Ladies' gloves for formal and semi-formal wear come in three lengths for women: wrist, elbow, and opera or full-length (over the elbow, usually reaching to the biceps but sometimes to the full length of the arm).
The most expensive full-length gloves are custom-made of kid leather, also known as kidskin. Many other types of leather, most usually soft varieties of cowhide, are used in making full-length gloves; patent leather and suede are especially popular as alternatives to kidskin, and are often more affordable than kidskin. Satin and stretch satin materials are extremely popular, and there are mass-produced varieties as well.
While the etymology of the term opera glove is unknown, gloves of above-the-elbow length have been worn since at least the late 18th century, and gloves reaching to or just below the elbow have been worn by women in Western countries since the 17th century (there is an engraving of England's Queen Mary dating from the 1690s in which she is shown wearing elbow-length gloves). Over-the-elbow gloves were first widely popular during the Regency/Napoleonic period (circa 1800-1825), and waned in popularity during the early and mid-Victorian periods (circa 1830-1870), but enjoyed their greatest vogue in the last two decades of the 19th century and the years of the 20th century prior to the start of World War I. During that period, they were standard for both daytime and evening wear with most types of outfits-even some swimming outfits of the period were accessorized with opera gloves. Etiquette of that period considered gloves to be mandatory accessories for both men and women of the upper classes, so it was fairly uncommon during that era to see a well-dressed woman at a public occasion who was not wearing gloves of some sort. According to several fashion historians, over-the-elbow gloves were popularized, or more accurately re-popularized, during the late 19th century by the renowned actresses Sarah Bernhardt in France (who liked wearing long gloves to disguise what she considered her overly thin arms) and Lillian Russell in the United States.
The opera glove has enjoyed varying popularity in the decades since World War I, being most prevalent as a fashion accessory in the 1940s through the early 1960s (long gloves were an important accessory of Christian Dior's "New Look" designs), but continues to this day to be popular with women who want to add a particularly elegant touch to their formal outfits, and have enjoyed minor revivals in fashion design on several occasions in recent years (they were very prominent, for example, in haute couture collections for the fall/winter 2007 season). Opera gloves continue to be popular accessories for bridal and prom/debutante gowns and at very formal ballroom dances (to this day, for example, it is mandatory for female participants at the Vienna Opera Ball to wear white opera gloves) and are often worn by entertainers such as can-can dancers and burlesque performers (particularly to perform a gown-and-glove dance). In popular culture, probably the two best-known images incorporating opera gloves are those of Rita Hayworth in "Gilda" (1946) and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). (Actress Audrey Hepburn was also known for glove-wearing on- and off-screen, but the style of glove she popularized is a type of coat-sleeve-length or three-quarters-length glove, rather than true opera-length.)
The best-known type of opera glove, the mousquetaire, is given this name due to the wrist-level opening (most commonly three inches long) which is closed by three (usually) buttons or snap closures, most frequently made of pearl or some lookalike material. The mousquetaire is originally derived from the gauntlets worn by French musketeers of the 16th and 17th centuries, although, tongue-in-cheek, according to Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary'', 1911:
Mousquetaire, n. A long glove covering a part of the arm. Worn in New Jersey. But "mousquetaire" is a mighty poor way to spell muskeeter.
Mousquetaire gloves have buttons at the wrist so the wearer could open the buttons and slip her hand out without taking the whole glove off. The finger section would be folded in and kept away tidily. This is how ladies wore gloves while dining. After the meal they would put their hands back into the gloves, usually for the rest of the evening. During the 19th century, especially from the mid-Victorian era onwards, gloves were tailored so as to fit very tightly onto the hands and arms – so tightly, in fact, that it was often necessary to use aids such as talcum powder and buttonhooks to put on one's gloves; therefore, it was considered somewhat uncouth to put on or remove one's gloves completely in public and women would make sure to don their gloves in the privacy of their homes before going out to some event (another reason for the popularity of the mousquetaire opening). The mousquetaire opening/fastening for women's long gloves seems to have become most popular during the Victorian era; during the Napoleonic/Regency period, women's long gloves were often tailored to fit loosely on the wearer's arm, and were often worn gathered below the elbow or held up on the biceps with a garter-like strap. (In the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice, Rosamund Pike and several other actresses wear opera-length gloves with drawstring ties at the top of the glove, but this might not be an accurate representation of the style of long gloves in the Regency era; fashion plates from the period do not appear to show gloves with drawstring-type ties, but do often show women wearing gloves held up by garterlike straps or ribbons.)