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To design the cover of The New Yorker's inaugural issue, Rea Irvin turned to the standardbearer of Edwardian knowledge, the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, for a portrait of Gédéon-Gaspard-Alfred de Grimaud, comte d'Orsay et du Saint-Empire, a dandy who had conquered London society in the 1820s and was close friends with Lord Byron. While one might imagine that the New Yorker wished to convey this mondaine literary association, Irvin, who added a monocle to the original portrait, was more interested in the Comte d'Orsay's status as "un roi de la mode."1 For when that first New Yorker hit the stands on 21 February 1925, fashion was one of the ruling passions of transatlantic society, dissected in the popular press, made global through cinema, and psychoanalysed by Freud's disciples. Irvin's cover—a sexually ambiguous dandy (who became a woman for the 1996 anniversary issue) in a top hat examining a butterfly through a monocle held at arm's length—has become one of modernism's emblems, depicting stylishness and beauty, nature and industry, the gaze and the ephemeral, the European cultural past pitched against American modernity, the snobbishness of the dandy and the mass appeal of a fifteen-cent magazine.2 In a curious twist of modernist art mixing with life, Irvin's dandy— christened "Eustace Tilley" several months later—came to be listed in the telephone directory.3

The monocle is more than a curious item from an American "magazine of sophistication." While monocles existed from the early 1800s and were worn by Napoleon and Beethoven, Marx and Bismarck (and ridiculed in Little Dorritt when Barnaby's monocle keeps falling into his soup), the modernist period abounded in them. Famous modernist monocle wearers spanned [End Page 213] fields and countries: there were authors (W.H. Auden, André Breton, Mikhail Bulgakov, G.K. Chesterton, Joseph Conrad, Janet Flanner, Radclyffe Hall, Richard Huelsenbeck, Eça de Querioz, Henri de Régnier, Joseph Roth, Tristan Tzara, Jacques Vaché, and W.B. Yeats), publishers (Grant Richards), film-makers (Fritz Lang and Erich von Stronheim), impressarios (Diaghilev), philosophers (G.E.M. Anscombe), and visual artists (Raoul Hausmann, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Gino Severini). Even forty years after Zurich and Paris Dada, Tristan Tzara's monocle was mythic: in 1961 Matthew Josephson implored Tzara to send a photograph of his younger monocled self.4 Public figures wearing monocles included Joseph Chamberlain, "famous the world over for two things—his orchids and his monocle," and his son Austen, but also Quentin Lumsden, the publicity officer for the British Scrap Federation, an updated guild for rag-and-bone men.5 Because of American sensibilities, Woodrow Wilson wore spectacles in public but a monocle in private.6 In popular culture, the monocle was used by music-hall performers and actors (Ralph Lynn, Heather Thatcher, Vest Tilley) and named horses ("Oh for a Monocle"). Outside the ring, boxers Jack Dempsey and Desmond Jeans sported monocles, which were also the accessory of choice for con men who sought to pass themselves off as aristocrats. A German firm providing stylish men for "small suburban parties for a reasonable fee" had available for hire "dancing men with monocle" (price 3 to 10 marks).7 Even Mr. Peanut, who was launched in the 1920s, had one—after all, Babe Ruth, the idol of millions of American boys, had been photographed with a monocle on a night out. The gossip columnist for London's Illustrated Sunday Herald in 1914 was named "Monocle," and the interwar Evening Standard ran the column "Monocle Monologues." Less amusingly, while Hindenberg swore in the doomed "Monocle Cabinet" in 1932 (so named because it was full of elderly aristocrats), several years later in Nazi Berlin the "spy monocle" became a brisk seller: this slip of glass let a person see what was happening behind his or her back.8 In fiction, monocles were used by some of the period's greatest detectives, Lord Peter Wimsey and Arsène Lupin, and the house of fiction's monocle wearers also includes Captain John Good, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Bertie Wooster, and a whole host of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6601
Print ISSN
1071-6068
Pages
pp. 213-237
Launched on MUSE
2013-06-27
Open Access
No
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