Now & Then: The History of Hiding Behind Sunglasses

An image from Stella McCartney’s eco-friendly sunglasses campaign for spring/summer 2012. Each pair is made with at least 50% natural and renewable materials.

Dark glasses, shades, even sun specs – but please, never “Sunnies” – sunglasses are an accessory par excellence, arguably the best we have in our fashion repertoires for communicating a sense of intrigue and mystery. Voyeuristic – I can see you but you can’t see me – they afford their wearer’s anonymity and a distinct power advantage by drawing the shades on the windows to our souls. In short, they’re the ultimate cool tool.

Carole Lombard in 1937 in early Bausch & Lomb Aviators developed to protect the eyes of pilots at high altitude. Around this time, Edwin Land lent his polarizing technology to produce glasses that significantly reduced glare. Aviators are the first sunglass style to be released for sale to the general public.

Sunglasses are older than you think. A form of eye protection from the sun was thought to have been in use as far back as prehistoric times, Inuit people wore flattened walrus ivory “glasses,” looking through narrow slits to block harmful reflected rays of the sun. Roman Emperor Nero was said to use polished emeralds to protect his eyes while he was watching gladiator fights and ancient documents describe the use of quartz crystal sunglasses by judges in 12th century Chinese courts to conceal their facial expressions while questioning witnesses.

Audrey Hepburn as the irresistible Holly Golightly in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s,” wearing Ray Ban Wayfarers, first released in 1952. Revolutionary for their trapezoidal design, they were the first to employ plastic only frames, and meant a break a way from metal framed glasses of the past.

Sunglasses ability to conceal and disguise has long made them a celebrity favorite. Beyond avoiding recognition by the fans, actors were in fact early adopters of sunglasses as cover ups. In the silent movie making era, red eyes were a common hazard due to the powerful arc lamps that were needed due to the extremely slow speed film stocks used. Long after improvements in film quality and the introduction of ultraviolet filters eliminated this problem, celebrities continu to make sunglasses an inseparable part of high fashion.

Olivia Newton John in the 1970s wearing round, wire rimmed sunglasses, popularly known as tea-shades. They first became popular in the 1960s, inspired by the legendary musician John Lennon. These circular shades achieved an iconic status in those days and a look set to become the latest trend in hot sunglass shapes today.

From oversized sunglasses popularized by Jackie O, to streamlined and subtle aviators, there’s a pair just right for every face. While trends for certain styles are pretty irresistible – cat eyes, anyone? – Taking your face shape into account is crucial to finding the perfect pair, because just like clothes, it’s not the price but the fit that’s important. And as to the question of whether you should wear your sunglasses at night? If you have to ask, you probably shouldn’t.

Molly Ringwald in a typical 80s style pair of glasses. Colored lenses, heart shaped frames and shutter shades gained fame in this period in large part through the music videos of Simple Minds and Animotion.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis in the original “Jackie O’s.” Onassis admitted that sunglasses gave her the opportunity to watch people.

Want to catch up on some more fashion history?

Now & Then: The History of the Bikini

Now & Then: The History of the White Wedding Dress

Now & Then: The History of Shapewear

Now & Then: The History of the Ballet Flat

Now & Then: The History of the Breton Shirt

Now & Then: The History of the Pencil Skirt

Now & Then: The History of Skinny Jeans

Read more Now & Then articles here.

Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.