How Eyeglass Fashion Has Changed Over Time

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Vintage eyeglasses

We who rely on eyeglasses to function are most fortunate! If we’d been born 800 years ago, we’d be in a pickle. At that time, corrected vision was inconceivable. After the invention of spectacles, eyewear underwent a fascinating evolution. Following is the timeline of eyeglass fashion. From crude beginnings to our current technology, it’s quite an account!

1268 – Lenses Invented

There isn’t any historical record of who invented eyeglasses or exactly when. It’s suspected that framed lenses first emerged in Italy around 1268. Only monks and scholars were privileged to wear them. The glasses either balanced precariously on the nose or were hand-held before the eyes.

The invention of the printing press in 1452 spawned a growing need for eyewear. Book availability and greater literacy prompted increased production of inexpensive glasses.

1700s – Handmade Spectacles

During the 1700s, eyeglasses were made by hand. A significant development was the convenience of temple frames, introduced in 1728. Now glasses could remain in place on a person’s head, resting over their ears. In 1784, bifocals became available, invented by Benjamin Franklin. Three styles were common during the 1700s:

Martin’s Margins – These glasses were designed by scientist Benjamin Martin. The lenses were small, round, and tilted inward. To protect the eyes from harsh light, the lenses admitted one-third the light of standard glasses. They were also colored blue, violet, or green. Inserts were made of cattle horn or tortoiseshell.

Wig – Commonly worn by men with wigs, these glasses had long temple arms, extending far beyond the ears.

Scissor – Rather than temple stems, these glasses had Y-shaped frames with scissoring stems. Fitted with rings at the handle ends, they could be worn around the neck on a ribbon or chain. Often ornamental and gilded, scissor spectacles were the first fashionable glasses. They were commonly worn by the wealthy and aristocratic, such as Lafayette and Napoleon. George Washington also owned a pair.

1800s – Mass Production

Large-scale manufacturing made glasses more available, though in fewer styles. The majority of people bought cheap pairs, sold by traveling peddlers, general stores, and jewelers. The 1800s produced one basic style:

Lorgnette – At this point in history, glasses developed a stigma, associated with aging and frailty. Eyeglasses were only worn when absolutely necessary, especially by women. Lorgnettes spared folks from having to wear glasses since they were held up to the eyes by a long handle. Does the term “lorgnette” sound unfamiliar? Today, we call them opera glasses. In 1830, a French manufacturer created a hinged bridge with a spring. Now, the lorgnette conveniently folded! Opera glasses could be elegant when embellished with ornate handles, jewels, and etching.

1900s – Fashion Flourishes

In the 1900s, new materials became available, with plastic taking the fashion world by storm. Styles were strongly influenced by celebrities and quickly changed.

Pince-Nez – Had you lived in the early 1900s, you would have worn pince-nez glasses. French for “pinch nose,” these glasses were popularized by political figures, such as President Theodore Roosevelt. Sitting on the bridge of the nose, they were prone to falling off and breaking. The nose clip was also uncomfortable. To remedy these issues, manufacturers offered neck chains and ear loops.

Tortoiseshell – By the 1920s, pince-nez glasses developed a stuffy image and slowly lost appeal. Replacing them were tortoiseshell frames with large, circular lenses. Actor Harold Lloyd spurred a fashion trend by wearing them in photos and films.

Sunglasses – Although colored lenses were in use since the 1700s, they didn’t absorb both ultraviolet and infrared light. Sunglasses with absorptive qualities were created to meet the needs of World War II military pilots in the 1930s. The new technology spared them from sun glare and headaches. With this achievement, manufacturers began marketing stylish sunglasses. Thus, polarized aviators flew into the hands of the general public.

Browline – After World War II, plastics became popular, producing a wide variety of designs in every color. Women favored glasses with a metal and plastic “browline,” creating a faux eyebrow look. This style accounted for over 50 percent of eyeglass sales in the 1940s! Meanwhile, men preferred gold wire frames.

Cat Eyes – The “cat eye” was the fashion statement of the 1950s. The style was seen as projecting an aura of intelligence. Frames flared at the outer edges and rims were made of horn or tortoiseshell. Fanciful designs were studded with rhinestones and pearls. The cat eye was modeled by Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Grace Kelly. The sunglass version was called a “Manhattan.”

Heavy, black-rimmed glasses, called “G-man specs” were common among fans of the arts and avid readers. James Dean drew attention to the “Wayfarer,” a modern plastic frame, yielding a decidedly masculine image.

Geometric – In the mid-60s, rimless frames made their debut, and musician John Lennon started the trend in round frames. On women, they were called “granny glasses”—rather unflattering, don’t you think? Other shapes also became mainstream, such as rectangles and hexagons. Designer eyewear arrived on the scene, launched by Christian Dior.

Speaking of John Lennon, here’s an eyewear quote you’ll find amusing. During a 1965 interview, the rock star stated, “I don’t like being nearsighted. When I’m off-stage, I must wear very thick glasses. On-stage, I can’t see the crowds, but the screaming verifies their presence. The band has great fun directing me to the wrong door, and I often find myself in a closet.”

Oversized – If you wore glasses during the 70s, you surely turned heads! Bold styles were in vogue, with oversized frames, curvy temples, and gold accents. Designers continued to introduce their signature lines. Jumping on the bandwagon were Halston, Yves Saint Laurent, and Diane von Furstenberg. Jackie Kennedy Onassis modeled the trending eyewear of this decade.

Horn-Rimmed – In the 80s, eyeglasses were offered in brighter colors while frames became smaller and more refined. Horn-rims returned, lending a polished and distinguished look, inspiring even wearers of contact lenses to switch. Sports or “performance eyewear” was offered in lighter and sturdier frames made of titanium.

1990s Through Today – All Styles!

You now have the option of choosing designs from every decade of the 20th century. Unlike John Lennon, you needn’t lament poor vision. Whatever look you fancy, you’ll find it online or at your local mall. Visit an eye doctor like All About Eyes for more information. Eyeglass fashion has come full-circle and then some!

Image Source: Wikimedia

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