YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE SUN: a Weird History, from the Inuits to the Military

If you tried to conjure up the origin of sunglasses you’d likely be wrong.  You’d probably guess that they exist to protect your eyes from the sun because YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE SUN.  But it turns out the origin of sunglasses is a little…unclear.

This thing is ba-right!

One of the earliest examples of “sunglasses” are these flattened walrus ivory number below made by the crafty as #@$% Inuits, who carved little slits in walrus bone to block the rays of the sun.  They knew what was coming.

These are so sleepy time!

Smart and crafty!

Next up is none other than everyone’s favorite tyrannical Roman Emperor,  Nero!  He used to hold polished emeralds up to his eyes while watching gladiator fights.  I guess nothing beats watching people unnecessarily engage in violent combat than watching them through polished emeralds!  No wonder why he was happy to watch Rome burn! Sorry, too soon?

This is more what Nero had in mind...Oh I'll fiddle with these while Rome is burning!

This is probably like what Nero was holding.













The next recorded “sunglasses” were really just smoke-tinted lenses developed in, you guessed it, China! Likely in the 12th century or perhaps earlier.  The irony is not lost on me that the cheap knockoff shades we currently don are almost all MADE IN CHINA, and that China has been crushing the sunglass market for oh, let’s see, 1000 years.  Ain’t no thing.  Smoke-tinting was the first method of darkening lenses and it wasn’t to reduce the rays of the sun, but rather for Chinese judges to be able to conceal their true expressions while holding court.  These smoke-colored quartz lenses kept those judge’s true feelings a secret.  As we all know, eyes don’t lie.

You can't see what I think of you, but you're guilty.


Next up in historical development, a man named James Ayscough began to experiment in the mid-18th century with tinting lenses blue-green to help with vision impairments.  Protecting one’s eyes from the harsh rays of the sun was still not the primary focus in the exploration of sunglasses.  And if you had sensitive eyes due to syphillis, then you got yellow-tinted ones.

Before I was blind! Now with these blue-green lenses, I can see again!

It wasn’t until the 20th century that we realized we could use sunglasses to literally ban rays, hence the genius branding of Ray-Bans.  I can just see a group of mad men sitting around a conference table, trying them on, smoking and drinking, asking, “What are we gonna call these things?”

It all started when a lieutenant named John A. Macready came back from a balloon flying adventure with permanent sun damage to his eyes.

He's dressed for ALL the elements.

The first fashionable shades - The Ray Ban Aviator.

He asked Bausch & Lomb to create a pair of shades that would not only protect one’s eyes but look good too.   He wanted to create a pair of glasses that could help protect pilots from the dangerous glare up there in the air. (Sorry).

The first model was called Anti-Glare and was made of gold-plated metal with green lenses made of mineral glass to filter out both UV and infrared rays. Pilots in the Army immediately started wearing them, and eventually they went on sale to the public as the Ray-Ban Aviator.

The military had a lot to do with the modern progression of sun protection.  Apparently they helped develop sunscreen (??!!), and alongside it, sunglasses.  We’re going to stomp on the moon and block out the sun, and then destroy a whole bunch of nations!  Who’s with us?  No?  How about if we throw in a pair of these?

There is no substitute for victory....except maybe a pipe and some Ray-Bans.

The look was really popularized when newspapers ran a picture of General Douglas MacArthur landing on the beach in the Philippines during World War II, sporting the shades.  Ever since then, aviators and the military have been forever linked, which is why it’s hard to pull off the look without seeming a little top gun.

His ego is definitely writing checks his body can't cash.

But who do we have to thank for the mass-produced sunglass craze?  A man named Sam Foster.   In 1929, Mr. Foster began selling sunglasses on the beaches of Atlantic City, New Jersey, in a spot that probably still sells knockoffs to this day.  Within a year, they were all the rage.  

Then, with the advent of advertising and Hollywood, blammo!  They were everywhere.  Rumor (Wikipedia) has it that movie stars started wearing sunglasses not to avoid their fans, but rather because they had perma red-eyes from the arc lamps used when film speed was ultra slow.  What’s  their excuse now?

Monroe? Totally sure. Sandburg? Skeptical.

Once celebrities realized that wearing shades permanently is so boss, everyone started to wear them, to the point where now it seems almost a permanent appendage of fashion.

No discussion of shades and fashion is complete without diving into the Wayfarer, Ray-Ban’s iconic sunglasses, sported by everyone from Bob Dylan to…oh myself!  I like to know that for only a hundred bucks I can keep such good company, fashion wise at least.

You may be conflicted because I'm a genius but my lyrics are rife with misogyny! I will solve this conflict by wearing Ray-Bans and being completely irresistible. Try me.

Released in 1956, Wayfarers were a radical break from metal eyewear of days gone by.  Designed by Raymond Stegeman,  design critic Stephen Bayley said of the shades, that the “distinctive trapezoidal frame spoke a non-verbal language that hinted at unstable dangerousness, but one nicely tempered by the sturdy arms which, according to the advertising, gave the frames a ‘masculine’ look.'”  Translation?  These will make anyone look like a rad-ass.

"You've got your hair slicked back/Wayfarers on, baby."

The popularity of Wayfarers waxed and waned–I’d like to think because it’s inevitable, or because of Corey Feldman. But anyway, as we all know they’re back and more slick than ever.  I feel like I’ve exhausted myself even scratching the surface of this topic, but I haven’t even gotten to everyone’s burning question:  How do I wear them??!!!   Stay tuned.

Next week I’ll cover what sunglasses you should wear for what kind of lovely head shape you have, how you should wear them, and why you should take your shades off in the company of others, unless of course, you’re a Chinese magistrate, or John Waters.


About anissegross

freeartist, writer, lover of most things.

One comment

  1. Michael von Braithwaite

    I actually would still wear those Inuit sunglasses. Those are super bad ass. I had no idea sunglasses had such a long and varied history! So cool!!

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