Le Monocle

Romaine Brooks, Una, Lady Troubridge. Oil on canvas, 1924. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1966.49.6.
Romaine Brooks, Una, Lady Troubridge. Oil on canvas, 1924. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1966.49.6.

 

Most of us have one of those friends—dramatic and a little odd, with questionable aesthetic taste. Maybe they dye their hair orange or dress like Bellatrix Lestrange, or wear sandals with argyle socks in the dead of winter. But most of us also wouldn’t change that person the least bit because they are fabulous.

For expatriate American painter Romaine Brooks, Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge, was that person. In the midst of painting this portrait, Brooks wrote to her lover, the writer Natalie Barney: “Una is funny to paint. Her get-up is remarkable. She will live perhaps and cause future generations to smile.”

Brooks was independently wealthy and could paint whomever she chose, which usually meant women from Barney’s regular literary salons in Paris. Truman Capote described these gatherings as “the all-time ultimate gallery of all the famous dykes from 1880 to 1935 or thereabouts,” so Brooks had no shortage of subject matter. Usually her women are self-possessed, stylish, graceful, and androgynous, as in her portrait of artist Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein), titled Peter (A Young English Girl). BEST TITLE EVER.

Romaine Brooks, Peter (A Young English Girl). Oil on canvas, 1923-24. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1970.70.
Romaine Brooks, Peter (A Young English Girl). Oil on canvas, 1923-24. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1970.70.

Una was all these things, with a dash of ridiculous. Mostly this is due to the glaringly retro monocle and the pair of dachshunds atop the table in front of her. However, there are express reasons for their presence. Troubridge was not alone in her love of men’s clothing. Fashionable lesbians in interwar Paris and London had begun donning suit jackets, pants, and cravats, each one challenging accepted notions of how women should look and be (Brooks herself had spurred the breakup of her own marriage by refusing her husband’s demand that she wear women’s clothing in public). To the average person on the street, a woman in menswear would look eccentric, but might not be immediately assumed gay. To other women who liked women, however, it would be obvious.

The same goes for the monocle. Le Monocle was the name of a popular Parisian lesbian bar, and sporting a monocle oneself was pretty much a dead giveaway. Other gay European women at the time, like German writer Sylvia von Harden, were depicted wearing them. However, it remains that most people—male or female, queer or not—still would have found it eccentric (I mean, it’s a monocle). The photographer Brassaï frequented the club, and none of the women in his pictures are actually wearing monocles.

Brassaï, Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932. Gelatin silver print, 1932. Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Anselm Talalay in honor of Evan Turner, 1992.97.
Brassaï, Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932. Gelatin silver print, 1932. Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Anselm Talalay in honor of Evan Turner, 1992.97.

Most of the suit-wearing women at the Monocle, who today might identify as butch, seem to have embraced a modern style. The tailored suits, Windsor knots, and pocket squares they favored were popularized in the interwar period by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor. While there may be a Frenchman with similar fashion icon status, I’m not familiar with him.). Some of Brooks’ milieu, though, took things in a more…artistic direction, hearkening back to early Victorian dandies like Beau Brummel. This is where Una’s high collar and neck scarf come from (Is anyone else thinking of Mr. Darcy?). It’s easy to imagine the dandy’s appeal to women like Troubridge and Brooks. He was stylish and independent, and his attention to fashion and beauty rendered him vaguely androgynous in the public eye. Brooks ran in a fashionable crowd that had no shortage of vaguely androgynous modern dandies, male as well as female, and for a few weeks was even engaged to one: Lord Alfred Douglas, a.k.a. Oscar Wilde’s boyfriend (OMG).

Romaine Brooks, Self-Portrait. Oil on canvas, 1932. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1966.49.1.
Romaine Brooks, Self-Portrait. Oil on canvas, 1932. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1966.49.1.

I feel like Brooks is judging me here a bit, don’t you? The shadow over her eyes is usually interpreted as a reference to her semi-masked sexuality, but I feel it also cements her position as an observer: the critic rather than the criticized. Brooks plays it a cooler than Troubridge, with a top hat as her only nod to Victorian fashion. Top hats were thoroughly out of style in the 1930s unless you were the Earl of Grantham, a posh banker, or a Hollywood showman. Or a lady on horseback. In this sense, Brooks’ style is athletic as well as dandyish. And despite her waxy sheen and deep black overcoat, it’s also a bit risqué. Her lips are a coral slash across a sea of gray, and not even Marlene Dietrich unbuttoned her shirt that far when she wore men’s clothing.

Troubridge, a sculptor and literary translator, was the most fabulous of all the women to meet Brooks’ critical eye. And I’ll add that she sure does meet it. The monocle perched beside her nose suggests careful study, and (literally and figuratively) it magnifies her arched brows and appraising stare. No, my sausage dogs are not silly, she seems to say. In fact, they were rather magnificent, as dachshunds go. These two were a prize-winning pair given to her by her longtime partner, the novelist Radclyffe Hall. Troubridge loved Hall dearly, and the dogs’ presence in the portrait (especially since they are a pair) provides a link to their relationship.

There are many stories I could tell about Troubridge, but I’ll end with the saddest one: Nineteen years later, Radclyffe Hall fell ill and died. Troubridge, in possession of all of Hall’s suits, had them recut to fit her, and wore them often.

She makes more sense with some context, doesn’t she?

Please feel free to leave a comment

  1. Penny on September 12, 2014 | Reply

    I love the elegant white shirts worn by these women – when I searched for images of Radclyffe Hall, she was also pictured in white shirts. This was a progressive time in history, soon to be cut short by the depression and rise of Naziism – the pendulum was about to swing in the opposite direction. Women in pants have often been thought to be “out there” – I went to a job interview in the early 1970’s in a pantsuit and was told by the woman who interviewed me that the business’s male clients liked to see women in skirts! And, thinking about the monocle – it has always seemed like one of those accessories worn strictly for style and not comfort – wouldn’t a person have to squint just to hold the monocle in place? And wouldn’t that actually make it harder to see? Another thought provoking entry that prompted me to do some research of my own.

  2. Kate Scott on October 16, 2014 | Reply

    Monocles completely deserve their reputation as affections–you really do have to try to keep one in. And if you’re interested in the history of women wearing pants, look up the French artist Rosa Bonheur, who had to get a special legal dispensation–stating that she wasn’t sane–to be allowed to wear pants in public.

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