From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The monocle was broadcast on 13th November 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
The monocle is a perfect example of how a design failure needn’t hamper success. It sounded sensible enough. If the sight in one eye is weaker than the other then of course it’s logical to improve things using a single lens. Optical lenses had been made since medieval times and by the eighteenth century the most popular was one with a springy metal frame that would cling to the nose – the pince nez, or pinch nose. A single lens with a handle of varying length known as a quizzing stick had also become fashionable in the 1700s. The monocle took the less-is-more route, doing away with the handle and sometimes even the frame. Even better, it was hands-free, held in place using only the muscles that surround the eye. The fact that few people’s sight was ever truly improved by wearing one was almost irrelevant.
When lens makers in Vienna and elsewhere introduced the monocle in the late 1700s, they were pounced upon as an item of fashion. Young military officers in particular adored them, believing they added as much dash as a swagger stick or elegant riding boots. The lens was sometimes framed in a simple hoop of gold with an eyelet through which a flat silk ribbon was threaded, the other end attached to a waistcoat button. If the monocle fell from the eye, it simply dangled. This produced a pantomime quality, where a young man could fix the monocle to his eye to show that he was focussing on something in particular, and if he was surprised by what he saw then the monocle would fall from the eye, released by the upward motion of his eyebrows. As these young men with their fashionable eye pieces grew older, it gave rise to the cliché of the crotchety old colonel, full of bluster, the monocle highlighting his outrage.
The monocle remained almost exclusively male throughout the nineteenth century and was often used as a means of looking older and wiser, just as some today wear thick-framed spectacles to hint at well-concealed depths. But as the New York Times wrote in 1888, they were ‘invented by a fool to diminish the visual capacity of an idiot’. They were, it added, ‘the sign of a weak head, not a weak eye.’
Their popularity in the German military meant they fell from favour in other European countries following the First World War. That same quality made them the perfect accessory worn by baddies in films later in the century. They were briefly popular again in the 1920s, especially with lesbians, who wore them to highlight their non-conformism in the same way they would wear a man’s dinner jacket. The portrait of the monocle-wearing, cigarette-smoking journalist, Sylvia von Harden painted by Otto Dix in 1926 is a particular glory.
Reclaimed or reinvented, the monocle has always been an affectation, virtually useless in its stated purpose but wildly successful in making a statement.