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Brief history of sunglasses

A Brief History of Sunglasses

February 13, 2019

From filtering out sunlight to blocking out the spotlight, sunglasses have graduated from useful tool to essential accessory. We take a look at the origins of sunglasses, their influence on fashion and style and their consolidation as a billion-dollar global commodity. Discover the history behind your favorite frames.


When Were Sunglasses Invented?

Today’s summer shades might be a statement of style, but the first sunglasses were all about function. The Inuit peoples of the Arctic were fashioning snow goggles over 2,000 years ago, although these were simple slits cut into wood or bone. Great to look through, not much to look at. Credit for incorporating lenses into frames goes to the Chinese, who started using quartz lenses in the 12th century. Not until the 20th century, however, did sunglasses emerge properly as a readily available fashion accessory.


How Sunglasses Went Mainstream

1929 might have been a year to forget for Wall Street, but it was one to remember on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. That’s where entrepreneur Sam Foster sold his first pair of sunglasses, a sale that would see recreational eyewear grow from fashion fad to essential accessory. In 1936, inventor Edwin H. Land added an upgrade with his patented Polaroid filter to create polarized sunglasses that reduced glare. These lenses would become the foundation of aviator-style sunglasses worn by World War II pilots and sold to the public for the first time in 1937. From this point, sunlight would never look the same again.


The Changing Style of Your Shades

Each era has contributed its own icons to the evolution of sunglasses history, with Hollywood inevitably leading the charge. Ironically, movie stars pioneered shades as a way to avoid the attention of paparazzi off screen, but on-screen styles frequently set the standard. Actors such as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn made classic frames de rigueur, “Easy Rider” set the look for the 60s, while “The Blues Brothers” established sunglasses as a statement of instant cool around the world.


Great Moments in Sunglasses History

While the trend fluctuates across the decades between understated frames and bold, garish colors, it’s possible occasionally to pinpoint a dramatic shift because of a single event. Tom Cruise has done so twice. Cruise is credited with ‘rescuing’ Ray-Ban, and resurrecting the popularity of the wayfarer frame style, after some canny product-placement in “Risky Business” boosted sales by 50%. Just a few years later, he did the same for aviator-style sunglasses in “Top Gun,” increasing sales by 40%.


From tinted lenses for fashion to mirrored wraparounds for surfing or sports, sunglasses are hooked on a constant cycle of innovation and nostalgia, form and function. It is a narrative that brings together the combined influence of the U.S. military and the singular vision of a Depression-era entrepreneur, inspired at every turn by film and entertainment. It’s a story told in each of our frames.



Written by Nick Marshall for Knockaround

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