Was the 1920s Monocle Really a Lesbian Symbol?

Lesbians in the interwar period used fashion codes in order to recognise each other and form communities – at least, that’s what it looks like to us, a hundred years later. However, the fashion reality of lesbians in the 1920s and 30s wasn’t quite so black and white. Items such as the monocle seem to exemplify lesbian subcultures from a century ago, an idea which is aided by Brassaï’s photographs from inside Parisian lesbian bar Le Monocle in 1932. But what did the monocle really mean to lesbians, and when and how was it worn? Did lesbians claim it as their own, or was it just an aspect of broader fashion for women in the 1920s? 

Fig. 1: Brassaï. Photograph of lesbians at Le Monocle. Paris, 1932. 

The invention of the monocle is normally credited to a German baron, Philipp von Stosch, who supposedly used it to study antiques in the early eighteenth century. He died in 1757, but by the beginning of the nineteenth century it had travelled across Europe and reached London. It was exclusively popular among the aristocracy. By the 1850s, it was a “comic staple” – a symbol with which to mock dandyism and men who fashioned themselves above their station.1 They were distinctly male. Fashions come and go, however, and by the end of the nineteenth century the monocle was beginning its second life… and this time, it was worn by women. 

In 1898, a cheap London newspaper, The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times, declared that “the single eye-glass is the latest fashion among pretty girls in London.”2 It was the latest fashion, but not yet a particularly wide-spread one. It took a couple more decades to reach its full potential, but we have other anecdotes from its journey. For example, in Marius Hentea’s article ‘Monocles on Modernity,’ he describes how “In 1913, fears that the trend of monocle-wearing at famous all-women’s colleges, Smith and Vassar, would spread, led private girl’s high schools in Washington, D.C., to ban monocles.”3 Monocles were a sign of rebellion for young women in the early twentieth century. Yes, they were also worn by lesbians, but they weren’t the only women using the accessory to rebel. 

Fig. 2: Grun, Girl with Monocle, c. 1890. Montmartre, Paris. Poster. Via postermuseum.com.

The 1920s had a particular fashion climate. Times were changing, modernism was here, British Vogue was run by lesbians and fashionable women wore monocles. Cultural historian Laura Doan’s 1998 article ‘Passing Fashions: Reading Female Masculinities in the 1920s,’ presents an important analysis of masculine fashions for 1920s women. She argues that: “We should be cautious in pinning down the cultural significance of monocles, short hair, and cigarettes to any one effect.”4 Later in the article, she suggests that some of the multiple effects denoted by female monocle-wearing include: “class, Englishness, daring, decay, rebellion, affectation, eccentricity – and possibly, but not necessarily, sexual identity.”5 

Monocles were popular in lesbian communities in the 1920s because fashions that denoted “daring,” “rebellion,” or the reclamation of masculine garments were generally popular attire among lesbians. The class aspect must also be noted. The lesbian communities that we know the most about are those of the wealthy and the titled – women who wrote, or painted, or lived off of inherited family wealth. They were the lesbians who had the means to live without husbands, or with husbands of convenience. They were the lesbians who had their portrait painted or their photograph taken or their writings preserved, and whose clothing we can now analyse. The lesbians of 1920s Parisian sapphic circles, such as Natalie Barney, were rich. At the very least, they were supported by rich friends. The monocle denoted class when worn by gentlemen in the Regency period, and it still denoted class in the 1920s, however fashionable or sapphic its upper-class wearer may be. 

Fig. 3: Romaine Brooks, ‘Una, Lady Troubridge,’ 1924. Oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Artist, americanart.si.edu. 

For these reasons, Una Troubridge – who held the title of ‘Lady’ through marriage, and was the long-term lover of author Radclyffe Hall – was at the height of ‘20s fashion when she claimed the monocle as a wardrobe staple. In multiple photographs she is pictured wearing one, and once again in the above painting by Romaine Brooks (another member of the sapphic 1920s Parisian community) from 1925. This painting is probably the most famous portrait of Una, other than perhaps certain photographs of her with Radclyffe Hall. It represents her to a modern audience, and with the monocle, high collar, blazer and short haircut, the image seems undoubtedly lesbian. But, as Doan argues, “When Troubridge arrived for the sitting in her “get-up,” […] she was displaying the very latest fashion trend.”6 She was modern and wealthy. While the monocle was an aspect of her lesbian fashion sense, it was not a bold declaration of her lesbianism to all who perceived her, as much as it looked that way to a later audience. 

That later audience did not wait long to develop. Meaning, fashions moved on, but preferred lesbian styles of dress stayed the same. By around 1927, women’s fashions began changing. Trousers were becoming more common as casual women’s clothing (where they’d been mostly absent after their popularity with land-working women during the First World War), but other masculine fashions waned. While the 1920s was the domain of the “Modern Girl” and boyish, straight-up-and-down silhouettes, the 1930s leaned into celebrations of feminine glamour. 

One of the reasons why masculine fashions became less popular was that they did begin to be acknowledged as signifying lesbianism. Of course, lesbians were just as likely to wear dresses and heels, but because of the publication of Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928 (and its subsequent banning) a certain kind of lesbian fashion became, suddenly, visible to the public. Part of this visibility was because of the UK banning of the book and legal challenges against it in the US; more attention was drawn to the novel via its scandalous context. The protagonist, Stephen Gordon (a lesbian, or “invert”), wears masculine clothing throughout the novel. This is described by other characters as “queer or unnatural,” as well as inherently linked to her lesbianism.7 It wasn’t long after The Well of Loneliness’ publication that lesbian fashion assumed a visibility that it had not possessed before. 

Fig. 4: Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge at a party given by the publishers Heinemann. November 1935. Via Mary Evans Picture Library.

Monocles were worn by lesbians in the 1920s, but also by plenty of other women. In the 1930s, this was not so much the case. Of course, fashions always linger – if people had previously been fans of the monocle, it made sense for them to continue wearing it even if it was no longer the fashion du jour. Plus, it was still thriving in lesbian circles, but only specific, upper-class lesbian circles, such as in the salons and clubs of Paris. Sylvia Beach, a lesbian and the founder of the infamous Shakespeare and Company, wrote about the dress code of the lesbian parties hosted by Natalie Barney. The biographer of both women, Diana Souhami, describes how “High collars and monocles, though not de rigueur, were clues. So was brilliantined short hair, a white carnation or sprig of violets pinned to a jacket lapel, a ring on a pinkie finger.”8

At bars, too, monocles were worn by lesbians in the 1930s. Le Monocle is an obvious example, and a photograph from inside the bar in 1932 introduced this article. Fashion historian Katrina Rolley, in her research into lesbian fashion in the interwar period, interviewed lesbians about their experiences of this time. There was a stark contrast in responses when it came to monocles. Ceri, who came from a wealthy family, “said that “if you could manage a monocle, that was very popular.”” Another of Rolley’s interviewees, Eleanor, was not upper class, and “when asked whether lesbians wore monocles Eleanor replied “Oh no – no, I don’t think so. They were very expensive, I expect.””9 Monocles were clearly not a universal symbol of lesbianism, even in the 1930s when they were no longer in the popular fashion vernacular. Instead, they were was a symbol of a certain kind of class-affiliated lesbian community. 

This may seem like a long article just to answer the question “was the 1920s monocle really a lesbian symbol?” with “no,” but the story of the lesbian monocle is far more complex than a yes or no answer. Lesbians did wear monocles, but in the hierarchy of the monocle’s meanings, class always ranks higher than sexuality. Of course, working- or middle-class lesbians are not forbidden from wearing monocles, and if anyone wants to start wearing one then I encourage you – it’s camp, after all. Fashionable women reclaimed it from aristocratic gentlemen at the turn of the twentieth century, and lesbians reclaimed it from fashionable heterosexual women at the end of the 1920s, and it can be reclaimed again. Our fashions are what we make them. 

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Endnotes

1: Austin Grossman, ‘Monocles Were Never Cool,’ 13th Oct. 2019, The Atlantic.

2: The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated News, quoted in Marius Hentea, ‘Monocles on Modernity,’ Modernism/Modernity 20.2 (2013): 228

3: Hentea, ‘Monocles on Modernity,’ 228.

4: Laura Doan, ‘Passing Fashions: Reading Female Masculinities in the 1920s,’ Feminist Studies 24.3 (1998): 664.

5: Doan, ‘Passing Fashions,’ 681. 

6: Doan, ‘Passing Fashions,’ 688.

7: Katrina Rolley, ‘The lesbian dandy: the role of dress and appearance in the construction of lesbian identities, Britain 1918-39,’ Masters Thesis, Middlesex University Research Repository (Middlesex University: 1995), 128.

8: Diana Souhami, No Modernism Without Lesbians, (London: Head of Zeus, 2020) 251. 

9: Rolley, ‘The lesbian dandy,’ 144.

3 thoughts on “Was the 1920s Monocle Really a Lesbian Symbol?

  1. Please can you write about the origins or meaning of the sailor style seen in the early 20th century? I’m struggling to find anything about it but I’m curious, pardon the pun.

    Like

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