There’s a moment in the cult classic animated film An Extremely Goofy Movie where Bobby Zimmeruski, Max’s stoner friend, asks, “Why do you think we’re always, like, wearing gloves?”
If anyone could help me get to the bottom of this question, it’s John Canemaker. He’s an animation historian and professor at NYU. “At the dawn of animation” he explains, “certain techniques to make the animation process easier were used.” These techniques included using round edges instead of angles because they were more efficient to draw over and over and over again. Bill Nolan, who animated Felix the Cat in the early 1900s, took away Felix’s snout and rounded out his feet, arms, and face.
This rubber hose and circle aesthetic that dominated early animation posed a problem for animators in the age of fuzzy black and white film. Yes, simplifying the features of characters made the process easier and faster. However, it made it more difficult for the audience to see characters’ black hands against their black bodies. Enter those crisp white gloves. Walt Disney very well might have been the first person to put white gloves on a character when he made The Opry House, starring Mickey Mouse, in 1929.
In The Opry House, Mickey puts on a big vaudeville show. At one point, he walks up to a piano, sits down, and begins to play. Those white gloves really make his grand gestures stand out — and they make him seem human. He’s a mouse, after all.
The Opry House reveals how inextricably linked vaudeville performance and blackface minstrelsy were to early animation. Nicholas Sammond writes in his book Birth of an Industry that early animators often performed at these shows. They also studied the performances of many of the vaudeville artists and translated those characters studies to paper when they were inventing their own cartoons. Sammond writes, “Mickey Mouse isn’t like a minstrel; he is a minstrel.” Blackface minstrels and vaudeville performers of the time dawned loose fitting clothes, exaggerated makeup, and they wore white gloves.
Certainly Bobby Zimmeruski didn’t see that coming.
Watch the video above to learn more about the origins of those cartoon gloves. You can also find the full video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube.