The history of sunglasses

Sunglasses History

The origins of your sunglasses

It is difficult to date the origin of sunglasses as they follow a different history than prescription glasses. Some traces date back to prehistory, when the Inuit people tried to protect their eyes from the sun’s glare on the snow by wearing masks made of ivory.

Later, even Emperor Nero watched the shows of his gladiators by protecting his eyes with a green emerald, in order to have relief from the blinding reflections of the arena. The tendency to use green colored lenses to give refreshment to the eyes continued also in the following centuries, being worn inside the houses as well.

In China the custom of using quartz glass with smoked lenses was developed in order to protect the eyes from the glare of the sun and, in case of a trial before a judge, to hide the expressions on one’s face.

The first sunglasses certified by a historical document are those of Duke Gian Vincenzo Pinelli of Giugliano, one of the mentors of Galileo Galilei. Among his interests stood out the one for optical instruments, because of a low vision caused by an accident during his childhood. To protect his eye he used sunglasses with green lenses, he had practically replaced the transparent venetian lenses with another pair with burnt lenses in order to color them in a natural way and offer an efficient shield against the sun.

This innovative method was emulated by many other contemporaries who started using these archaic sunglasses.

It was only in 1700 that Venice began to produce colored lenses, becoming a strong driving force for the spread of this type of glasses. And speaking of the Serenissima, it was in Murano that the first sunglasses with a UVA filter were created, fundamental for protecting you from the sun’s harmful rays.
Even today there are surviving copies, exhibited in various museums of glasses. An interesting anecdote is the fact that these glasses were called “gondola glasses” because they were mainly used during the walks of the Venetian nobles in gondolas. Their objective was to defend themselves from the sun’s reflections which bounced off the water of the lagoon.

Some historians believe that the spread of sunglasses in Italy was due to Chinese prototypes that were adopted by Italian travelers and that resulted in a sort of counterfeit once they returned to their homeland.

This hypothesis has never been confirmed and lacks certain documentation, even though it is right to underline the centuries-old tradition of Chinese eye-wear. In the eighteenth century was the English craftsman James Ayscough to produce several colored sunglasses, with the aim of helping those who had vision problems.

The theories of this craftsman turned out to be false as he believed that every color could have a correlation with other optical pathologies but it is however right to give him a credit as he was one of the creators of the spread of this object in his time.

When sunglasses became a must?

The consecration of sunglasses as today’s fashion accessories occurred in the twentieth century, thanks to industrialization. The dynamic is composed of three very important phases: the impact of cinematography, military use, and scientific research.

Regarding the first aspect, the film industry began to use sunglasses in their films since the 1950s and this had a strong influence on the public who were captivated by the charm and style of the celebrities who wore them.

From Audrey Hepburn to Steve McQueen, the famous faces of the cinema used sunglasses to conceal their faces or simply to inculcate the adrenaline-pumping lifestyle that was part of their excesses.

You may wonder what this trend entailed?

A lot of emulation from fans, leading to a great success of this industry. The emergence of different industries and fashion brands also triggered the diversification of the various sunglasses, both in terms of shape and the use of different materials, more and more people wanted to reflect their character and personality from clothing to everyday accessories.

Military use was also a key phase in the development and technological advancement of sunglasses. In the 30s, in fact, airline pilots needed a good pair of sunglasses capable of defending them from direct and very strong sunlight. Consequently, darkened and mirrored lenses were built, used in the beginning by the military and then also followed by normal individuals, attracted by the characteristic and distinctive shape.

Finally, scientific research gave the last input, especially Edwin H. Land, the founder of Polaroid. This entrepreneur has gone down in history for several reasons, among them is the invention of lenses against UV rays, first used by the military and then successfully adopted by normal people.

Their strong point was the teardrop shape, ideal for a strong and tough look: glasses also used by movie celebrities such as Tom Cruise in Top Gun.

Sunglasses of today

Sunglasses consist of a frame that can have different designs, from over-sized to minimal but sometimes funny sunglasses with specific shape are designed. The skeleton is capable to perfectly fit the sunglasses lenses, which are made of plastic or mineral resins.

The former are more resistant and durable while the glass is scratch-resistant and thinner.
Sunglasses can also undergo very special treatments such as the use of:

  • a Colored filter, used especially for ski goggles that need to filter out the blue frequencies of the snow;
  • a UV filter, against ultraviolet rays that are the most harmful to the eye;
  • a Polarizing filter to improve visibility in very bright conditions;
  • a Mirror, or a reflective cover to protect against blinding rays.

Since they are protective devices, they must respond positively to legal regulations.

Each one of them must have a clear identification of the manufacturer, a list of all filters used, the number and year of the standard, plus a symbol to indicate any unsuitability.

Whatever one may say, sunglasses have entered the everyday life of society, shaking off their mere fashion use and becoming an integral part of your personal style, aimed at giving a specific personality to an individual.

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