The Evolution of Sunglasses

How sunglasses entered the spotlight

Sunglasses are one of the world's most ubiquitous fashion accessory, but also play an important part in protecting our eyes from harmful UV rays. We take a look at how they came into being...

Snow goggles: the first sunglasses

The earliest known use of glasses to protect eyes from the sun was the Inuit use of “sun goggles” to shield their eyes from the blinding glare of light reflected off the snow. These were made from carved driftwood, bone, walrus ivory, or caribou antler that formed a strip worn across the eye area, with thin slits that the wearer could see through. The goggles were cut so that they fit tightly to the face, and often soot or gunpowder was rubbed on the outside to absorb the light and further cut down on glare. The use of these goggles dates back to around 2,000 years ago, and as a bonus, even improved the wearers vision as the narrow slits helped focus eyesight.

Snow goggles of caribou antler, 1800/1850 (From the collection of British Museum)

The Inuits weren't the only people in history to find an innovative way to protect their eyes from glare: Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History that the Roman Emperor Nero used to watch the gladiator fights through polished gemstones to reduce the glare from the sun—potentially the most expensive and most ineffective form of sunglasses in history. Another form of eye protection also cropped up in 12th century China, when flat planes of smoke-tinted quartz lenses were worn by magistrates in court proceedings. However these were supposedly used to hide the expressions of the wearer, not while outside catching rays.

Habach Valley Emerald (From the collection of Natural History Museum Vienna)

By the 18th century the modern form of eyeglasses had been invented, made with lenses held together by wire and the frame extending over the ear to hold them in place. A man called James Ayscough believed that changing the color of the actual lens could further help with specific vision impairments. He experimented with blue and green-tinted glass as ways to improve poor eyesight—little did he know that his idea would go on to be one of modern day’s must-have fashion accessories.

Eyeglasses (From the collection of Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial)

The dawn of modern sunglasses

The first instance of lenses being used to actually protect a wearer’s eyesight from light was around the early 20th century, when yellow and brown tinted glasses were prescribed to sufferers of syphilis. Syphilis causes eyes to become sensitive to light, so wearing darkened spectacles would have eased discomfort. However, not long later, sunglasses stopped becoming associated with poor health, and began to be a symbol of celebrity.

Around the 1920s, it became common for famous movie stars to be seen out in public wearing sunglasses. Not only would shielding their eyes make their identity more covert when they didn't want to be noticed, but it hid the fact that it was common for actors to have red eyes due to the powerfully bright klieg lamps used in studios.

Sunglasses, by Foster Grant, ca. 1953 (From the collection of The Strong National Museum of Play)

Where celebrities go, fashion follows

With the trend firmly set by the glamorous stars of the era, the demand for sunglasses skyrocketed. Savvy businessman Sam Foster began mass-producing sunglasses made from celluloid in 1929, which he began selling on the beaches of Atlantic City in New Jersey. The market was willing with their appeal stretching beyond sun-soaked beaches, and by 1938 Life Magazine reported that sunglasses were a: “new fad for wear on city streets...a favorite affectation of thousands of women all over the U.S." The same article also stated that in 1937, 20 million pairs of sunglasses were sold, but only 25% wore them to protect their eyes.

Sunglasses:Ray Ban Sunglasses, Bausch & Lomb, 1930 (From the collection of The Strong National Museum of Play)

Polarized lenses, which contain a special filter invented by Edwin H. Land that blocks intense light reflected off other surfaces like sand or snow, became available in 1936. Ray Ban, a glasses brand founded by American eye health company Bausch and Lomb, created aviator-style sunglasses using polarized lenses that were widely used by US Air Force pilots during World War II to block the glare from the sun. In 1937, they went on sale to the public and function finally met fashion with the shape of frames and color of lenses changing drastically to keep up with the catwalk.

Here is a selection of some of the styles that have emerged throughout the years:

Carole Lombard, by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1938 (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Actress Marlene Dietrich eating at the Paramount commisary, wearing sunglasses, by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1938 (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Fish Net Fashions, by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1939 (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Miami Beach. by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1940 (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Sun Spots, by Hansel Mieth, 1940 (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Sunglasses & Bows, by Alfred Eisenstaedt (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Sunglasses & Bows, by Alfred Eisenstaedt (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Frida Kahlo's Sunglasses, 1950 (From the collection of Museo Frida Kahlo)
Super Specs, by Stan Wayman, 1960 (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Sunglasses, unknown, 1960/1969 (From the collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Gafas para sol, Productor no identificado, 1960/1970 (From the collection of Museum of the Purpose of the Object)
Gafas para sol, Productor no identificado, 1960/1970 (From the collection of Museum of the Purpose of the Object)
Actor Micheal Caine wearing tinted sunglasses, 1984 (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Singer Cyndi Lauper, 1986 (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Grace Jones, wearing green fur jacket and hat w. sunglasses, 1988 (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Singer Madonna jogging, by David Mcgough, 1990 (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Musician Paul McCartney performing, by David Mcgough, 1993 (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Comedienne Joan Rivers, wearing sunglasses, by Dave Alloca, 1995 (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Actors Gwyneth Paltrow and Brad Pitt, both wearing sunglasses, at party for her film "The Pallbearer", 1996 (From LIFE Photo Collection)
David Bailey Artwork from Chasing Rainbows, by David Bailey, 2001 (From the collection of British Fashion Council)
Supertubes sunglasses from Rip Curl, by Ted Thai, 2004 (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Sunglasses co-created with brand THEO, by Emmanuel A. Ryngaert, 2016 (From the collection of Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp)
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