Mini Object Lesson: Fingerless Gloves for Winter Superheroes

The CW
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Comic book fans are discriminating, so it’s no surprise there’s controversy around the recently released concept art of the costume Ezra Miller will wear as Flash in DC’s forthcoming Justice League movies. More surprising, perhaps, is the focus of the shock: In the new interpretation, Barry Allen’s alter-ego wears fingerless gloves.

Some fans are open-minded, even if skeptical: “I don’t see why a forensic scientist would think exposing his finger prints is a good idea.” Others are definitive: “Those fingerless gloves look horrible, I really hope they get rid of them.” And still others are so understated, you might have to read them twice to discern the fan’s true feelings: “F**k his fingerless gloves too. F**king hipster shitbag.”

Strong sentiments, but fingerless glove hate isn’t reserved for famous comic book heroes. Everyone seems to abhor them, even as their popularity and practicality rises. “Fingerless gloves are just vests for the hands.

For a time, traditional knitted fingerless gloves were the gear of the archetypical vagrant. Always grey or otherwise drab, these knitted fingerless gloves seem to descend from the Depression-era hobo or tramp, who might have jury-rigged them from scraps or other garments. This use still retains its force, too. In 2013, a Pennsylvania high school student who dressed up as a homeless man for Halloween—complete with fingerless gloves—was suspended when his outfit was too convincing.

The hobo, the cyclists, weightlifters, photographers, wrestlers, kayakers, and other sportspersons who often wear fingerless gloves do so for the combination of warmth, protection, and dexterity they provide. The cyclist or rock-climber is not that different from the vagrant, save for the cost of the gloves.

Then, in the ‘80s, fingerless gloves became fashionable, although usually in leather or lace or fishnet. Boy George and Madonna and Billy Idol wore them (Madonna still does). They extended and domesticated punk fashion via New Romanticism.

Today, fingerless gloves are practical tools before they are outerwear, sportswear, or fashion. Dexterity is more important for us now, and more frequently so, thanks to the smartphone. We’re always using our fingers these days, no matter where we are. Sure, you can get conductive full-finger gloves that allow you to tap without taking them off, but even a thin finger garment gets in the way of effective app use. And even in cold climates, people seem willing to risk mild frostbite if it means uninterrupted access to their texts and Snapchats.

Ezra Miller’s fingerless-gloved Flash enters the picture here, when fingers have become the tools that make the difference between sub-human and super-human action for us ordinary folk, via technology rather than ability. Flash’s superpower is speed: of movement, but also of reflex. He’s a lightning-fast, red lycra ode to dexterity. Fingerless gloves are the quiet fashion motto of the 2010s. To be covered but still fingerless means being like Flash: prepared, and willing, and quick. But it still means being like the hobo, too, even if a modern one: transient, huddling, staring at cold hands kneading an even colder smartphone, searching for scraps.

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