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When Were Sunglasses Invented? A History of Stylish Shades

Alyssa Mertes

Published: June 21st, 2021

You probably have a sentimental attachment to your favorite pair of sunglasses. After all, a good pair of shades is a must for long road trips, bikeathons, and family vacations at the beach. Plus, they make you look cool, even if you're a total dweeb!

The crazy thing is sunglasses weren't always fashionable eyewear. They actually served a more practical purpose when they first came out. Let's get into the full history of sunglasses, from emeralds in Rome to the stylish pairs you wear today.

Quote

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

Society has always needed a way to shield our eyes. From wealthy emperors to movie stars, check out the fascinating evolution of sunglasses in this timeline!

  • 1050

    smoky quartz Source: https://www.sunglassmuseum.com

    Arctic tribes, including the Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut, carved snow goggles from walrus ivory, leather, wood, or bone. These masks had tiny slits over the eyes that helped block glare from the snow and ice.

  • 1200-1300

    blue and green tinted shades Source: https://imgur.com

    Chinese judges in the Song Dynasty wore sunglasses made from smoky quartz in court, which hid their facial expressions as they interrogated witnesses and conducted civil service examinations. Civil service examinations were a taboo system that was used to determine an individual's job and status in society. It was a strict time, and the sunglasses created tension as it made the judges appear aloof and unapproachable.

  • 1752

    Pair of Civil War sniper glasses Source: https://www.si.edu

    James Ayscough invented medical sunglasses that were fitted with blue or green lenses. These prescription shades used the same optics found in microscopes to fix visual impairments related to color blindness and depth perception.

  • 1861-1865

    medical sunglasses Source: https://www.thestoryoftexas.com

    In the 1800's, medical sunglasses were used to correct cataracts and other eye problems. Soldiers in the Civil War also had special pairs of glasses that they'd wear in combat, which had orange tinted lenses and a little unshaded circle over each pupil that allowed snipers to hone in on their target.

  • 1929

    Sam Foster Grant company Source: https://creativepro.com

    Sam Foster sold trendy sunglasses to beach goers in Atlantic City. It didn't take long for Foster Grant sunglasses to go commercial and take over all of New Jersey!

  • 1937

    Ray-Ban aviator Source: https://www.ray-ban.com

    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: https://www.eyecarebusiness.com

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

  • 1950s

    Cat Eye sunglasses Source: http://nonjaded.blogspot.com

    Cat eye glasses became a super popular style. Marilyn Monroe wore an iconic pair in the movie, How to Marry a Millionaire, but the style became truly famous when Audrey Hepburn rocked them in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

  • 1956

    Ray-Ban Wayfarers Source: https://www.ray-ban.com

    Ray-Ban introduced their iconic Wayfarers. This popular style was well-loved by everyone, including many celebrities like Jack Nicholson and fashion icon Anna Wintour.

  • 1960s

    Jackie Kennedy sunglasses Source: http://www.prace-ri.eu

    Jackie Kennedy, First Lady for the first three years of the decade, made oversized sunglasses famous. This style became known as Jackie Ohh's and were eventually mass produced by Ray-Ban.

  • 1970s

    Round sunglasses Source: https://www.8ball.co.uk

    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. Today, round lenses are a retro look that many people still love!

  • 1972

    porsche sunglasses Source: https://www.pretavoir.co.uk

    Porsche Design, a luxury brand in Europe, released the first sunglasses with interchangeable lenses. A limited-edition pair was re-released in 2018, featuring a multitude of colored lenses.

  • 1975

    Oakley-hollbrook Source: https://www.framesdirect.com

    Oakley was started by James Jannard in California. These sunglasses were popular at motocross and racing events, but eventually became a favorite style for all athletes.

  • 1980s

    Molly Ringwald sunglasses Source: http://glitterandpearls.blogspot.com

    Actress Molly Ringwald wore an iconic pair of plastic sunglasses in the movie, Pretty in Pink. Plastic was significantly less expensive than aluminum, so manufacturers took note of this trend and started making their own pairs to sell to customers.

  • 1986

    Tom Cruise aviators Source: http://www.ign.com

    Aviator sunglasses had a resurgence in popularity when Tom Cruise wore the shades in the movie, Top Gun. In fact, the movie's popularity raised the sales for Ray-Ban by over 40%!

  • 1990s

    Sporty sunglasses Source: https://www.sunglasswarehouse.com

    Sport sunglasses became popular. Jeff Gordon and Venus Williams were at their prime, and brands like Oakley and Ray-Ban created the first wrap around sunglasses.

  • 1990s

    Novelty sunglasses Source: https://www.thecut.com/

    The 90's were a time of experimenting with style and defying convention. To go with the grunge trend of the decade, sunglasses started to look a little unusual and edgy.

  • 2000

    2000 sunglasses Source: https://www.thecut.com

    Party goers celebrated the new millennium with funky sunglasses reading "2000." At the time, many thought Y2K meant the end of the world, but they still were smiling in their silly shades!

  • 2008

    Slit lenses sunglasses Source: http://www.sandipointe.com

    Kanye West introduced a new trend in sunglasses design with these slitted lenses. While these shades were never good at guarding the sun, they've become popular novelty items for parties and celebrations.

  • 2015

    Enchroma sunglasses Source: https://enchroma.com

    California company EnChroma Labs created sunglasses that temporarily correct color blindness. These 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: https://www.wareable.com

    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.

  • 2020

    Vuzik Blade smartglasses Source: https://www.blenderseyewear.com

    New designs are coming out all the time. Take for instance the Saturn Clouds from Blenders Eyewear. These unisex sunglasses have extremely large, polarized lenses that offer 100% UV protection.

Quote

During the course of the twentieth century, sunglasses became the symbol of the rich, the famous, and the cool. They get you attention.

Hadley Freeman, author of The Meaning of Sunglasses

When Was the First Pair of Sunglasses Made?

At first, sunglasses were made for function rather than fashion. The earliest pair was actually not a pair at all, but rather emeralds held up to the eyes by Emperor Nero in Rome in 37 AD.

Emperor Nero had a tutor named Seneca who was an expert in light refraction and optics. Seneca advised Nero to hold emeralds up to his eyes in order to cut down on glare and make gladiator fights and chariot races in the Colosseum easier to see. Some experts even believe Nero carved out the center of the gems to create concave lenses.

By the 11th century, other versions of sunglasses were popping up around the world. For instance, "snow goggles" were worn in the Arctic to shield eyes from snow and ice. Meanwhile, judges in China used sunglasses made from smoky quartz to hide their facial expressions as they interrogated witnesses in court.

Sunglasses started out as practical eyewear for emperors, hunters, and judges. It would be nearly 700 years before they were first worn as fashion accessories!

Sunglasses on statue Source: http://www.historyrevealed.com
Did you know?

Sunglasses may have been worn for style earlier than experts believed. In fact, a 1352 painting by Tommaso da Modena shows a man wearing round sunglasses that would make John Lennon proud.

Did you know? Source: storiesofworld.com

Who First Invented Sunglasses?

Life sunglasses ad Source: https://artsandculture.google.com/

James Ayscough is often credited for inventing sunglasses, with the first prescription shades coming out in Europe in 1752. Each pair had either blue or green lenses and was worn to fix colorblindness or stereopsis, which is the ability to accurately gauge depth perception.

Ayscough's sunglasses were a huge hit, so much so, that the elderly community called them "a blessing to the aged." It was the first time people had a way to correct their eye problems, which was a big deal in the world of medicine.

Colored lenses are still helping people to this day. In fact, a study published in The Journal of Athletic Training found that athletes who suffered from concussions were able to decrease discomfort by 85% by wearing sunglasses with tinted lenses.

Life sunglasses ad Source: https://artsandculture.google.com/
Did you know?

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

When Were Sunglasses Invented?

Life sunglasses ad Source: https://www.oldlifemagazines.com

The first commercial sunglasses hit stores in 1929. They were invented by Sam Foster who sold them for cheap to beach goers in Atlantic City. People absolutely loved Foster Grant sunglasses, and soon enough, they were sold in Woolworth's, a retail store in New Jersey.

By the early 1940's, about 20 million sunglasses were sold in the United States. An article in Life Magazine even hailed them as "a new fad for wear on city streets." They were officially more than just practical lenses that people wore for medical reasons. Sunglasses were bona fide fashion statements!

Life sunglasses ad Source: https://www.oldlifemagazines.com

Check out this Foster Grant sunglasses commercial from 1978!

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Who Invented Aviator Sunglasses?

John Macready with sunglasses Source: http://www.daedalians.org

Lieutenant John Macready of the U.S. Army pulled a fellow soldier from the cockpit after his vision blurred and his eyes almost froze over during a flight. This heroic act inspired Macready to invent the first pair of aviator sunglasses in 1936 with help from an optical company named Bausch & Lomb.

At the time, aviators had a dark green tint that reduced the glare in high altitudes. They also had lightweight gold wire metal frames and tear drop shaped lenses that covered the entire eye. Bausch & Lomb eventually sold this design to Ray-Ban, and just like the white t-shirt, the military fashion eventually transferred over to civilian life.

Aviators cost more than anything else on the market at the time, but they still sold like hotcakes. In fact, by the 80s Ray-Ban signed a $50,000 annual deal with an entertainment marketing company named Unique Product Placement to feature the aviators and their other sunglasses in movies and TV shows. This why you'll find Ray-Ban sunglasses worn by characters in many popular 80's and 90's movies including Top Gun, Risky Business, The Terminator, and The Breakfast Club.

John Macready with sunglasses Source: http://www.daedalians.org
Quote

Ray-Ban is a 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

How Did Sunglasses Become Popular?

Hollywood caused sunglasses to become more popular than ever before. Sales went through the roof when movie stars and celebrities started wearing them on sets to cover their eyes from the powerful arc lamps used at the time for low speed film stocks.

Not only were they popular on the red carpet, but sunglasses also had a starring role in many iconic movies. Check out some of the most famous pairs of all time!

breakfast at tiffanys Source: https://www.selectspecs.com

Cat Eye Sunglasses in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

Source: https://www.santamonica.com

Heart-Shaped Sunglasses in Lolita (1962)

Source: https://www.mentalfloss.com

Ray-Ban Wayfarers in The Blues Brothers (1980)

Source: https://www.grailed.com

Aviator Sunglasses in Top Gun (1986)

Source: https://www.republicworld.com

Wrap Around Sunglasses in Men in Black (1997)

Source: https://www.popworkouts.com

Pink Lenses in Fight Club (1999)

nDCNEIsqTKH1en2tcwA9FKEItyDi3aIh8Gl1sRrVnSDzNFDJT1bAy5xpOYGn5fP5JuL95ZjMIn1ya7j5dPGfv0A5eAnpZUY3n5jXcoec5J67D9q Source: https://www.shortlist.com

Tortoiseshell Frames in Drive (2011)

Just like many fashion trends, sunglasses really took off when they showed up on TV, in movies, and splashed on the pages of tabloids. All it took was for stylish shades to be worn by the rich and famous to get them national attention.

Quote

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

Why Is It Important to Wear Sunglasses?

smiling man wearing red polo shirt Source: https://www.popworkouts.com

You should always wear sunglasses because, according to the American Optometric Association, they protect your eyes from the sun's UV rays. The good news is it's easy to wear a pair with so many amazing colors, patterns, and shapes to choose from!

A good pair of sunglasses has allure, style, and character. They come in a rainbow of lens colors, and some even have unique shapes like butterflies, pineapples, and rainclouds. Overall, you're sure to find a pair of shades that matches your personality and fashion sense.

smiling man wearing red polo shirt Source: https://www.popworkouts.com
Did you know?

Stats for Success

Stats 1 icon

The U.S. market for sunglasses was valued at $14.5 billion in 2018.

Stats 2 icon

Women spend roughly $1.85 billion a year on sunglasses.

Stats 3 icon

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

The Bottom Line

Sunglasses evoke a sense of mystery and cool beyond any other accessory. 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 protect your eyes and look like a Hollywood star!

Quality Logo Products are experts on all things printed and promotional. Let our team of awesome, incredibly good looking, and fun promo nerds help you select awesome promotional swag today!

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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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