Looking at the simple, effective sunglasses we find so easily nowadays. It’s hard to believe that the lenses were once made of stones, jewels, or animal skin. Fun fact: tinted eyewear as we know it was first developed for medical reasons, not fashion or blocking rays. But you’ll see what we mean soon enough. Let’s begin!
In more than one place in the world, ancient civilizations, like the Inuit people in the North, or the Ancient Romans were toying with the concept of shades. The Inuits used small bubbled eye shields made of animal skin, only being able to see through a small slit in each eye cover. This blocked the sun from above and the reflection of the bright snow below, kind of like today’s polarized lenses! Roman Emperor Nero was taking a more extravagant approach, using large, clear emeralds to watch gladiator duels on sunny days in the stadium.
Fast Forward to the 1400s and move east to China. Workers in the fields, and people on the street being wearing thin lenses of smoky quartz over their eyes. More than anything, it was intended to block out glare from the sunlit streets, and water. Not the clearest or lightest materials were used, clearly, but think of this as the earliest thin, tinted lens. Through trade, this idea eventually made its way to Italy, which brings us too…
1700s: A bit of Clarity
Thanks to the idea of tinted lenses to British inventor James Ayscough. Who 300 years later, begins working with materials like coloured glass in different colours, to try and fix vision impairments. As he was able to work lighter materials like glass into his designs, these began to look much more like the spectacles we see today. Unfortunately for Ayscough, these were not much of a success, and the public didn’t quite take to them.
Turn of the 20th Century
In 1929, Sam Foster develops a tinted pair of spectacles and begins a cheap, mass produced model that would reduce sun-glare for wearers. They’re a hit on the Atlanta boardwalk where he sells them. Eventually, during the 30s, these, and other imitating manufacturers, found their shades worn by Hollywood actresses. They were hiding from being recognized or protect themselves from paparazzi camera flashes.
Around the same time, a more serious type of sunglasses was being developed for pilots to protect themselves from high altitude glare. With military funding, and celebrity endorsements, research into making the sunglasses we know today was ready for liftoff. From here they simply updated with each piece of new information we learned about the sun’s rays, polarizing technology, and health moving forward into the 21st century!
From its humble, bejewelled beginnings, sunglasses had a number of different functions. Although they weren’t always the most effective accessory for blocking rays (or seeing clearly), they certainly were a unique presence in fashion history, not to be taken for granted…or sat on in the car.