SUNGLASSES – A HISTORY
It never ceases to amaze me how sunglasses, a thoroughly practical item borne out of necessity, became so massively iconic.
By all accounts the first notable man to use them, albeit in a primitive form, was the Roman Emperor Nero, who used tinted glass to watch his gladiators chop bits out of each other. Subsequently, Chinese magistrates in the 12th century used pieces of darkened quartz positioned at the ends of arms carved from wood to conceal their facial expressions while questioning witnesses.
Consequently, after Italian merchant travellers, the Polo family, returned from China in 1295 the West was exposed to Eastern ideas. But it still took almost 200 years for some shrewd dude to clock the sunglass and bring it back to Europe. Initially they failed to catch on and it wasn’t until the mid 16th century that wealthy trendsetters, aristocrats and groovy fashion bods adopted the conceit, kicking off a multi billion-dollar industry that never seems to wane.
Even back then they were not cheap. A luxury item par excellence, they cost the equivalent price of a nice motorbike today and were a true mark of wealth. The man who ended such ocular elitism was English optician and inventor James Ayscough who in 1752 started prescribing cheaper tinted glass lenses for folk with stigmatisms.
Yet it was not a direct optical affliction that truly popularised the now rather hip sunglass but a rather tawdry venereal disease.
By the mid 19th century, before the days of antibiotics and safe sex, syphilis was widespread, and one of the disease’s symptoms is extreme light sensitivity. Thus the sunglass became a necessary item amongst the contaminated, cashed-up, promiscuous classes. Ergo, even then the sunglass was a status symbol that, despite betraying a not-so-envious medical condition, marked the wearer as decadent, rather racy and definitely Bohemian.
By the 20th century the sheer practicality of the item cemented its popularity amongst the wealthy who were soon to swap their horse-drawn carriage for the motorcar and, later, the aeroplane, as their means of transport.
Shielding their eyes from the sun was now a matter of life and death, so when in 1919 the Italian photographer Giuseppe Ratti created ‘The Protector Glasses’ for pilots and race car drivers ‒ comprising simple rubber-edged smoked-glass lenses attached to the head by rudimentary rubber bands ‒ the rich and famous embraced them with zeal.
Ratti named his company Persol (meaning ‘for the sun’) and created a global identity that is more powerful today than ever, while pre-empting the ever-present Italian love affair with occhiali da sole.
While Ratti was coining it in Europe, over in the US an enterprising chap called Sam Foster founded The Foster Grant Company and in 1929 sold the first pair of Foster Grant sunglasses on the Atlantic City Boardwalk to a man with a squint.
His timing was perfect. Hollywood was now the centre of the burgeoning movie industry and every actor worth their salt moved there. Sunglasses were a Godsend in such a hot climate, especially as many of the town’s residents were rather partial to cocaine and booze. Also, many of them were often to be found in places they shouldn’t, and the sunglasses lent them a disguise of sorts. The likes of Charlie Chaplin, Doug Fairbanks, George Raft and Jean Harlow were all pictured in them and sales went ballistic.
But it wasn’t all about fashion. Proper protective eyewear was still a very important aide to the escalating aeronautical industry. Accordingly, in the mid-1930s Army Air Corps Lieutenant General John MacCready commissioned Bausch & Lomb (a New York-based medical equipment manufacturer) to develop effective eyewear that would guard pilots from the perils of high-altitude glare.
As a result, in 1936 Bausch & Lomb launched the ‘Anti-Glare’ sunglass with green lenses and plastic frames. A year later they went back to the drawing board and, using polarized lens technology (recently invented by Edwin H. Land of the Polaroid Corporation), came up with a superior item which they cannily gave gratis to aviators.
In 1937, when the company decided to make them available to the general public as the now renamed Ray-Ban ‘aviators’, they couldn’t make them fast enough. World War II bolstered their popularity further after they were issued to US Air Force personnel who wore them when back home on Civvy Street. As a result they became hippest accessory known to man.
Yet not all the returning war heroes who donned aviator shades were seen in such angelic light. Many servicemen had returned to unemployment, disillusionment and post-war trauma and sought the close bonds and camaraderie found between men in the army.
Some of these men formed biker gangs, some of which met at a biker rally in Hollister, California, in 1947 and let rip. The event was sensationalised by Time magazine and was consequently dramatised in the controversial 1953 movie The Wild One starring Marlon Brando as Johnny Strabler, the leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club.
The film caused uproar and was banned in the UK until 1967. Hugely influential, it prompted countless rebels to form similar gangs and copy Brando’s every nuance, including his signature Ray Ban Aviators, Perfecto biker jacket, Levi 501’s and Redwing Engineer boots. Sunglasses promptly became synonymous with teenage rebellion and dangerous anti-social stiletto-wielding youth cults.
Ray Ban was well prepared to exploit the scenario. In 1952 optical designer Raymond Stegeman designed the Wayfarer, ‘a mid-century classic to rival Eames chairs and Cadillac tail fins’, which took advantage of new plastic moulding technology.
Success was guaranteed after America’s other great rebellious icon, James Dean, sported the Wayfarer in the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause as teen malcontent Jim Stark. Thus they became the emblem of troubled adolescent rebels and the symbol of a generation.
Of course, this simply made the item even more popular amongst sectors of society hitherto unconquered. As former Johnny Thunders manger, the late Leee Black Childers
explained, ‘I grew up in the South and all of us little gay boys used to look at those bad boys with the brilliantine hair, tight T-shirts, Levis and sunglasses smoking reefer and drinking in some alley and think: I want one of them. So as soon as we could we dressed like them, and before you knew it that look became the look of us queers, as Tom Of Finland so rightly illustrated. They were kinda naughty and so were we.’
Lest we forget, sunglasses had long been treated with a certain suspicion. They were par for the course for celebrities who didn’t want to be recognised (or wanted to hide the effects of a heavy night), or divorce investigators who wished to remain anonymous, or heroin addicts who sported them night and day to hide their dilated pupils, as well as criminals who used them as a disguise.
Therefore sunglasses acquired a rather shady (excuse the pun) reputation for which the movies had laid the groundwork, as many a film noir bad guy, bandit, killer or lady of the night wore shades.
There was no stopping the inexorable rise of sunglasses, which soon slipped into the mainstream. Wayfarers were afterwards worn by the world’s biggest actress, Marilyn Monroe, America’s most well known artist Andy Warhol, and the world’s most famous man, President John F.Kennedy. They became the most iconic and best-selling sunglasses of all time and are still worn by millions today. Only the Ray Ban Club Master enjoys anywhere near the same ubiquity.
Other manufacturers soon jumped on the bandwagon. In 1956 Austrian-born plastic fashion glasses pioneer Wilhelm Anger created his Carerra range (named after the gruelling Carerra Pan-American road race) for racing drivers.
In 1964 he patented Optyl ‒ a new form of plastic resin from which 90 per cent of all high-end sunglasses are made today ‒ to make his frames.
Of course the Italians were not without influence. Film director Federico Fellini’s bravura picture La Dolce Vita, an exercise in high style, featured the great Marcello Mastroianni as tabloid columnist Marcello Rubini, who aspires to be a more serious writer in his signature Persol sunglasses. Co-star Anouk Aimée as Maddelena, the wealthy, cynical nymphomaniac heiress, wore cat’s eye sunglasses, which designer Tom Ford recently copied and called ‘Anouk’. Later in the movie she takes them off to reveal a black eye.
The film’s influence on global style was enormous. As Patti Smith told Circus magazine in 1976:
‘I wanted to be a movie star. I don't mean like an American movie star. I mean like Jeanne Moreau or Anouk Aimée in La Dolce Vita. I couldn't believe her in those dark glasses and that black dress and that sports car. I thought that was the heaviest thing I ever saw. Anouk Aimée with that black eye. It made me always want to have a black eye forever. It made me want to get a guy to knock me around. I'd always look great. I got great sunglasses.’
By the 1960s every stylemonger worth his salt wore their signature sunglasses: Steve McQueen wore Persol 649s, Bob Dylan donned Ray Bans Wayfarers, and Malcolm X preferred the Club Master ‒ all plastic framed.
As the hippy movement grew, the likes of the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones and The Beatles ‒ with their return to flamboyant Edwardian clothes ‒ wore pre-plastic Victorian-era metal-framed penny round ‘Teashade’ specs.
In the late 1960s the popularity of metal continued as many went back to the classic aviator, as produced by Randolph Engineering who produced the eyewear for US pilots for Vietnam, or American Optical who created Peter Fonda’s bins in Easy Rider (similar to the Ray Ban Olympia 3119).
By the 1970s Foster Grant were back in business, producing a range of glasses with gradated lenses (dark at the top and light at the bottom), which meant you could wear them at night and not fall over. All kinds of reprobate groovy cats took to them, including Mick Jagger, Peter Sellers and Warren Beatty, while the likes of Vuarnet and Persol catered to the Europeans.
But as glasses for the well-heeled got bigger in the 1970s, for those on the street they shrank. Punk rockers were all about vintage frames like Shuron and cheap, skinny wrap-around shades. The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious wore them, as did Polly Styrene of X Ray Spex and Captain Sensible of The Damned, while the likes of Debbie Harry and The Clash wore Ray Bans which ushered in a whole new era for the firm.
Then along came the post-modernist 1980s and stylemongers were fishing through the past to create the future. One main component was the Ray Ban, be it the Wayfarer, Clubmaster, Aviator or the L100 Predator.
Jack Nicholson, Mickey Rourke, Elvis Costello, Morrissey and Matt Dillon were rarely seen out of their Wayfarers and soon they were back in vogue. But the 1980s wasn’t all about classics. One of my favourite anomalies of the sunglasses market is the Cazal ‒ the big glitzy acetate numbers designed by German-based Italian designer Carl Zelloni and popularised by the likes of Run DMC, Rick Ross, Jay Zee and scores of New York Upper West Side elderly Jewish ladies.
Today Cazal are still huge, as are hipster essential Ray Ban. Ultimately, little has changed in the glasses market except for the ascendance of a few brands like Oakley in the 1980s and Maui Jim a little later.
Meanwhile, almost every luxury brand in existence has launched its own range of sunglasses, all of which are remarkably similar. Unsurprisingly, models by the likes of Prada, Dior, Burberry, Chanel and Hugo Boss are licensed and made by either one of two rival Italian companies: Safilo, who own Carrera, and Luxottica who own almost every top sunglasses brand, including Rayban, Persol and Oakley.
Oddly, the sunglass started in Italy and is now controlled by Italians. One might say it’s come full circle.
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