originally published June 15, 2012
Of all facial accessories, from 80s-style Rayban Wayfarers to bovine-ish septum piercings, without a doubt the one which most cranks my giddy-nerve is the monocle. You can’t look trashy in a monocle. People assume you’ve achieved something in life if you’re sporting a monocle. Either that or they assume you are yet another hipster douche, broadcasting nonconformity like there’s some sort of anti-mainstream prize to be won.
A monocle tells people you aren’t afraid to have medical supplies affixed to your clothing with a piece of string. It announces to the world that you are well-traveled, well-versed in multiple-fork dining situations, and at some point in the recent past you have likely shot skeet.
A monocle tells the world you are somebody.
You don’t see too many bemonocled people these days, mostly because advances in contact lens and glasses technology allow for varying strengths of lenses between the two eyes. Also because no popular reality-show celebrity has boldly come out as pro-monocle, changing the face of eyewear for the masses.
“But Marty,” I hear you saying, probably because I haven’t taken my medication today and without it the voices won’t stop, “you have to squint to keep a monocle in place! Who has the energy to maintain that much cheek control?” Actually, that isn’t necessarily true.
Early monocles were just glass with a wire frame. You’d jam it into your eye cavity, and if you purchased the right size it would stay relatively put. In the 1890s, as the upper class Brits yearned for this accessory to truly help them stand out physically from the lesser classes, new technology was put in place, notably the gallery.
A gallery refers to a ridge-like extension on the wire frame that hugs the eye orbit area a little better, and keeps the monocle away from fluttering lashes. If you travel in the right circles you can even hook up with a ‘sprung gallery’ monocle, which has a wire gallery on a spring system, for more secure facial adhesion.
A good monocle is not uncomfortable, and won’t fly off your face the moment you smile. Wealthy people had them custom-made, which means that at some point in their lives, rich monocle-wearers probably told someone that they couldn’t make an appointment on a certain day because they had to attend a monocle fitting. That’s the excuse I’m going to use next time I get invited to a friend’s child’s dance recital.
It’s important to distinguish between a monocle and a quizzing glass; the latter is used by art experts and antique collectors to inspect miniscule details within their profession. It’s a single glass lens with a small handle, not something that you wear. Because of this, it may help you to look studious, but it won’t give you that air of insufferable pretentiousness that you may be looking to integrate into your style.
The monocle in its heyday was usually associated with upper class men. In the early 20th century, monocles became a popular fashion accessory within the lesbian community. I’m actually not making this up; German reporter Sylvia von Harden, English poet/author Radclyffe Hall and British sculptor Una Lady Troubridge had all rocked the monocle. In fact, the phrase “rocking the monocle” would have been a good low-whisper euphemism for homosexuality, had someone thought of it at the time. “Did you ask Charlotte to the dance?” “No, she’s already going with Belinda.” “Ah, she’s rocking the monocle. I understand.”
So who else has decided upon the monocle as part of their everyday wear? A number of famous people over the past century have opted to keep but one eye au naturel.
This is Fritz Lang. If you haven’t seen one of his films (Metropolis, M, Dr. Mabuse, Scarlet Street, The Big Heat), then you are missing some of the greatest dark cinema of the last 100 years. The monocle persisted as a German symbol of high society, showing up not only pressed to the faces of notable German celebrities like Lang and fellow filmmaker Erich von Stroheim, but also among top German military brass throughout the two World Wars, such as Erich Ludendorff, Hans von Seeckt, and of course Oberst Wilhelm Klink.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the man who founded the nation of Pakistan, also wore a monocle. So did Karl Marx. Other notable thinkers and politicians who opted for a onesie include British member of Parliament Joseph Chamberlain, Portuguese president Antonio de Spinola, and Count von Count, aristocratic representative within the royal court of Sesame Street.
Oh, and don’t forget about British diplomat and one-time ambassador to Ireland (around the time that it was somewhat dangerous to be a British diplomat in Ireland; he was assassinated by the IRA) Christopher Ewart-Biggs. Ewart-Biggs wore his monocle over a non-existent eye. He had a glass right eye, and opted to disguise it with a smoked-glass monocle. The resulting effect is somewhat…unsettling.
Actor George Arliss, who won the third ever Best Actor Oscar for portraying Benjamin Disraeli, sported a monocle. Richard Tauber, an Austrian tenor, wore a monocle to cover up a natural squint in one eye. Barnett Newman, a German expressionist painter who actually got paid to create artwork like this:
…also wore a monocle. He wore it mostly to get a closer look at artworks. You can see by his style that he was a real stickler for meticulous detail.
American singer Gene Chandler is listed among Wikipedia’s famous monocle wearers (that’s actually a category on the site), but the only evidence I can find of this is as a result of temporarily adopting the image of his biggest hit song, “Duke of Earl”.
I don’t trust this category listing. It features Lang, Tauber, and Ewart-Biggs, but also a few women that I’m not convinced were monoclizers. Gail O’Hara worked for a magazine named Monocle, Clarissa Eden knew someone with a monocle, and Regina Lynn has the word ‘monocle’ in the bibliography of her article, but I doubt the sex-tech expert wears one. G.E.M. Anscombe, the female British analytic philosopher who coined the term ‘consequentialism’, did wear one though.
Of course I can’t write about monocles without mentioning Monopoly’s Rich Uncle Milburn Pennybags, Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot (a.k.a. The Penguin), and that icon of fashion and funktabulous flavor, Mr. Peanut.
I think wearing a monocle is somewhat beyond my reach. I know where I stand in the fashion world (typically at a rack, not a runway), and I won’t overstep my middle-class bounds just to make a statement. In this post-ironic, post-9/11, post-Falcon Crest world, a monocle just doesn’t suit me.
I would, however, be quite taken by a photo of someone wearing a monocle, sporting a unitard and riding a unicycle. Photo submissions are welcome.