Have you ever found yourself considering getting glasses, but thinking that two lenses are just too much? Try a monocle! Or, so the New York Times suggests in its latest Style trendpiece. Rappers are wearing them. Hipsters in global cultural centers are sporting single eyepieces. Chefs are using them to read recipes while cooking. So why aren’t you?
As usual, the Times article is loaded with irony. The monocle is only the latest in a long line of faux-retro hipster appropriations, from ‘50s clothing to old-fashioned barber shops and handlebar mustaches. They’re all stylistic affectations that fulfill little real functionality. But do some digging and you’ll find that historically, the monocle has always had an ironic purpose.
Monocles are single circular glass lenses held in wire frames, attached to thin chains that can be looped around a wrist or in a pocket. The user squints to hold the lens in place and focus on their target (never mind the lack of depth perception). The device is actually descended from the quizzing glass or “quizzer,” a lens connected to a metal handle that was a favorite of 18th-century dandies.
Dandies were the equivalent of today’s hipsters—men who placed particular importance on their fashionable appearance, elevating aesthetics to a “living religion,” as the French poet and dandy Baudelaire wrote. The quizzing glass subsequently became a byword for a certain kind of sarcastic joke—“quizzing” was, according to a 1865 dictionary, “the act of mocking by a narrow examination through a quizzing-glass or by pretended seriousness of discourse.” If you wanted to call someone out on their own biliousness, you might glare at them through your monocle.
“Pretended seriousness of discourse” pretty much defines the Times’ own attitude toward its Style section, so the monocle is certainly a good fit. And as long as there are hipsters who seek to differentiate themselves through uniform stylistic quirks, monocles will always have a place in our culture.