Although antique glasses have been around since the 13th century, they were predominantly reserved for men in the earliest years. Few women could read at that time, and there was little need to have vision correction. Glasses were also extremely expensive in those early years, further limiting their use to the wealthy and those who especially needed them.
The rarity of glasses contributed to them being seen as extremely fashionable for women, and even as their use became more widespread in the 18th century, women tried to avoid them in public.
This changed with the lorgnette. First introduced in the late 1700s, the early lorgnette was simply two magnifying lenses secured in a frame, maybe with a handle. When the reader wanted a closer look at something, they would hold the lorgnette up to their eyes. Although used by both men and women throughout its history, lorgnettes quickly became a popular accessory for women, in part because of their scandalous connotations, before their combination of fashion and function revolutionized the world of women’s eyewear.
Controversial History of the Early Lorgnette
Because the lorgnette used only magnifying glass and could not provide any customized vision correction since there was no way to set the pupillary distance, it could never suffice as a pair of spectacles and was destined from the beginning to take on the role of a fashion accessory.
The name in French approximates to “to look at furtively” or “to ogle,” and this was likely the start of the lorgnette’s more scandalous early history, as was the fact that the lorgnette quickly became an accessory associated with women.
Women in the 1700s embraced the lorgnette as it gave them some improved vision when reading, a necessity now that many upper class women were now literate, without the need to wear unattractive spectacles. But the lorgnette also quickly became a means on which to observe companions, competitors, and potential spouses at parties and the theater.
Early innovations with the lorgnette made this vintage eyewear particularly suited for spying purposes. The early jealousy lorgnette, for instance, had a mirror on the inside of the lens to enable the wearer to look behind her without turning their head. In reality, this was a social necessity. Turning to look at a newcomer in a room could be considered rude. But the mirror cemented the lorgnette’s reputation as a tool for spying surreptitiously.
Next came the fan lorgnette, potentially invented by Marie Antoinette, in which the lorgnette lens was embedded into a spoke of a fan. This enabled the lady to minimize the accessories she needed to carry, but also to spy more discreetly from behind her fan. Accusations abounded, likely not all untruthful, that women were using lorgnettes and fans to flirt endlessly, and that they had started putting lorgnettes into all manner of clothing, including the eyelets in lace.
The controversy had the effect of pushing lorgnettes into even greater popularity and making them the height of fashion for wealthy and middle class young women.
Transition from Controversy into Fashion Accessory
Suspicions about lorgnettes and their use in spying and flirting eventually died down as they became commonplace and their wearers expanded to include women of all ages.
By the early 1800s, fan lorgnettes had gone away, but there was now the option for lorgnettes with jointed handles. Some had lenses that would fold together and slide into the handle for easy storage. At this point, women would wear them on a chain attached to a brooch or around their neck to keep the lorgnette readily available.
Vintage frames and handles were crafted from several different materials and often artistically decorated with a combination of:
- Tortoise Shell
- Mother of Pearl Inlays
Although significantly different from vintage spectacles meant for vision correction, the early lorgnettes offered the first opportunity for women to have attractive eyewear and cemented vintage eyewear’s possibility as a fashion statement.
Lorgnettes were eventually replaced by opera glasses by the end of the 1800s and relegated to use solely in the theater. Meanwhile, the pince nez, which had a very similar look but could be used for vision correction, became a popular eyewear style for women. Then later eyeglass frames in the early 1900s began to become fashionably acceptable for women to wear.
But it was not until the 1940s when glasses manufacturers once again made eyewear into an accessory with vintage cat eye glasses, making them with all different materials, colors, and decoration that glasses would become as popular for women as the lorgnette.