The History of Sunglasses – The Journey From Function To Fashion

  • BY Zenni Optical

It’s summer and if you’re anything like me the moment the sun even slightly peeks out from the clouds I reach for my favorite sunglasses. Sunshine aside, how did we come about scrabbling for our sunnies whenever we had a long night out, or don’t want to make eye contact on the way to work?

They say, the use of eye protection dates back to 12th century China! The ancient Chinese wore flat, smoky, polished quartz over the eyes to help block the sun. Ancient documents have also found they used crystals to hide the eyes in court when interrogating people.

Experiments with tinted glass for eye correction, not sun protection, began in the mid-18th century. Tinted glass took on a whole new use in the 19th and early 20th century when it was “prescribed” for those who were suffering from light sensitivity as a result of syphilis. It “seems” this might be when they started to realize the use of sunglasses could be used for sun protection….interesting way it came about, wouldn’t you say?

sunglasses history

It wasn’t until the mid 20th century when sunnies really started to be used as we they are today. This is mainly thanks to Sam Foster, founder of Foster Grants, and Hollywood. In 1929, Foster sold inexpensive, mass-produced frames made specifically to protect people’s eyes from the sun on the beaches of the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Around this time, sunglasses were also beginning to be used widely among actresses, to hide from the paparazzi, and to cover their red eyes brought on from the powerful arc lamps needed for the low speed film stocks.

The creation of the Ray Ban, still popular to this day, the aviator style was not only popular among, well, aviators but also took off amongst Hollywood celebrities and were released to the public in 1937.

history of sunglasses

Fashion and Frames
In the 1950’s, thanks to Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, the cat eye style frame swept the nation, where as the 1960’s brought on the large round frames that became synonymous with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Although the 1970’s brought a new decade with a new “peace and love” vibe, it did not necessarily bring in a new frame shape. Round frames were still a huge look, just not as mod and big as their predecessors. They were now wire framed or rim-less thanks to Annie Hall. Also, it wasn’t just about dark lenses anymore, lightly tinted lenses added to the “rose color” feel of the decade.

The 80s took the use of color in sunglasses and ran with it! Plastic frames in every color under the rainbow became a huge fashion accessory as did large white frames, thanks to the “People’s Princess,” Diana.

olsen twins in round glasses

The 90s brought back the wire frame of the 70s, only smaller and darker. Everyone who was anyone had a pair: M.C. Hammer, The Olsen Twins, Me. Now it seems like frame styles are a free-for-all. Small frames are back with a bit of the 90s vibe mixed with the 70s. Plastic frames, in bold 80s colors are also seen all over the runway again, but this time they are much smaller in size. This is not to say cat-eyes, aviators, and large rounds are out. Square has also become hugely popular, which is new to the sunglasses scene.

Sunnies are now seen everywhere and worn by everyone. Not just a fashion statement anymore, awareness about the importance of protecting your eyes from the sun is increasing. Now more than ever it’s easy to show your personality, sense of style AND protect your eyes.

Now that you know the history of your favorite sunglasses, what sun protecting frames are your go to? Let us know in the comments or tag us on the socials with #justgotmyzennis.