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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ray-Ban introduced their iconic Wayfarers. The popular style was well-loved by everyone, from actor Jack Nicholson to fashion icon Anna Wintour.
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.
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.
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.
Competition was in full swing among sunglasses manufacturers. Oakley, started by James Jannard in California, was a popular brand at motocross and racing events.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Glasses History. (2018). Origins and History of Sunglasses. Retrieved July 9, 2018, from http://www.glasseshistory.com/glasses-history/history-of-sunglasses/
All About Sunglasses. (2018). The Dark History of Sunglasses. Retrieved July 9, 2018, from http://all-about-sunglasses.blogspot.com/2008/03/dark-history-of-sunglasses.html
Sunglass Museum. (2017, February 03). A Brief History of Sunglasses. Retrieved July 9, 2018, from https://www.sunglassmuseum.com/blogs/news/a-brief-history-of-sunglasses
Bucci, J. (2017, May 16). Fashion Archives: A Look at the History of Sunglasses. Retrieved July 29, 2018, from https://startupfashion.com/fashion-archives-a-look-at-the-history-of-sunglasses/
Wright, A. (2017, June 2). The History of Sunglasses. Retrieved July 9, 2018, from https://www.selectspecs.com/fashion-lifestyle/history-of-sunglasses/
Cao, B. (2018, June 28). The History of Sunglasses – The Journey From Function to Fashion. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://www.zennioptical.com/blog/the-history-of-sunglasses-the-journey-from-function-to-fashion/
Stone, R. (2017, August 11). Sunglasses: A History of Protective, Stylish, and Popular Eyewear. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts-other-artifacts/sunglasses-history-protective-stylish-and-popular-eyewear-008577
Brown, V. (2015). Cool Shades: The History and Meaning of Sunglasses. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Webb, A. (2018, June 27). Sunglasses Trends Through the Decades. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://www.crfashionbook.com/fashion/g21940953/national-sunglasses-day-trends-history/
Woodard, E. (2015, August 5). History of Aviator Sunglasses. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://www.randolphusa.com/blogs/blog/history-of-aviator-sunglasses
Bond, S. (2018). I Wear My Sunglasses at the Fight? The Emperor Nero and the History of Sunglasses. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://sarahemilybond.com/2016/05/22/i-wear-my-sunglasses-at-the-fight-the-emperor-nero-and-the-history-of-sunglasses/
Wahba, P. (2016, January 27). Re-Tooled: How Ray-Ban Brought Its Brand Back from the Brink. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://fortune.com/2016/01/27/ray-ban-luxottica-retooled/
Kennedy, P. (2012, August 3). Who Made Those Aviator Sunglasses? Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/05/magazine/who-made-those-aviator-sunglasses.html
Torgerson, R. (2018, June 18). The Fascinating History of Sunglasses. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://www.cosmopolitan.com/style-beauty/fashion/a20737131/history-of-sunglasses/
Epicstoke. (2018). 10 Interesting Facts About Sunglasses. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from http://epicstoke.com/10-interesting-facts-about-sunglasses/
Message to Eagle. (2016, June 11). First Sunglasses Were Used 2,000 Years Ago by Eskimo Hunters. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://misuse.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/error/abuse.shtml
Wolff-Mann, E. (2014, March 27). 11 Things You Didn't Know About Ray-Ban. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://www.thrillist.com/gear/fun-facts-about-ray-ban-sunglasses-trivia-history-celebrity
Liggins, T. (2017, April 3). 15 Random Facts and Useless Trivia About Sunglasses. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://www.zappos.com/beyondthebox/
Gaffney, J. (2014, August 10). The Aviator: From Combat Necessity to Style Essential. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://huckberry.com/journal/posts/a-history-of-the-aviator-sunglasses
New York Glass. (2014, December 5). A Brief History of Wayfarer Sunglasses. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://www.nyglass.com/blogs/new-york-glass-blog/16155320-a-brief-history-of-wayfarer-sunglasses
Zhou, L. (2015, March 3). A Scientist Accidentally Developed Sunglasses That Could Correct Color Blindness. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/scientist-accidentally-developed-sunglasses-that-could-correct-color-blindness-180954456/
The NPD Group. (2015, August 6). The Appeal of Sunglasses Bridges Gender and Generational Gaps. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/press-releases/2015/the-appeal-of-sunglasses-bridges-gender-and-generational-gaps-reports-npd/
American Sunglass. (2017, November 20). 9 Fun Facts About Sunglasses. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://www.americansunglass.com/blogs/news/9-fun-facts-about-sunglasses
Journal of Athletic Training. (2017, August 1). Colored Glasses to Mitigate Photophobia Symptoms Posttraumatic Brain Injury. National Athletic Trainers' Association, Inc.
Gerechter, V. (2009, June 1). Sunglasses – Tips on Choosing the Right Pair for You. Eye Care Review.
Indvik, L. (2016, March 1). The Guide: Sunglasses. InStyle Magazine, Time Inc.
HistoriCool Magazine. (2017, August 1). It's a Pair of the World's Oldest Sunglasses!, HistoriCool.
Wang, L., Dalton, A. (2016, January 1). How and Why Wearing Sunglasses Makes for Cool Consumers. Advances in Consumer Research, Zhejiang University, Hong Kong University.
Adhikari, S. (2018). Top 10 Famous Ancient Roman Gladiators. Retrieved July 11, 2018, from https://www.ancienthistorylists.com/rome-history/top-10-famous-ancient-roman-gladiators/