How Glasses Have Evolved Over the Centuries

evolution of eyewear

It was nearly three centuries ago that the first glasses that wrapped around the temples were introduced. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way from those early days when individual prescriptions didn’t exist, women only wore glasses in private and most glasses were bought from traveling caravans. In contrast, eyeglasses and sunglasses today are some of the most coveted, statement-making accessories. Eyewear design is no longer focused primarily on function, but on fashion too. Of course that doesn’t mean there weren’t stylish spectacles in the past. Here’s a look at how they’ve evolved over the last century.

The Eyes Have It

The Eyes Have It

It was nearly three centuries ago that the first glasses that wrapped around the temples were introduced. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way from those early days when individual prescriptions didn’t exist, women only wore glasses in private and most glasses were bought from traveling caravans. In contrast, eyeglasses and sunglasses today are some of the most coveted, statement-making accessories. Eyewear design is no longer focused primarily on function, but on fashion too. Of course that doesn’t mean there weren’t stylish spectacles in the past. Here’s a look at how they’ve evolved over the last century.

Turn of the Century: 1900-1920

Turn of the Century: 1900-1920

In the early part of the century, several styles of eyewear, worn by both sexes, were popular. Hailing from France, pince-nez (literally meaning “to pinch the nose”) spectacles were probably one of the silliest and most uncomfortable styles of eyeglasses to ever be worn. Sitting at the bridge of the nose without temples and made mostly of wire or horn (though some early versions were curiously crafted in leather), they balanced precariously on the face. To prevent them from frequently popping off, eyeglass makers devised some creative options like attaching neck chains and wire ear-loops to prevent them from crashing to the ground. Teddy Roosevelt popularized pince-nez glasses in America.
 
The lorgnette — or what we refer to today as “opera glasses” — was another style that was widely used among fashionable women and the high-society set. The lorgnette has duo lenses (one for each eye) and is mounted on a long handle (see middle image). Decorative handles were popular, featuring etched metals, carved horn and encrusted jewels. The lorgnette was deemed acceptable for women because they merely held the accessory to the face, rather than obscuring the face with actual spectacles. (God forbid!)
 
Circular-lensed wire spectacles were the most popular style, featuring temples that curved securely behind the ear. This lightweight version of the eyeglass (although not particularly pretty) was the future of things to come.
 
Also rather noteworthy was the development of lenses that were capable of absorbing harmful UV and infrared light in 1913.

The 1920s through the 1930s

The 1920s through the 1930s

The round lens retained its popularity through this period but was fashioned out of sturdier metal and celluloid, a fine, expensive plastic that is no longer in production due to its delicacy, flammability and inability to last.
 
The introduction of new materials began to surface in this period: Real silver and 12k-gold plating and gold filling made their debut in an effort to jazz up the look and feel of metal, wire-framed eyeglasses. Tortoise shell was extremely popular for its natural beauty and flattering shades and markings against the face. However, these specs were thick and heavy and tended to be uncomfortable. 
 
The first Ray-Ban Aviators were developed in the ’30s at the request of US Air Force pilots who complained of headaches and altitude sickness due to the extreme glare of the sun while flying.  Ray-Ban invented the green-hued lenses, known as polarization, cutting glare and relieving the symptoms of pilots and sun-seekers everywhere. They were released for sale to the public in 1937.

The 1940s through the 1950s

The 1940s through the 1950s

The biggest trend in eyewear in the 1940s was surely the “browline.” Introduced in 1947 and combining both metal and plastic, the top section of the frame is made in plastic, giving them their distinctive, signature faux eyebrow look. The browline was so popular after the second World War that it made up 50 percent of all eyeglass sales moving right into the 1950s.
 
Frames became more fashionable. A huge variety of colors in plastics were available and lenses became larger and rounder — even rectangular. It was clear that women and men desired variety and fun in their choice of eyewear.
 
The major statement in the ’50s was the cat eye. Whether for optical or sun-shading purposes, the cat eye was the most popular style of the decade, coming in a variety of colors, sizes and decorations. Some were even covered in rhinestones, pearls, or plastic flowers, moving into the realm of fantastical. Marilyn Monroe was a huge fan of the cat eye, wearing them in her films and in real life. This marked a real moment of glamour in the world of eyewear.
 
Heavy black-rimmed glasses (also known as G-man specs) were also popular with the literary, beat and art crowd and reflected the look of the influential film noir style. In 1952, Ray-Ban introduced the iconic Wayfarer, a plastic framed mid-century modern style with a more masculine feel, made even cooler by James Dean.

The 1960s through the 1970s

The 1960s through the 1970s

The ’60s were dominated by two major style forces: the Mods and the Flower Children. The former was a highly stylized look that gave way to bold, clean geometric shapes, strong black and white with bright pops of color and a newfound sense of futurism. High fashion became synonymous with oversized bug-eye glasses and oddly shaped frames that seemed a cross between a visor and some device worn to protect your eyes while on your spaceship.
 
Designers like Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin and Andres Courreges were the champions of the mod style and were fearless arbiters of futurism in all its wacky guises. One of the most iconic accessories from the 1960s is a pair of glasses (not really meant for seeing or sun) from Courreges. Dubbed “The Eskimo,” these oversized, stark-white plastic frames feature a single horizontal slit that runs across its opaque lenses. This is mod at its best (or worst depending on how you look at it).
 
Jackie Kennedy Onassis was a huge fan of the bug-eye look and was frequently photographed wearing the supersized black frames. Her popularity and influential style had a major effect on women in America at that time and helped to solidify this look as mysterious and chic as she was.
 
At the opposite end of the spectrum were the Flower Children. Free loving hippies took cues from John Lennon, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. Rimless round glasses, oversized, rainbow colored and shaded lenses from lemon and psychedelic pink to trippy turquoise were just the tip of the style iceberg. Oversized, fantastical glasses a la Elton John and his disco-fever friends meant the more extravagant and theatrical, the better.

The 1980s through the 1990s

The 1980s through the 1990s

The decade of excess gave way to advanced design, higher-quality frames and materials, invisible bifocals and lighter weight eyewear. Innovator and French eyewear designer Alain Mikli set the tone with his funky oblong and trapezoidal shapes, mismatched, bi-color frames and, everyone’s favorite, the wraparound. The New Wave devotees wouldn’t have been caught dead without their darkly cool, slightly bizarre eyewear. It was a key element in the look. Provocateur Grace Jones popularized wraparounds as the perfect accent to her immaculate androgynous visage.
 
Ray-Ban’s Wayfarers made a resurgence among the hottest celebrities and musicians in the ’80s, like Madonna, Debbie Harry, and, most notably, Tom Cruise in Risky Business who put Wayfarers back on the sartorial map in 1983.
 
The 1980s also ushered in a keen interest in wearing vintage clothing, accessories and, of course, eyewear. Suddenly it was cool again to wear rhinestone encrusted cat-eye glasses, Rockabilly metal frames from the ‘50s and weird mod shaped frames from the ’60s. This newfound interest in vintage has not waned since. Vintage eyewear is not only continually sought after but also highly collectible and can fetch prices in the thousands.
 
Contrasting the variety of styles from the previous decade, the ’90s ushered in a much more minimal, serious fashion, which included eyewear. Simple, black shades, sporty shapes and the return of the round frame were all popular.

The 2000s and Beyond

The 2000s and Beyond

Unlike any decade we have lived through (or read about in history books), the 21st Century has been a mish-mash of styles and trends that don’t speak clearly of one key, overarching look but more of an acceptance of personal style. Major fashion magazines are no longer the authority they once were. Fashion, style, trends and mini-trends exist from the street up and are documented (and sometimes started) by style-lovers, bloggers and photographers.

There are more eyewear brands than ever before, and every designer that has accessory collections also includes sunglasses and optical frames. Big, powerhouse brands like Chanel, Prada, Versace, Calvin Klein and Gucci all invest highly in their eyewear collections with wild new styles, innovative materials and loads of advertising. And they’re making regular appearances on the red carpet now too. Finally, eyeglasses are not only OK to wear, they’re actually desirable.

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