Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Who Wore Pince-Nez?



Historically speaking, it was the upper strata of society who wore pince-nez during the heyday of this eyewear in the early twentieth century. There are many photos of politicians, leaders of finance, artists and intellectuals wearing pince-nez to remind us of this time. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt come to mind. FDR's cabinet seemed to favor pince-nez as well, as discussed in a prior post. College students at Ivy League schools also had a fondness for these glasses. A survey of the 1911 Brown University yearbook revealed that of those who wore glasses, about seventy percent chose pince-nez.

This post looks at two questions.

1. Why was pince-nez the preferred style of eyewear in the early twentieth century?


The answer can be found easily in the advertising of the era. At left is an ad which summarizes the essence of pince-nez's appeal. "The most inconspicuous glasses you can wear, " the ad proclaims. Eyewear at this point in history was not seen as a fashion item but as a medical necessity that detracted from one's appearance. Hence the minimalism of pince-nez was truly appreciated.

2. What barriers prevented all social classes from wearing pince-nez?


The obvious and correct answer was cost. Unlike templed eyewear, pince-nez required a precise fit with the proper sized mounting by a specially trained optician. Templed glasses have always been much more forgiving in terms of fit and do not require the expertise of an optician possessing a special set of skills. Also, pince-nez mountings had a variety of sizes in each model to fit different facial dimensions whereas spectacles did not have this burdensome requirement.* The economics of eyewear clearly favored templed glasses.

Pince-nez was simply too expensive for opticians to administer. Naturally these costs were passed along to the consumer. Only the well-to-do could afford the expense of being fitted with pince-nez.

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*See post on fitting sets.

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