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Journal 15: A Look at the Lorgnette

How many of us, when we think about the opera, picture fancy people holding a pair of spectacles to their face whilst looking out onto the stage? Just me? Well, I’m going to assume I’m not the only one, not least because, as opera began to gain in popularity in Europe between the 19th and 20th centuries, so too did the spectacles that so often accompanied opera’s high-society attendees. These spectacles, known as Lorgnettes, were ground breaking in many ways. And they may just be coming back in fashion... 

For this week’s journal article, we thought we’d explore the history behind the Lorgnette, and the impact these spectacles had on the evolution of eyewear.  

The history books suggest that the very first lorgnettes were invented by an Englishman called George Adams Jr., in around 1780. He was the official mathematical instrument maker to King George III (incidentally, so was his dad before he took the job on). Adams Jnr was of the opinion that lorgnettes offered a substitute for spectacles, allowing both eyes to be used at once ‘without any effort’.  

[an extract from George Adams Jnr book 'An essay on vision, briefly explaining the fabric of the eye, and the nature of vision' image courtesy University Bristol Library]

The first lorgnette was made with two large, round lenses, and a long, stiff handle on one side. As the frames took off in popularity, so too did adaptations to their original design and the materials they were made from.

[Adams-style lorgnette LORGNETTES, image credit Royal College of Optometrists]  

This popularity was in large part down to women. Before the lorgnette, it was considered inappropriate for women to be seen wearing spectacles. It sounds absurd now, but at the time spectacle-wearing women were considered unattractive, and the sheer act itself was deemed improper.  

This changed with the lorgnette. And this was because, whilst lorgnettes had their utility in allowing their wearers to see better, these spectacles were also considered a fashion item. In fact, lorgnettes were seen as a fashion accessory more than a vision enhancer, and for the first time it became extremely popular for women to carry a pair of spectacles in public, thus breaking the taboo. If you had any style or distinction, you had a lorgnette. Not just this, but the lorgnette became the spectacles of choice for operagoers of the 19th and 20th centuries (in fact, in some instances people still take a version of a lorgnette to the opera today!).  

The speed with which the lorgnette was adopted by high society can also be attributed to its many different designs, most notably and importantly for people attending the opera, a lorgnette designed to allow its wearers to peep at other attendees in a discreet and subtle manner. In other words, the lorgnette facilitated the act of secret staring.  

The lorgnette that offered the most efficient design for discreet peeping, was a fan lorgnette. The fan lorgnette was exactly this – a handheld fan that hid the lorgnette in between the lace (or other material) that made up the fan. One of the lenses in the fan would actually be an oblique mirror, which allowed its users to see what was going on behind them without ever having to turn their head. It was an incredible invention, and indeed an accessory in politeness, as it was considered impolite to turn one’s head to see who was walking into the theatre. 


[Image of a fan lorgnette, image credit Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art]

As time went on, the lorgnette went through many iterations. A hinge was added to the lorgnette which allowed its wearers to move the lenses towards the handle, making them more efficient to carry round. Later on, a spring lorngette was created, which meant wearers would press a button on the side of the handle, and the lenses would pop out, one after the other, from within the handle. As a result, the handle served as a case for the lenses when the contraption closed. These handles/cases sported intricate designs and patterns, with precious stones and expensive materials like mother of pearl, tortoise shell and ivory used in the production of the most fashionable and expensive versions. 

Though the lorgnette was extremely popular over this period, other spectacle designs were developing rapidly, including ones with temple arms and bridges that pinched one’s nose in order to stay put (this particular style was called a ‘pince-nez’, for more on pince-nez, have a look at one of Jack's videos below), and the result was that the lorgnette faded from fashion’s centrefold. But not forever – in the 1950s the lorgnette staged a revival, with notable lorgnette-wearing actresses bringing them back into the spotlight. The designs had progressed, and now you could find lorgnettes fashioned as brooches or clasps. Smaller, but just as classy. 

 Today, you may think lorgnettes are lost to a bygone era, but you would be wrong. Jack has designed Mosevic’s first ever lorgnette.

Made from hardened denim, which is the same material we use to make our handcrafted denim sunglasses, this lorgnette truly embraces Valentines Day. With distinct ruby-red heart shaped lenses fixed to a love heart denim frame, and a denim bow and arrow with gold coloured brass to form the handle, this lorgnette is a modern take on a historic love story between lorgnettes and their wearers. The lenses fold into each other and then into the handle, making them the perfect modern-day accessory no one is expecting. Of course, as this is the very first prototype of a Mosevic lorgnette, it has it's flaws, but Jack intends to make a second iteration. I think it's safe to say that lorgnettes may be having another revival. Watch this space. 

 Until next week-ish. 


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