A Brief History Of Sunglasses

This week we are celebrating National Sunglasses Day, which understandably for us, is one of the most significant of the year. Sunglasses have been our pride and joy for five years in 2015 but the history of sunglasses stretches back much further. Beyond the dawn of Ray Ban, past the rise of the Wayfarer lies a rich and checkered history of sunglasses and some of their origins you might find a little unexpected.

Sunglasses today are the ultimate symbol of cool; a fashion statement as well as protection from dangerous UV Rays; the go-to accessory  of celebrities dodging the paparazzi. However, sunglasses weren’t always the style statement they are today. More more of a functioning piece of equipment than an outfit afterthought, the first pairs of sunglasses date back to Ancient China, the Roman times and the Inuit tribes. Find out how these things went from obscurely carved artifact to your face in just a few hundred years…

Ancient Times

Around 800 years ago, Inuits first carved ‘snow goggles’ to deal with the harsh sunlight and conditions in the Arctic. These would be crafted from wood, bone or leather and featured slits for the eyes and stand as one of the earliest references of sunglasses in history.

However, the Ancient Chinese around the 12th century had moved on from walrus ivory and instead created glasses out of flat panes of smoky quartz to protect the eyes from glare. Whilst they did little to provide UV protection; let alone any visual clarity, the Chinese judges would wear these in the Courts of China to hide their facial expressions when interrogating witnesses. Similarly some Roman Emperors such as Nero were said to have donned early versions of sunglasses to watch gladiator fights, peering through polished gems to magnify and distort their view for entertainment purposes as they watched the savage displays in the Colosseum’s.

15th Century Onwards – ‘The Syphilis Years’
It was of course the Italians who took the art of sunglasses to a new level in both the 15th and 18th century’s by inventing prescription lenses. Their glasses were often tinted green or blue to create a greater contrast for people who had visual impairments or faded vision. They were marketed to the elderly with the catchy tagline of  “A Blessing to the Aged” in 1629 by the English Spectacle Makers Company. James Ayscough famously further experimented with this idea in the 1750s and is frequently linked with their invention.

As a result of their properties to enhance vision, it wasn’t long before sunglasses were prescribed to the community of syphilis suffers. This dark chapter in the history of sunglasses is often over-looked due to its’ grim nature however brown, amber and yellow lenses were said to give sunlight protection as one of the most prevalent symptoms of syphilis was sensitivity to light. Unfortunate souls who had lost their noses to syphilis also now had a way to suspect a prosthetic metal nose on their faces to hide their deformities – perhaps one of the weirdest early fashion statements sunglasses have played their part in.

By the Victorian era, sunglasses were becoming an accessory associated with sex and sinful behavior due to their affiliation with the illness.  Crafted from metal, leather and bones, the designs themselves had transformed from silk ribbons keeping the frames in place to structured arms invented by Edward Scarlett in the 1620s and Benjamin Franklin’s invention of bifocal lenses in the 1780s. Samuel Pepys has been noted as referring to wearing green tinted sunglasses purchased from spectacle maker John Turlington in his famous diaries, pushing speculation that he too suffered from syphilis.

20th Century – The Beginning Of Sunglasses as You Know It 

By the time the 1920s rolled around, sunglasses were actually being used for their rightful purpose of blocking out the sun. Sam Fosters’ Foster Grant sunglasses were the first to ever be mass-produced and were sold at Woolworth’s stores near the beaches and boardwalks in Atlantic City and New Jersey. Eventually Foster Grant would go on to create frames for the general public throughout the Forties and Fifties. In the 1930s however, the game changed forever…

Edwin Land was a scientist who worked with photographic technology and in 1937 he invented what is now the modern polarised lens. Adapting the technology of camera’s for eyewear, Land created the polarised filter which was designed to enhance colour and contrast giving a crisp visual outlook. This technology went on to become one of the most largely adopted methods for almost all eyewear manufacturers; especially in the contemporary sporting world as it created a crystal clear outlook which enhanced contrast and colour. The Polaroid brand is still around today.


Whilst Land was making technological history, Ray-Ban® were inventing iconic style. In 1935, Army Air Corporation Bausch and Lomb invented the first sunglasses for their air-pilots in the US Army. These glasses need to be lightweight and large enough to give coverage when flying in bright conditions, blocking out sunlight and allowing clarity when flying at low altitude’s. The Air Force wanted them designed to reduce headaches and nausea using coloured lenses and in 1936 the first prototype was complete. The initial ‘Anti-Glare’ frames were green with plastic lenses and due to their trial success, they were replicated in sculpted metal and re-branded as the Ray Ban Aviator – an iconic design that is still worn around the world.

1940s Onwards – The Golden Age of Sunglasses

From that point onwards, Ray-Ban® became an ever growing behemoth in the fashion world as their products transcended function and became one of the must have fashion accessories in the celebrity world and the youth market.

The Wayfarer frame and Browline (later re-named ‘Clubmaster’) frames were all the rage and were spotted on iconic musicians, actors and people of interest such as Buddy Holly and Martin Luther King. The frames adopted new manufacturing techniques such as glass lenses for clarity, metal for durability and plastic for a lightweight feel.

The Hollywood actors of the time were too often spotted in sunglasses; allegedly to shield their eyes from the glare of the paparazzi. The tradition of stars fleeing from hungry reporters in a pair of shades certainly still has significance in modern times however, back in those days the magnesium filled flashbulbs of the paparazzi camera’s were literally blinding for the actors and actresses who were being snapped by dozens of photographers at premiers and parties. From there, the reputation of mystery and allure made sunglasses highly coveted for the public as every one frolicked to look like their favourite star.

From Steve McQueen to Marilyn Monroe, all the biggest names of the time had access to the coolest and quirkiest new designs available. The cateye favoured by Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn became the ultimate symbol of glamour whilst driving glasses  – sported by the likes of James Dean in ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ and Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild One’ –  arguably had a more rebellious edge. By the 1950s sunglasses were on sale to the public who tried to imitate the attitude and sophistication of their silver screen heroes. Ray Ban’s place in pop culture was cemented and business was booming!

1960s and 1970s

With a huge revolution in style and culture came a huge overhaul in sunglasses shapes. The harsh peaked cateye and squared Wayfarers fell out of favour and in came the oversized curved adaptations which were crafted to keep up the London’s Mod trend and the dramatic styles worn the starlet’s of New York and LA. Jackie Onassis infamously made the round oversize shades so popular that Ray Ban even created a pair to name after her which are still sold today. The image of Onassis with her brunette bob, pastelle Chanel suits and curved shades still remains iconic in fashion history!

The 1970s also brought further changes to the styles of the time as we see with this seasons 1970s revival trend. Larger, bolder and more unusual; the shapes of the 1970s were much harsher, often crafted with sepia toned lenses to match the photographs of the time. John Lennon brought the rounded tea-shades into fashion whilst Bianca Jagger injected outlandish glamour in her enormous shades during her visits to glitzy celeb hot-spot Studio 54. The rock’n’roll lifestyle and glam rock scene went hand in hand with the look of the time and it wasn’t long before sunglasses once again became associated with edge and rebellion as The Ramones, Joe Strummer and Patti Smith donned theirs with punk sensibility.

1980s and 1990s Revival

Ray Ban had endured a slump during the 1970s but all that was about to change as the Wayfarer was revived by Hollywood and MTV in the Eighties. From Debbie Harry and Madonna to Run DMC and Michael Jackson; Tom Cruise in ‘Risky Business’, The Blues Brothers and the entire cast of ‘The Breakfast Club’ – the classic Wayfarer was back in vogue and the public went wild to snap up a pair of their very own. Brands such as Persol, Police and Oakley tried to keep up with demand by creating their own versions of the classic style ( The Oakley Frogskin and Police Wayfarer, respectively) whilst Ray Ban received further sales on their Aviator shades of which had featured in some of the most prolific movies of the time; Scarface, The Terminator and Back To The Future.

The hype continued well into the 1990s with more subdued sports-inspired styles introduced from the USA. Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein had grown in popularity and their style was All-American, preppy and understated. The more alternative grunge scene, Britpop scene and US hip hop scene however took their inspiration from the past. Whilst Oasis and Blur adopted Lennon-esque tea shades at festivals and TV performances, Notorious B.I.G and Will Smith took their cues from the styles worn by the hip-hop performers of the ’80s with large detailed frames akin to the vintage Cazal frames we see rappers wearing today.

The ’80s and ’90s were also booming for Italian brands. Just as the Italians had claimed sunglasses back in the 15th Century, Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci began creating frames for the celebrities and bourgeoisie. Models were frequently snapped in opulent, outlandish sunglasses brandishing the logo’s of their favourite brands so everyone would know exactly who they were wearing and the trend caught on. From understated and iconic to an ‘in your face’ capitalist dream, sunglasses were a new way to flaunt wealth and status.


2000s and Beyond

Today, sunglasses come in so many different shapes, materials, colours and styles that compared to the Chinese judges of yore, that we are absolutely spoiled for choice. Still associated with ‘cool’, eternally linked with waywardness and always remaining fashionable, sunglasses today are crafted with the best technology money can buy.

From lightweight titanium used in Oakley’s sports designs to natural wood used for Shwood’s hip alternative shades; the world is now a myriad of high quality eyewear.  From the rise of British chic making a comeback such as Alexander McQueen, Burberry and Paul Smith, Ray Ban – now acquired by Italian company Luxottica –  still fly the flag across the world as the ultimate eyewear brand.


Scientists may have worked out the benefit of sunglasses for our health and designers have worked out which materials and styles the public want but what we still haven’t quite worked out is what it is exactly that we love so much about sunglasses? Is it the way they add mystery to our look or bring extra style to an outfit? Is it because our favourite film and music stars flaunts the latest brands? Is it because fashion bods are way more aware of what works and suits us? Or are they simply a luxury product that will keep growing and changing with the times?

There’s no doubt that sunglasses have taken a hell of a long-time to reach the height of popularity we see today but whatever the future holds, we can be sure that we’ll be trying out best to stay ahead of the curve!