For as long as it’s existed, the Hollywood community has had a close relationship with fads and trends. While some have transcended the fad label and become the norm (bicycling, tanning, women wearing pants) and some have only seen popularity within certain wealth brackets (yachting, gold leaf adorned toenails), there are others that are just so bizarre or comical that it makes reminiscing fun. Often what makes them such is the press and public’s response to them.
One of my favorites in this last category is the monocle.
While I get that its original creation and use was to improve vision when sight was weaker in one eye, there’s just something that I find unexplainably yet inescapably funny about a glass circle perched on someone’s face. The monocle today also comes with very specifically cultivated stereotypes.
Though it was developed years before, the monocle really began to be popular in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. It was primarily associated with upper class English and German men, members of politics, the military, the aristocracy, and the like. It was essential that a person who wore a monocle be well-dressed. “A monocle and baggy trousers are an impossible combination,” asserted a 1916 article in the Oakland Tribune. However, since it was associated with a high station in life, it also saw some popularity with people in lower professions and classes who wanted to affect a more cultured or wealthy image.
The trend began in London and hit Hollywood around the late 1910s and early 20s. Not bucking tradition, it primarily became associated with posh English actors and wealthy middle aged men in the business who wanted to affect a certain air (though some would claim that they really just needed them to see). Directors especially gravitated towards this trend, perhaps because it gave the wearer a sort of authoritative and distinguished air, desirable for that particular position. Among the Hollywood set who regularly sported the monocle were actors George Arliss and Charles Coburn and directors Erich von Stroheim and Fritz Lang.
Coburn, monocle adorned since the 1920s, was not keen to see this trend end. In fact, he was hoping it would catch on with women and expressed his views in a 1950 article for the Democrat and Chronicle, which I find borders on comic genius. Coburn, apparently fed up with what were the current trends in women’s fashion: mink pants (Coburn railed against “blaspheming the immortal trouser”), green nail polish (“nauseating”), and French bathing suits (“flashing before the naked eye the curves they either have too much of or lack completely” – you’re one to talk, Chuck!), offered the monocle as a much more “timid and sensible” alternative.
“And the humorist who said ‘Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses’ is, according to Coburn, only half right.” – The Democrat and Chronicle.
Women did dip their toe into the trend (notably actresses Benita Hume and Lillian Bond) in the 1920s and 30s, but it never became as popular with them as it did with men. One woman, however, would make it her trademark.
English actress and dancer Heather Thatcher was described in multiple newspapers as the woman who initiated the trend for women in the 1920s. Her trademark look would in some ways eclipse her actual career. The Nashville Banner perhaps summed up her image best in their description of Thatcher as “an English actress whose chief claim to fame in America is the fact that she wears a monocle.” Though she did not always wear the monocle onscreen so as not to typecast herself, her upper class offscreen look may have done the job anyway. About a fourth of the characters she played in films had the title of “Lady” preceding the name.
She came to Hollywood in 1931 and the press couldn’t get enough of her look. Even though she had been associated with it since the early 1920s, the press continued to express a measure of shock or confusion each time they reported on Heather and her monocle, well into the late 1930s. Though it was noted as a fad, the public and press could never quite see the monocle as anything but bizarre, eccentric, and comical. It was too “other” to ever truly be “in.”
“Opponent’s Monocle Baffles Ping-Ponger”
Heather and her monocle were still making headlines in 1939 when she beat Coleman Clark in a ping-pong match at host Basil Rathbone’s party at the Cocoanut Grove. The monocle was given as much credit for Clark’s loss as Thatcher’s athletic prowess. “Confronted with the serve and monocle he lost the game,” it stated.
Some other awesome monocled centered headlines are as follows:
“Football Player Objects to Actor’s Monocle.”
“Monocle Break Out in England Like a Rash.”
and my favorite:
“Invasion Boat Gets Unusual Crew with Monocle-Sporting Seamen.”
The monocle disappeared almost completely from everyday wear after the 1950s, but it still remains a symbol of wealth and panache. While it never picked up or endured the way women’s pants did, the monocle was a fun blip of a fad that, at the very least, provides quite a chuckle in hindsight.
“Robert Montgomery Seen in Comedy ‘But the Flesh is Weak,’ Loew’s Film.” Nashville Banner (Nashville, Tennessee) 26 June, 1932 Page 22
“Coburn Asks New Fad – Monocles.” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York) · Sun, Mar 26, 1950 · Page 74
Bartlett, Maxine. “Opponent’s Monocle Baffles Ping-Ponger.” The Los Angeles Times, 4 June 1939, p. 62.
Featured image: “Jolly, What?” The San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) · Sat, Oct 10, 1931 · Page 13; “Film Actress Back Wearing Monocle.” The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · Thu, Oct 8, 1931 · Page 23; and “I Say, Old Chap!” The San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) · Wed, Apr 11, 1923 · Page 15