Sunglasses are sexy, so they say. They make you look cool and feel cool. Today they have become a high fashion must-have accessory in anyone’s wardrobe. It was not so long ago that a pair of broken sunglasses could be thrown away and replaced with new ones. But today, the expense of designer frames and their almost iconic status makes that a very costly option. Most will choose to get their designer glasses repaired at a specialist workshop.
Though considered a modern-day fashion item, sunglasses were on the scene earlier than you think. As long ago as the fourteenth century judges in China were wearing smoke-tinted quartz lenses. This was not to look cool but as a means for the judges to hide their eye expressions when quizzing witnesses. Their judgement could stay secret until the end of the trial.
Sunglasses also pop up in ancient Rome where the Emperor Nero had a pair of created from polished emeralds. It was said they helped him to watch gladiator bouts in the strong sunlight, though some historians have it that the emeralds would have acted as mirrors so he would not have seen much of the gory fighting.
A very crude vision correcting sunglasses were said to be in use in Italy in 1430 and in the eighteenth century it was widely thought that blue/green tinted glass could help people with eye problems.
And it was in the 1900s that dark lenses came to be associated with stars of silent films. They donned them to protect their eyes from the ferocious glare of those early arc lights that had none of the ultraviolet filters that modern lights use.
But it was not until 1929 that sunglasses as we know them made their mark with the public. It was American entrepreneur Sam Foster, the originator of the Foster and Grant brand, who is credited with selling sunglasses, or ‘sun cheaters’ as they were then called, on the beaches of Atlantic City. The ‘sun cheaters’ took off immediately and within a year were all the rage.
It was not until nearly 10 years later that sunglasses began to achieve the fashion accessory status they have acquired today. It all began when a US Army lieutenant returned from a balloon flying trip and complained of the sun glare had done permanent damage to his eyes.
The military contacted opticians Bausch and Lomb for a solution and in 1937 the firm took out a patent on their new “Anti-Glare” spectacles. They had a very light frame, with polarized lenses to filter out both infrared and ultraviolet rays.
They were so effective that pilots in the US Army Air Corps quickly took to the newly-named Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses. When General Douglas MacArthur landed in the Philippines in World War II photographers snapped him wearing his Ray-Bans and the pictures went around the world.
But it was slick advertising campaigns in the 1960s that took sunglasses to the summit of fashion heights. That, and their widespread use by Hollywood stars. The first appearance of Ray-Ban sunglasses in a Hollywood movie was 1961 in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with Audrey Hepburn. Since then dozens of stars have donned the fashionable shades, most notably Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in The Blues Brothers and Will Smith in the 1997 box office smash Men in Black.
As well as being the height of fashion, sunglasses have the advantage of being recommended by doctors. Long exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) can cause eye problems such as snow blindness, cataracts and even rare forms of eye cancer. Today sunglasses come in all shapes and types, from mirror shades have a mirrored reflective surface coating, through smoked shades that darken with the amount of sunlight falling on them to the tea shades once worn by pop music icon John Lennon .
Whatever brand you choose, whether Ray-Ban, Dolce and Gabanna, Gucci, Oakley, Prada or Police sunglasses have become a must-have fashion accessory and their continued use seems assured. And while celebrities continue to endorse designer shades it seems certain that their popularity with the public is unlikely to dim.