Sunglasses have been around since the days Nero used green-colored lenses to watch fighting gladiators. In the 1400s, Chinese judges wore quartz-colored spectacles to hide their eye expressions during court deliberations. In the mid 18th century, prescription glasses with tinted lenses corrected vision impairments. It was not until the 20th century that glasses were used to protect eyes from the sun’s glare.
Using state-of-the-art technology and modern materials, eyewear continues to evolve. Today prescription glasses are made of lenses that are scratch-resistant, lightweight and transition from light to dark. Glasses frames are made of comfortable, but durable materials.
Form Versus Function
Practical aspects aside, eyewear has come to serve other purposes as well. Dark glasses disguise one’s look or hide one’s expressions. Sporting a pair of shades makes a fashion statement. Prescription glasses and non-prescription glasses have become an essential fashion accessory mirroring cultural trends and have the ability to transform instantly. Although introduced in 1929, a pair of cool shades did not become the must-have accessory until movie stars began wearing them.
Hollywood’s Golden Age
A major influence of style and choice among make-up, hair, clothes and accessories are movie stars of Hollywood. The Golden Age of Hollywood, a period beginning in the late 1920s and ending in the late 1960s was marked by mass audience attendance and an inexhaustible supply of movies.
It was not enough to sit in a dark theatre and watch movie stars. Audiences craved a piece of cinematic glamour. Studios made sure cameras and photographers followed Hollywood starlets and leading men. Those wishing to remain incognito hid behind sunglasses. These dark shields also protected them from the glare of camera flashbulbs as paparazzi followed them about. Celebrity coverage, carefully orchestrated but tame in comparison to today’s standards, transformed these major motion picture stars into major fashion trendsetters as well.
If Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield wore a pair of cat eye frames, then that style became an essential accessory. If James Dean wore a pair of Ray Ban Wayfarers, men snatched them up hoping to capture their inner rebel.
Although first used as frames for prescription glasses, Oliver Goldsmith’s “Manhattan” shades became the must-have pair for women when Audrey Hepburn sported them in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Grace Kelly, another iconic film star, also favoured the Goldsmith brand.
Oleg Cassini, responsible for the “Jackie look,” worked as a studio costumer for Paramount before becoming secretary of style for Jacqueline Kennedy. When designers at Purdy Opticians provided her with the now iconic wraparound styled black glasses, every woman wanted a pair of Jackie O’s. Audrey Hepburn sported a pair of oversized white plastic frames in the 1966 film “How to Steal a Million.” Elvis Presley’s oversized sun shades were must-haves among males.
Talkin’ ’Bout My Generation
Starting in the late 1960s, movies became more of an art form than a means of mindless entertainment. Although movie stars still influenced fashion trends, young people also sought their inspiration from many other sources.
Beatnik, Bohemian and later hippie-inspired fashion re-introduced round frames; Pop Art inspired oversized glass frames. British fashion trends like the Mod look accompanied Beatlemania to America.
Cool specs called Teashades, like those worn by John Lennon, became a favourite among hip and with-it teenagers. The darkened, colored or mirrored lenses encased in thin, perfectly circular wire-rimmed frames hid the effects of drug use more than they protected eyes from the sun. George Harrison, Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger and Jerry Garcia wore these types of frames.
Recently, round glasses have been perched on the nose bridges of Harry Potter, Woody Harrelson in “Natural Born Killers” and Colin Chou (Seraph) in the “Matrix.”
Ray Ban Wayfarers were worn by Jack Nicholson’s character, George Hanson, in “Easy Rider.” The film called a landmark countercultural masterpiece was a brutal and real portrayal of issues and tensions in the United States during the 1960s. It propelled Jack Nicholson into star status and made him a shady regular at the Oscars and other major award shows. Nicholson is notorious for wearing sunglasses indoors, a habit he claims he picked up from another iconic figure – Frank Sinatra. He once famously quoted, “With my sunglasses on, I’m Jack Nicholson. Without them, I’m fat and seventy.”
Andy Warhol, well-known graphic Pop Artist, emerged as a major fashion influence in the mid 1960s, and his influence in the fashion world continues today. His work with graphic designs and ordinary objects as art along with very avant-garde films placed him at the center of many famous celebrities. His loft apartment known as The Factory was a mecca for movie stars, film stars, up and coming directors and fashion designers. Photographs frequently show him sporting Wayfarer style specs both as prescription glasses and as sunglasses.
Plastic or clear acrylic over-sized frames featured elaborate earpieces with Op Art geometric patterns or colour-blocked frames in Op Art kitschy designs elevated eyewear to wearable art. Contemporary stars like Elton John, Madonna and Lady Gaga take inspiration from this time period.
Designers, Divas and Decadence
Early 80s fashion was characterized by glamour, excess and an increased demand for designer brands including eyewear. Major manufacturers expanded their house brands to include licensed products with designer labels such as Dior, Chanel and Givenchy.
Between 1982 and 1987, more than 60 movies and shows featured Ray Ban sunglasses. John Belushi and Dan Akroyd wore Ray Ban Wayfarers in “The Blues Brothers” as did Tom Cruise in “Risky Business.” Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer sported Ray Ban Aviators in the 1986 blockbuster “Top Gun.” On television, hit series “Miami Vice” featured Don Johnson sporting a pair of Mock Tortoise Wayfarers.
Most of today’s eyewear selections fuse classic styles with a modern twist. Whether one seeks a pair of prescription glasses or a pair of sunglasses for every day use, celebrities still remain a driving influence in our choice of style.