Monocles: ‘Ow, do people really wear these?’

Updated

At the close of last night’s opening segment, Rachel donned a monocle and remarked, “Ow, do people really wear these?” 

A British trend piece from a few years ago suggests people really do, but what I’ve been wondering is why they’ve become a symbol of wealth. Wouldn’t rich people, even in the monocle hay days of the early 19th century, be able to afford a full pair of glasses? The article cites generally accepted history with the explanation that monocles were a loophole for aspiring army officers who couldn’t pass an eye test but were barred from wearing spectacles. And monocle trendiness grew from there. That’s as good an explanation as any. Solid history about the monocle is sparse online. Also without citation, the site “Mad about monocles” chalks the upper class associations up to the fact that they were relatively expensive baubles, exactly what rich people might like to collect. I have to wonder if the invention of the achromatic lens and the fact that a person could be an “amateur optician” added caché to carrying a lens around.

Google very helpfully gives us a look at the monocle chapter of Spectacles and Other Vision Aids: A History and Guide to Collecting by J. William Rosenthal, which doesn’t really explain the aristocratic association, but does offer hints with descriptions of famous artists wearing them in painted portraits early in the trend, and European diplomats wearing them at their peak.

So OK, monocles were immensely fashionable and became popular as a result. People wore them even when they didn’t need help with their vision. Some people even wore flat glass circles with no lens properties. Rosenthal describes looking through them as being cool in a way that reminds me of how smoking cigarettes is was cool. By the 1890s monocle design had developed such that they were actually comfortable to wear, unlike the one Rachel grappled with last night. 

Get meta with me after the jump…

Everything I read attributed the crash of the monocle trend to their popularity with the German military. Now it could be that the only social significance that remains is the original association with wealth, perpetuated by popular icons like the Monopoly guy (“Rich Uncle Pennybags”). But I have one other theory I’d like to offer and you tell me what you think:

Around the same time that monocles were trending with rich British and French people, there was another fashion trend taking hold, Dandyism. A dandy would dress elegantly, sometimes exaggeratedly so, imitating aristocracy despite middle class standing. In terms of sheer costuming, it makes me think of Japanese Harajuku style, but I reckon it’d be more accurate to think of them as hipsters who dress fancy instead of like slobs starving artists. So not only is there a history of rich people wearing monocles, but there’s a history of dressing up like rich people with monocles as an element of the costume.

My proposal is this: Even though it’s true that rich capitalists once wore top hats and monocles, when we wear those things to portray rich capitalists, what we’re really doing is drawing upon a tradition that featured those characteristics as part of a flamboyant caricature that serve as a placeholder in the popular imagination. In support I’ll offer The New Yorker’s Eustice Tilley and early 20th century fictional character Psmith, both based on actual rich people but both drawing on dandy fashion, including the monocle.

As I turn back toward the light at the entrance of this rabbit hole, I am as confident as ever in Gilmor’s maxim that someone reading this surely knows more than I, so I welcome and appreciate any insights you can lend. I am also prepared for criticism from fans of Japanese culture who want to tell me the more appropriate term to use instead of Harajuku. 

Explore:

Monocles: 'Ow, do people really wear these?'

Updated