Through the past, darkly: a history of sunglasses.

Cheaters, shades, sun-specs- whatever you call them, chances are we’ve all donned a pair of sunglasses in the recent weeks. Perhaps you’ve trembled with trepidation when checking you didn’t leave your Oakleys in the beer garden? Or maybe you’re on pair 3 of those rather convincing Bay Rans that permanently reside on top of your dashboard?

But it’s rather hard to imagine Newton or Galileo squinting through aviators as they pondered on our planetary relationship with the sun. So what did they use to keep from getting starry-eyed? Let’s take the blinders off and have a look…


The origins of using eye-protection in order to keep out damaging elements are over 2,000 years old. In the blinding whiteness of the Tundra, the Inuits would use carve pieces of ivory into flat, goggle-esque shapes with slits in to keep them from snow blindness. Though they reduced visibility substantially, they protected the wearers retinas from the harmful UV rays that would be a risk in late Winter and Spring- when the snow had not yet fully melted and was particularly reflective.

The next evidence of using eyewear for shielding purposes came in the 12th century.  Chinese judges would wear elegant frames with lenses fashioned from smoky quartz in court. These offered no corrective purpose, but rather served to keep their expressions hidden during court proceedings, so as not to give away their rulings. Circa 1430, darker corrective lenses were developed in Italy- and so prescription sunglasses were born. These were exported to China where they continued to see judicial use, but they did not break into Western fashion for many years to follow. The use of sunglasses as an emotional cloak continues today- particularly favored by poker players, police, tyrannical leaders and hungover musicians.


Sunglasses are now an essential item that can paint a compelling picture of the wearer- exuding glamour, mystery and aloofness. They can also look completely ridiculous, depending on the frames and lenses chosen. But their status as a fashion accessory did not come to fruition until the 20th century- later than one might have expected. Their use for both protection and disguise by the Hollywood actors of the Golden Age led to them being coveting by the general public, as actresses and actors were often papped wearing them on-set to shield them from the bright lights and camera flashes, and off-set to keep the public from harassing them. The first pair of affordable sunglasses was sold to the public by plastic-molder Sam Foster in 1929, in Woolworths on Atlantic City boardwalk. Conceived as a business idea after comb sales had been waning due to the trend of the shorter hairstyles, Foster seized the opportunity to use the era’s developing injection-molding technology of to his benefit, and kick-started a fashion revolution in the process. The Foster Grant brand continues to this day- and their ‘Who’s that behind those Foster Grants?’ campaign endures, having starred such icons as Mia Farrow, Peter Sellers and Cindy Crawford.


Another vital development in the popularity of shades sprung from a more macabre source- that of the US fighter pilot.

The horrors of the First World War prompted an overhaul of the the US military aesthetic- one that could command authority, imply heroism and inspire awe. Developed in 1936 by eye health company Bausch & Lombe, these bug-eyed shades served as a replacement for the clumsy and bulky goggles that were standard-issue for pilots at the time.

Deemed ‘aviators’ and trademarked as ‘Ray Bans’, they soon captured public imagination- in no small part due to the images of General Douglas MacArthur storming the Philippines in World War II. The bold, large-frames have been synonymous with military imagery ever since- seeing action in Top Gun, which single-handedly increased their sales by 40%. The 80’s were a dark time, literally.


Since World War II, frame styles have come and go- often inextricably tied to a particular era. The economic boom that followed the war saw a move away from the understated style of Ray Bans, and cats-eye, over-sized and even Venetian-blind frames became popular in the 50’s, owing the stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. But fashion is fickle, and the 60’s and 70’s gradually saw a shift from flamboyant, excessive pieces to the more classic, downplayed designs such as the Wayfarer and wire frames- owing to the influence of the British mod movement and icons such as Sophie Loren, John Lennon and Janis Joplin. The 80’s was all about New Wave, Disco & bodacious aesthetics, and saw wrap-around and shield-style picks popularised by Michael Jackson and other pop icons.

Our current revivalist fetish means that we’re in a rather unique position in eye wear’s history. There is no prevalent trend, and it’s not atypical to see shutter-shades and browlines clinging to different faces on the same street. The development of eye-care means that many fashionable frames are available with prescription lenses- so there’s no need to choose between looking cool or being able to see. Many opticians stock a fantastic sunglasses selection, such as Specsavers, Vision Express, Scrivens and various independent stores.Pay attention to the UV rating on your sunglasses- they should serve your eyes as well as your aesthetic. Darker does not necessarily mean more effective- there are many factors that affect the level of protection offered by a pair of sunnies.

What frames will you be choosing this Summer?

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