Eustace Tilley, the dandyish mascot of The New Yorker, telegraphs his estimable class status with a number of chic-yet-dignified sartorial choices, a top hat and topcoat among them.* But the accessory that most efficiently communicates Mr. Tilley’s caste is his monocle: a single, bespoke lens secured round his neck by a fine string and held aloft before his discerning eye. By the time Tilley graced The New Yorker’s inaugural cover in 1925, the image of the bemonocled man-about-town had already become a thing of caricature. How did the monocle become a symbol of wealth?
It was a symbol of wealth from the start. The standard monocle is essentially a small magnifying glass without a handle (though early versions generally had one). The monocle can be helpful in reading small print and before the advent of modern refractive-error testing it was thought to be capable of correcting myopia, but sporting one as a general part of one’s attire was always something of a fashionable affectation. Like the lorgnette, spyglass, and, a direct ancestor, the quizzing glass, the monocle basically originated as a faddish accessory of those with the cash and the inclination to purchase such things. It was most popular with the moneyed classes in Europe in the 1820s and ’30s, and experienced a revival in the 1890s.
Though the exact origins of the monocle are unclear, fashion historian Richard Corson sets their general appearance around the turn of the 19th century in Great Britain, with quick adoption and further development in Germany. According to a 1950 article from Optical Journal, from the beginning the single lens carried with it “an air of conscious elegance,” making it ripe for ridicule: “[O]ne had the feeling the wearer was being a trifle foolish, an attitude which resulted to some extent from the fact that monocles frequently did not fit and kept dropping out of place.”
Indeed, the impractical design of monocles ensured their status as a luxurious object. In order to avoid muscle strain, the frame of the monocle—which may be made of gold, silver, tortoise shell, and other materials—must be custom-fitted to the wearer’s eye, an expensive proposition. Additional support may come from a “gallery,” a raised edge that helps keep the lens away from the wearer’s eyelashes and more firmly ensconced in the eye orbit. Due to their sensitivity to gravity, monocles are almost always attached to a chain or string.
The association of monocles with a stereotype of the rich, especially with the rich and pretentious, began at least as early as Charles Dickens’ skewering of young Mr. Barnacle’s intractable eyepiece in Little Dorrit, serialized between 1855 and 1857. In America, the image was largely popularized by E.A. Sothern’s portrayal of the silly English nobleman Lord Dundreary in Our American Cousin, first performed in 1858.
Still, there’s traditionally been at least some demand for the eyepiece among the less-moneyed. Mass-produced monocles of inferior quality were available throughout the 1800s and worn by men—and occasionally women—of more modest means. Currently, a monocle in “whisky tortoise” can be had from the eye-dresser Warby Parker for $50.
Correction, Dec. 28, 2012: The article originally misspelled Eustace Tilley's name. (Return.)