with Cornelia James gloves
Genevieve said that both herself and her mother have met the Queen. Cornelia met her Majesty on several occasions at garden parties, while Genevieve recalls meeting the monarch at a Christmas party held at Buckingham Palace where royal warrant holders set up stalls to sell their goods to palace staff. The Queen wasn’t expected to visit but made a surprise appearance and headed for Genevieve’s stall.
“The Queen approached my stand and I bowed and said, ‘Your Majesty I’m your glove maker’. She replied ‘I know exactly who you are’ and it was the best moment of my life. I nearly died! She was lovely. She’s quite small in stature but what she lacks in stature she makes up in presence. She had this beautiful skin and she looked at me with these shining eyes and she almost burst out laughing.”
It’s quite fantastic how Cornelia James makes gloves for both the Queen and current pop stars like Rihanna, who Genevieve reveals once wore their long, black lace Anastacia glove to the Victoria Secrets ball. Madonna is a fan of the label’s lace gloves, while Lady Gaga loves their net fabric. “She recently wore some to a big opening and she chose the Hermione duchess satin gloves,” she revealed.
The late Princess Diana also wore Cornelia James gloves. Genevieve’s recounts her mother’s story of once meeting Diana at a garden party, where the Princess remarked during their conversation how she didn’t wear gloves.
“The next day we got a call from Buckingham Palace saying that Princess Diana was going to an evening do at Claridge’s. She had a lovely Bruce Oldfield royal blue dress, and she suddenly thought after meeting my mother that gloves would actually look really nice. So the Palace asked if we had any fabric. We had some royal blue, so we quickly made a lovely pair of long blue evening gloves for her. It was the first time she wore gloves and after that, she became a customer. She was lovely.”
We wonder what Genevieve’s mother, Cornelia, would think of the company’s success and celebrity client list now. “I think she’d be very happy,” she says. “I know if you asked my mother today, I’d say ‘Mummy, we’re making gloves for Rihanna, Madonna, for Taylor Swift, for all sorts of very well-known and important people… and she’d say – and I’d agree with her – that still the Queen is the most important person.”