Promo University

History of Sunglasses

Alyssa Mertes

Published: July 23rd, 2020

You probably have a sentimental attachment to your favorite pair of shades. They are essential for long road trips, bikeathons, and family vacations at the beach. Plus, they make you look cooler, even if you're a total dweeb. Pretty much everyone loves a good pair of sunglasses, making them excellent giveaways at a variety of events.

Who invented sunglasses? When did they become fashion statements? Cool off in the shade, it's time to discover the fascinating history of sunglasses!


What turns Snoopy into Joe Cool? A pair of sunglasses. Some wear them to be cool, others to save their eyes, but sunglasses have become a culture of their own.

Kyle Odegard, journalist for Corvallis Gazette-Times in Oregon

Hour Glass

History of Sunglasses Timeline

The world has always needed a way to shield our eyes. From ancient tribes to movie stars, check out the fascinating evolution of sunglasses.

  • 37-68 AD

    emeralds Source:

    Emperor Nero in Rome cut down the glare from the sun by looking through emeralds. He would bring these gems along to the Colosseum to watch gladiator fights and chariot races.

  • 1200-1300

    smoky quartz Source:

    Judges in China used sunglasses made from smoky quartz in court. These shades hid their facial expressions as they interrogated witnesses and conducted civil service examinations.

  • 1752

    blue and green tinted shades Source:

    James Ayscough developed blue and green tinted shades for medical reasons. His sunglasses used the same optics as microscopes to fix visual impairments related to color blindness and depth perception.

  • 1929

    Sam Foster Grant company Source:

    Sam Foster sold round framed sunglasses on the beaches of Atlantic City. Shortly after, they were in mass production for the Foster Grant Company in New Jersey.

  • 1937

    Ray-Ban aviator Source:

    Ray-Ban opened their doors for the first time. Their aviator shades were initially used by pilots in the Army Air Corps, but eventually became stylish accessories for civilians.

  • 1939

    polarized sunglasses Source:

    Edwin H. Land created the first polarized sunglasses. Over the next decade, sunglasses became fashion staples and millions of pairs were sold across the country.

  • 1950s

    Cat Eye sunglasses Source:

    Cat Eye sunglasses were a super popular style. Famous stars like Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn were seen sporting this look at red carpet premieres and in movies like Breakfast at Tiffany's.

  • 1956

    Ray-Ban Wayfarers Source:

    Ray-Ban introduced their iconic Wayfarers. The popular style was well-loved by everyone, from actor Jack Nicholson to fashion icon Anna Wintour.

  • 1960s

    Jackie Kennedy sunglasses Source:

    The most popular sunglasses during the Vietnam War featured oversized lenses. Jackie Kennedy, First Lady for the first three years of the decade, was behind the iconic "Jackie O" style.

  • 1970s

    Round sunglasses Source:

    Round sunglasses were all the rage with the flower child generation. John Lennon was the epitome of urban cool when he was photographed wearing a pair in his New York City sleeveless tee.

  • 1972

    porsche sunglasses Source:

    Porsche Design, known for their high-end luxury vehicles, released the first sunglasses with interchangeable lenses. A limited-edition pair was released in 2018, featuring a multitude of colored lenses.

  • 1975

    Oakley-hollbrook Source:

    Competition was in full swing among sunglasses manufacturers. Oakley, started by James Jannard in California, was a popular brand at motocross and racing events.

  • 1980s

    Molly Ringwald sunglasses Source:

    Molly Ringwald popularized plastic sunglasses in Pretty in Pink. This material was significantly less expensive than aluminum, but still fashionable enough for a movie star.

  • 1986

    Tom Cruise aviators Source:

    The aviator style had a resurgence in popularity when Tom Cruise wore his for the film Top Gun. The debonair celebrity raised the sales for Ray-Bans over 40% upon the movie's release.

  • 1990s

    Sporty sunglasses Source:

    Sporty sunglasses became popular at the same time Jeff Gordon and Venus Williams were at their prime. Brands like Oakley and Ray-Ban created pairs that wrapped around the head.

  • 1990s

    Novelty sunglasses Source:

    Novelty sunglasses, such as the ones pictured here, were all the rage. This was a time of experimenting with style and defying convention, making holographic lenses super popular.

  • 2000

    2000 sunglasses Source:

    The new millennium was celebrated with funky sunglasses reading "2000." Many people thought Y2K meant the end of the world, yet were still all smiles in their silly shades.

  • 2008

    Slit lenses sunglasses Source:

    Kanye West, aka Yeezy, introduced a new trend in sunglass design with these slit lenses. While they were never good at guarding the sun, they have been a trendy design for parties and events ever since.

  • 2015

    Enchroma sunglasses Source:

    California company EnChroma Labs created sunglasses that temporarily correct color blindness. The shades, which are still on the market today, feature Ray-Ban inspired frames and range from $325 to $450 per pair.

  • 2017

    Vuzik Blade smartglasses Source:

    The Vuzik Blade 3000's are smartglasses with an impressive variety of features. These shades function like a cell phone, providing GPS directions and playing YouTube videos.

  • 2018

    Snapchat spectables Source: PC Magazine

    Snapchat Spectacles, priced at over $100, fuse a classic accessory with social media. These shades have a built-in camera for sending snaps and come in your choice of black, coral, or teal.


During the course of the twentieth century, sunglasses became the symbol of the rich, the famous, and the cool. They get you attention because people think you might be famous.

Hadley Freeman, author of The Meaning of Sunglasses

Earliest Sunglasses

The Earliest Sunglasses in History

Sunglasses are now seen as a fashion accessory, but they started out as functional items for hunters, emperors, and judges. They were used to see through blizzards, watch gladiator fights, and hide someone's true expression in court.

Fight to the Finish: Gladiator Sunglasses

In Roman society, men and women only had hats to guard themselves from the sun. However, Emperor Nero set the precedent for the future of sunglasses when he started using emeralds to watch gladiator fights and chariot races in the Colosseum. Nero's tutor Seneca was an expert in light refraction and optics and advised the emperor to hold the gems up to his eyes as he watched the battles. Apparently, Seneca was pretty good at his job since Nero claimed that the emeralds were soothing and made the events easier to see. Some experts even believe he carved out the center to create concave lenses.

Sunglasses on statue Source:

Nero definitely didn't want to miss what was happening in the Colosseum, especially if it involved one of the most popular gladiators at the time, Spiculus. Nero was his #1 fan and would attend every fight. In fact, Nero loved Spiculus so much he would often reward him with palaces and riches, like the very emeralds he brought along to the arena. If this was the case, Nero's gems were functioning as both the world's first sunglasses and a treasured gladiatorial gift. Spiculus and others in Rome may have used the emeralds the same way as their leader, kicking off the future of sunglasses.

Sunglasses on statue Source:

Cold as Ice: Inuit Sunglasses

The first official eyewear designed for sun protection was ironically found in the chilly cold. Early tribes in the Arctic wore shades made from walrus ivory, wood, bone, or leather to block the rays. These had slits near the eyes that prevented snow blindness, making them look anything but fashionable. They fit tightly against the face and only a small sliver of light could come through the slits. The result was the creation of a sun-blocking shadow that rested right over the pupils. To cut down even more of the glare, soot mixed with oil was rubbed on the outside.

Inuit sunglasses Source:

The "snow goggles" were commonly used by the Inuits and came in handy as they hunted for food and built shelters. Other native tribes, such as the Yupiks and Aleuts, also wore these shades. They were designed more for function than fashion, especially since cutting down the glare could mean all the difference when it came to survival.

Inuit sunglasses Source:

Order in the Court: China Sunglasses

During the 12th century, China had a higher standard of living than other nations. They were advancing in bold ways with many artistic and scientific achievements. As such, the government had high expectations for their people. In fact, civil service examinations were performed under the Song Dynasty that determined an individual's job in society. An applicant could find themselves in either a cozy government job or a lower-class position like a miner or farmer depending on their test results.

China sunglasses.png Source:

While sunglasses are typically associated with a carefree attitude, they became influential at the height of these strict times. The judges in court wore shades made from smoky quartz to create a poker face. These had tinted lenses that would shield their facial expressions as they interrogated witnesses or performed exams. As a result, the judges appeared aloof and unapproachable, and eventually, the tests caused a rebellion against the government.

Still, that didn't stop people from seeing the appeal in a cool pair of shades. In fact, there is speculation that sunglasses were also worn by aristocratic people in Italy. A 1352 painting by Tommaso da Modena shows a very suave man wearing sunglasses that would make even John Lennon proud.

China sunglasses.png Source:
Did you know?

National Sunglasses Day is celebrated in America on June 27th.

Who Invented Medical Sunglasses?

As the world progressed, people needed sunglasses for more than just keeping a good poker face. Visual impairments were a common problem throughout Europe and society needed a solution. Leave it to English optician James Ayscough who experimented with double-hinged side pieces and tinted lenses in 1752. He used his knowledge of microscopes to create the world's first medical sunglasses with blue or green lenses. These sunglasses were particularly valued by elderly people and were hailed as "a blessing to the aged." They combated common problems such as colorblindness and depth perception.

The value of colored lenses isn't lost on medical professionals, even in the modern world of medicine. A study by the Journal of Athletic Training in 2017 found that athletes who suffered from concussions were able to decrease discomfort with colored glasses. In fact, 85% of the patients had relief from debilitating symptoms.

There is clearly value in shielding your eyes from the sun on a medical level. The ideal sunglasses will block about 99% of UVA and UVB rays. Ayscough's shades brought a monumental change to the medical world and kickstarted an entire industry.

Did you know?

James Ayscough's sunglasses have been mentioned in works by both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe.

Who Invented Sunglasses?

Life sunglasses ad Source:

Sam Foster sold the first commercial sunglasses in 1929. They were called Foster Grants and were peddled on the beaches of Atlantic City. People absolutely loved Foster's shades, and soon enough, the demand was exceeding the sandy shores. Woolworth's on the boardwalk in New Jersey started selling sunglasses at their store and there was no going back.

There was clearly a market for sunglasses, and just like any product that makes waves, manufacturers started getting creative with new designs. For instance, Edwin H. Land, the man behind Polaroid, created the first polarized pair in 1937. Within a year, about 20 million sunglasses were sold in the United States and an article in Life Magazine hailed them as "a new fad for wear on city streets."

Life sunglasses ad Source:

Check out this 1978 commercial for Foster Grant sunglasses!

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Did you know?

In the early 1900s, the slang term for sunglasses was "sun-cheaters."

The History of Aviator Sunglasses

Before Sam Foster was anywhere near the beach, the Army Air Corps was busy developing their own sunglasses. Prior to World War I, pilots wore goggles that couldn't be removed even for a second. In fact, Shorty Schroeder, a test pilot for the U.S. army, had his vision blur and his eyes almost freeze over during one flight. Schroeder's friend, Lieutenant John Macready, was there that day to pull him out of the cockpit, but it was obvious they needed something better for eye protection, especially since fighter pilots would have to land early as they were getting headaches from straining their eyes.

Biden with sunglasses Source:

Macready worked directly with an optical company called Bausch & Lomb to create sunglasses that would reduce the glare in high-altitude. They borrowed the same idea behind the medical sunglasses in the late 1700s, creating shades with a dark green tint and lightweight gold wire metal frames in a tear drop shape. This shape was perfect for pilots as it covered the entire eye and came to be known as "aviator sunglasses."

Right before the start of World War II, Ray-Ban started mass-producing these anti-glare aviators specifically for pilots. Even General Douglas Macarthur was in on the action, photographed wearing a pair as he boarded a plane to negotiate in the Philippines. However, just like the white t-shirt, military fashion transferred to civilians, and soon enough, the brand brought their signature shades to the marketplace. From there, sales skyrocketed and everyone loved rocking this look.

Ray-Ban sunglasses cost more than anything else on the market, but the world couldn't get enough. By the 80s, the company signed a $50,000 annual deal with an entertainment marketing company named Unique Product Placement to feature their brand in movies and TV shows. This exposure did wonders for the popularity of Ray-Bans. Today, you'll find a good pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses selling for as much as $300 at high-end stores across the country.

Did you know?

Tom Cruise made Ray-Bans spike in popularity on two separate occasions, once in Top Gun and again in Risky Business.


Ray-Ban is a design champion because it was in the right place at the right time and designed in the right spirit. They are definitions of their era, alongside Zippo lighters, Fender guitars, Coke bottles, and other classics.

Silas Amos, Creative Director at Jones Knowles Ritchie

A Star is Born: Sunglasses in Movies and Music

Between Foster Grants, polarized sunglasses, and Ray-Ban aviators, sunglasses were spiking in popularity across the country. Sales went through the roof when Hollywood movie stars started wearing them to go incognito from pushy paparazzi and to cover their eyes from the powerful arc lamps used for the low speed film stocks. Hollywood made sunglasses less functional and more fashionable, whether it was Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn in their cat eye frames or Elvis Presley making a statement in tinted lenses.

In the decades that followed, the styles evolved and sunglasses became an integral part of the movie world. A few of the most iconic pairs include Lolita's heart-shaped frames, Travis Bickle's stylish Caravans in Taxi Driver, and the dark Ray-Bans in Men in Black.

Elvis sunglasses Source:

Movie stars weren't the only ones making a statement in sunglasses. Musicians were also making sound waves with their stylish shades, from Miles Davis playing the blues in the 50s to Elton John rocking a palm tree pair in the 70s to Missy Elliot working it in galactic sunglasses in the early 2000s.

All it took was for sunglasses to be worn by the rich and famous to get them national attention. People started scooping them up by the handful, and stylish shades came to be associated with an instant cool factor. The trend was taking off at the speed of light and many designers started getting creative. Take for instance, Emilio Pucci, an Italian fashion designer known for his geometric prints and bold colors. The pair pictured here were super popular in the 60s and 70s and is valued at over $300.

Lolita sunglasses Source:

Overall, sunglasses have never not been on trend. Manufacturers still create modern versions of the classic pairs worn in the 1930s through the 1980s. At the same time, they are thinking of even more innovative designs and features, such as sunglasses featuring smart technology.

Super round sunglasses Source: Country Living
Did you know?

Elton John is rumored to have the largest sunglasses collection in the world, with over 20,000 pairs.

Advertising with Customized Sunglasses

Due to their popularity, and the convenience brought from screen printing, companies could turn to customized sunglasses to advertise their business as early as the 1950s. It was easy to print a logo, custom design, or advertising message on the arms or lens to promote a brand.

Iridiscent sunglasses Source:

This has always been a valuable way to get the word out there about your business. In fact, a 2015 study by Advances in Consumer Research found that consumers are more likely to pay attention to a brand if it's printed on a "cool product" like sunglasses. Something stylish like wood tone sunglasses with mirrored lenses are sure to get attention at any event.

The best part of advertising with sunglasses is the variety available. You can get many colors, shapes and styles. Plus, a company can print their logo or advertising message on the lens or the arms. This means you'll get exposure from both the front and side.

Iridiscent sunglasses Source:


Logo side sunglasses


Logo front sunglasses

Sunglasses are usually small in size, but the market for them is massive. The reason for this is obvious, isn't it? People want to look cool!

Vanessa Brown, author of Cool Shades: The History and Meaning of Sunglasses

Stats for Success

Stats 1 icon

The U.S. sunglasses market was up to $4 billion in June 2015.

Stats 2 icon

75% of the designer sunglasses are produced by a single company.

Stats 3 icon

Women spend roughly $1.85 billion a year in the United States on sunglasses.

The Bottom Line

Sunglasses evoke a sense of mystery and cool beyond any other accessory. That's what makes them so perfect as advertising giveaways. Whether you hit the beach in your Foster Grants, fly to the skies in your aviators, or channel Lolita in heart-shaped frames, you're going to look like a Hollywood star!

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is the Lead Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. As a promo expert, she's uncovered the world's first custom tote bag, interviewed the guy behind rock band ACDC's logo, and had a piece published by the Advertising Specialty Institute, a leader in the promotional products industry.


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