Sunglasses: The Origin & Evolution

If our eyes could speak, they would always and unceasingly direct us to the beloved sunglasses.

An apparel with such rich history and untold tales to it, one could easily write a series.

From the first snow goggles to the metallic millennial sunglasses of today, the evolution of this accessory has had the most versatile variations and possibilities in redesigning and designing every aspect of its body parts.  

From basic slits to high tech lenses through the decades, the brains behind the betterment of eye protection deserve the highest acknowledgement of merit.

The sun’s ultra violet rays are silent invaders to the naked eyes, inducing gradual optical complications as a result. 

This pair of tinted and polarized glasses is the best solution to combating the harms of the UV rays, making it a true gift to our sights’ well-being.


The Early Precursors


The history of this apparel goes back over 2000 years where generations of snow-bound Arctic Circle people, like the Inuit, protected their eyes from snow blindness (photokeratitis) with snow goggles. 

The snow goggles were made of walrus ivory, animal bone, leather, wood and sea shore grass. They were not for fashionable use in the prehistoric times. The googles had narrow wide slits that basically reduced the amount of light hitting the eyes and also maximised visual acuity. The wider width of the slits made the view sharper.

They protected the eyes from the harmful ultraviolet light that gets amplified after getting reflected off the whiteness of the snowy landscape within the Arctic Circle.

Just as bright and sunny days could damage a person’s eyes, even the diffuse light on cloudy days can be equally dangerous.


Gems or Glass for Eyewear?


Though still debated by historians, the Roman emperor Nero who reigned around 60 A.D., was said to have used cut emeralds that worked like mirrors to watch the gladiator games. As we can see, the subconscious mind was already creating the eye shades.

China was also playing at it back in the 12th century. Crystal sunglasses made of smoky quartz were being used by judges in courts, to conceal their facial expressions while questioning witnesses. The precursor of the incognito mode, perhaps?


Moving on to the mid 18th century, innovations towards what we have today started breaking ground. James Ayscough an English optician and designer, known for his microscopes and scientific instruments, was particularly keen. He believed that blue and green tinted-glass could rectify specific vision impairment by protecting from bright lights and glare. He however didn’t concern himself with the matter of protection from the sunrays.


The earliest depictions of a person wearing sunglasses was in 1772, with the scientist Antoine Lavoisier, who is considered the “father of modern chemistry”. This was while he was conducting an experiment related to combustion generated by amplified sunlight.

In the 19th and early 20th century; yellow, amber and brown tinted glasses were commonly prescribed to people with syphilis due to their sensitivity to light. This unfortunately created a stigma to these shades of colour in that time, but gradually the notion was discarded.


A Necessity for Eyewear


The need for eyewear to protect eyes against sun’s rays and glare first became apparent in the mid-nineteenth century.

The early high-altitude mountaineers and polar explorers were experiencing snow blindness and as a solution, goggles with tinted dark lenses and side shields of glass or leather, were developed.

In the same era, increasing numbers of settlers were getting exposed to the strong sun of the tropical and equatorial colonies and territories, they were formally not used to. They also started wearing dark sunglasses.

By the end of the 1800s, sunglasses were widely available when bathing and holidays by the sea, became popular with the general public.


Entering the 1900s


It was in the ushering in of the 1900s that the tinted glasses, now known as sunglasses, that this eyewear took off and was here to stay.

Seaside vendors were making a living out of them and tourists in places like Egypt wore them to reduce the desert glare.

The great invention of the automobile that saw motoring become a fashionable leisure activity, also put protective eyewear into common use and tinted motoring googles were available by the 1910s.


The 1920s


The American military were at the forefront with acquiring a pair for all the staff members in the early 1920s.

In 1929, Sam Foster, the guy behind sunglasses becoming fashionable, saw his protective Foster Grants became an instant hit and Hollywood stars, were soon showing the world how sunglasses are worn.


The 1930s

In the 1930s, sunglasses for both men and women were round in shape. They started to symbolise the Hollywood glamour life and stars like Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich were seen wearing them at diverse events and also used them to appear incognito in public places. 


White opaque frames were considered chic. 

The US Army Air Corps needed glasses to protect the eyes from the cold and bright light in the upper atmosphere and so they hired Bausch & Lomb to create specialised sunglasses that would cut the glare pilots experienced in the stratosphere. Physicists and opticians came together to create the G15 lens, which had a dark green tint that was able to absorb light. 

The aviators were born.

By the end of the 1930s, the teardrop-shaped Ray Ban sunglasses, were also made available to the public and the rest is history.


The 1940s


 In the 40s the sunglasses frames went all flowery and colourful. This being the war and post-war era, trendsetters experimented with maximalist designs. This definitely cheered up the mood. The pilots at war were still with their aviator sunglasses which would later pick up as a fashion trend in the 60s and 70s.


The 1950s


The economic boom of the post-war era brought in the first major changes in the shape of the eyewear. What was before then round, changed to the iconic retro cat eye sunglasses.

This flattering look was an essential for the 1950s fashion statement and celebrities like Audrey Hepburn showed them off daintily.


The 1960s


The 60s saw the sunglasses become a permanent fashion accessory worldwide. The advertising campaigns by Foster Grant at the time, rejuvenated the demand to the next level. 

The zeitgeist of this era provoked dress to be the mode of expression and eyewear was not left out. The huge square-framed sunglasses in bright neon colours were a favourite of the swinging 60s, with super models like Twiggy flaunting the whole idea through.


The 1970s

The “groovy” 70s is the decade where sunglasses became a norm. Most people owned several pairs to match the colourful clothing that bestowed this time. By now, polaroid glasses were quite popular and a good investment.

One of the designs known as “granny style”, with fairly small-round glasses and a wire frame, were made popular by John Lennon. They were a trademark of his public image.

The eyewear changed as the decade progressed. The small were replaced by the huge, oversized, thick plastic frames whose glasses also became more transparent. This is the image, coupled with bell bottom trousers, that most people today visualize when the mind revisits the 70s.


The quality of the sunglasses also saw some great improvements. Top designers took an initiative and started to include them in their fashion lines. They were costly and superior in quality. Hollywood stars and famous musicians delved to treat themselves with these.

Some of these lines were Lacoste, LaRoche, Cazal and Jean Paul Gaultier.

Ray Ban took the crown with its aviator style as the most popular.


The 1980s 


“Shades” - That’s what sunglasses were called in the 80s and this should bring a smile to all those who relate.

Shades were a cool must-have and were often seen perched on top of people’s heads.

Two prominent styles reigned this decade. The Wayfarer style and the aviator style, both made by Ray Ban.

The Wayfarer popularized by Tom Cruise in the film Risky Business, had heavy black plastic frames and a round off square shape. Madonna and Don Johnson too, are remembered wearing this iconic look. The look was also offered in a two-toned version with neon arms to offset the black frames.

The aviator, the second style, referred to as “teardrop” because of depicting this shape, continued their fame. With his role in the movie Top Gun, Tom Cruise was yet again, the bearer that made the aviator style fly-off shelves. The smoked or mirrored teardrops were a sensation.

Other styles worth a mention were the single lens sunglasses that only the 80s could wear so well. Often seen in movies and music videos, the robot sunglasses with a futuristic look were an irresistible buy for many. 

Another one was the oversized, square shaped and brash gold rims of Cazal glasses, which were hugely successful with artists and followers of the Rap scene. Run DMC’s Darryl McDaniels, upgraded them from merely cool to iconic.

80s sunglasses were that hyped-up that pop music immortalized them with songs like “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night” and “The Future’s so Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades”.


The 1990s

The dramatic shapes and sizes of the preceding decades went on pause through the 90s till about the end.

Embracing both the new sport style and the vintage round frames, celebrities and in-vogue lovers were now wearing extremely small sunglasses. Entering that season with mostly dark shades, the neon colours came along to give height to the decade with an overdose of colour.

And to end the decade, “Men in Black” served eyewear with simple black shades that we all know so well.

Then came the Oakleys, the extreme cool eyewear for both athletes and the general public. A sensation for the 90s.


The 2000s & 2010s

The new millennium brought fun with it. Interesting contrasts and a digital look to eyewear. Taking inspiration from vintage styles of the different decades; thick frames, retro cat eyes, round and square, all paid homage in decadence and style.

The oversized bedazzled frames were also a trend, and not to forget Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s favourites, popularly known as the “bug eye”. 

The clear lenses also fascinated many. 

The aviator – again. 

This is a style that will most definitely have a recurrence in the future of sunglasses. A classic that has won the test of time and that has the 1930s invention, to be grateful for. The tinted lenses in different colours and mirrored look, will be an unforgettable shiny experience.

Available in some wild colours, like cherry and lavender, and lucite frames to spice up the look, the adventure of wondrous sunglasses was still in the match. The new cat-eye look wasn't super thin, but had more of a rounded bottom and juted out at the top edges to create a triangular shape.


A New Decade is Upon Us

The 2020s are out to mix everything from the past but with a twist. Oversized and minimal sunglasses are the trends to look out for. Unisex shapes are out to blend both gender likes and expectations, with the brand Balmain trending in support. The aviator, cat eye, geometric, round, oval and square, will all be present.

All in all, no matter what shape or style, sunglasses are a gift for our eyes’ well-being and just like we take care of our hair or skin, so should we our eyes as well.

This is the accessory that will have innovation power for years to come. With the rich evolution-energy they have proven to carry with them through the years, one can’t start to imagine what the future of sunglasses has yet to unfold.

Let loyalty stand strong for the sake of our eyes!

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published

Shop now