Why Cartoon Characters Wear Gloves: A Curious Trip Through the History of Animation

It’s rare for Dis­ney to over­look a mar­ket­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty. For years, Mouse Ears were the film studio’s theme park sou­venir of choice, but recent­ly the gift shops have start­ed stock­ing white four-fin­gered gloves too.

Per­haps not the most sen­si­ble choice for dip­ping into a buck­et of jalapeño pop­pers or a $6 Mick­ey Pret­zel with Cheese Sauce, but the gloves have unde­ni­able reach when it comes to car­toon his­to­ry. Bugs Bun­ny wears them. So does Woody Wood­peck­er, Tom (though not Jer­ry), and Bet­ty Boop’s anthro­po­mor­phic dog­gie pal, Bim­bo.

As Vox’s Estelle Caswell points out above, the choice to glove Mick­ey and his ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry car­toon brethren was born of prac­ti­cal­i­ty. The lim­it­ed palette of black and white ani­ma­tion meant that most ani­mal char­ac­ters had black bodies—their arms dis­ap­peared against every inky expanse.

It also pro­vid­ed artists with a bit of relief, back when ani­ma­tion meant end­less hours of labor over hand drawn cells. Puffy gloves aren’t just a com­i­cal cap­per to bendy rub­ber hose limbs. They’re also way eas­i­er to draw than real­is­tic pha­langes.

As Walt Dis­ney him­self explained:

We did­n’t want him to have mouse hands, because he was sup­posed to be more human. So we gave him gloves. Five Fin­gers looked like too much on such a lit­tle fig­ure, so we took one away. That was just one less fin­ger to ani­mate.

Caswell digs deep­er than that, unearthing a sur­pris­ing cul­tur­al com­par­i­son. White gloves were a stan­dard part of black­face per­form­ers’ min­strel show cos­tumes. Audi­ences who packed the­aters for tour­ing min­strel shows were the same peo­ple lin­ing up for Steam­boat Willie.

Com­ic ani­ma­tion has evolved both visu­al­ly and in terms of con­tent over its near hun­dred year his­to­ry, but ani­ma­tors have a ten­den­cy to revere the his­to­ry of their pro­fes­sion.

Thus­ly do South Park’s ani­ma­tors bestow spot­less white gloves upon Mr. Han­key the Christ­mas Poo.

“Amer­i­ca’s favorite cat and mouse team,” the Simp­sons’  Itchy and Scratchy, mete out their hor­rif­i­cal­ly vio­lent pun­ish­ment in pris­tine white gloves.

Clear­ly some things are worth pre­serv­ing…

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Dis­ney Car­toon That Intro­duced Mick­ey Mouse & Ani­ma­tion with Sound (1928)

Disney’s 12 Time­less Prin­ci­ples of Ani­ma­tion Demon­strat­ed in 12 Ani­mat­ed Primers

Free Ani­mat­ed Films: From Clas­sic to Mod­ern 

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine, appear­ing onstage in New York City through June 26 in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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