There’s nothing too surprising about what turns out to make for a successful nation-brand—a good education system, efficient infrastructure, business-friendly taxes, suave ambassadors, well-designed flags. But what’s striking about the book’s nostalgia, and about the Monocle empire as a whole, is how often it attaches itself to the same historical period. Whether it’s cultivating a pseudo-Mad Men business aesthetic, adopting a posture of masculinity that’s not yet in crisis or yearning for a time when nation-states were ascendant, Monocle again and again returns to the middle of the twentieth century in order to think optimistically about the present. The Monocle world is maybe the culmination of what John Kenneth Galbraith had in mind when he argued in The Affluent Society (1958) that economic development would lead to the continued expansion of a “New Class” of workers whose jobs “will involve not toil but enjoyment.” And when the magazine claims triumphantly that “craft and traditional skills are helping reinvigorate economies and shake up old business models by putting the means of production back into the hands of small-scale makers,” it echoes mid-century critics of mass society like C. Wright Mills, who in White Collar (1951) contrasted the depressing emergence of a society of salesmen with the ethic of autonomous work, in which “family, community and politics are measured by the standards of inner satisfaction, coherence and experiments in craft labor.”
Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that Monocle’s most illuminating predecessor is not GQ or the Economist but the ultimate mid-century men’s magazine. It would be no surprise to find in Monocle something like Hugh Hefner’s first editorial for Playboy, published in December 1953:
Most of today’s “magazines for men” spend all their time out-of-doors— thrashing through thorny thickets or splashing about in fast flowing streams. We’ll be out there too, occasionally, but we don’t mind telling you in advance—we plan on spending most of our time inside. We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex …
The Monocle Man is also suspicious of the “out-of-doors.” “In times of economic turmoil, political instability and rising unemployment, it’s been harder than ever to close that door to the rest of the world,” reads the Guide to Better Living. Yet the space afforded to current affairs at the front of a typical issue of Monocle—a couple of pages of world-news gobbets, elections dealt with in paragraphs, civil wars in captions—shows that it is not so hard after all. Like Hef’s Playboy, the Monocle Man balks at the complexity of the modern world: so much is happening everywhere, and who can understand it all? A cursory glance is all he needs to know that the world is a place he should try to escape. And it comes as no surprise when the Guide to Cosy Homes suggests that he should hide away in an Eames-inspired, mid-century modern sanctuary.