Fifty Shades

Few accessories possess the transformative power of sunglasses, serving as an entry point for many into the coveted world of high-end design or invaluable collector’s items. 

Kurt Cobain, 1998 / Alamy

From Kurt Cobain’s 1990s oval Christian Roths to Delfina Delettrez Fendi’s Fendi Couture diamond studded spectacles, these accessories stand for more than mere adornment; sunglasses possess the ability to completely alter one’s appearance, framing the face, accentuating features, and sometimes acting as a shield between oneself and the world. These iconic accessories have journeyed through history, reflecting the styles of their times while maintaining an enduring status as indispensable fashion statements and must-have essentials. From ancient origins to modern runways, the story of sunglasses is a fascinating exploration of style, innovation, and cultural influence. 

The origins of sunglasses can be traced back to ancient civilizations. In 12th century China, flat panels of smoky quartz known as Ai Tai were utilised to obscure the expressions of magistrate judges in court. The Inuit people of the Arctic fashioned goggles from walrus bone and wood to shield their eyes from the blinding reflection of snow. In Venice, the iconic Goldoni glasses shielded gondoliers from the glaring sun bouncing off the city’s picturesque canals. In ancient Rome, Emperor Nero peered through polished emeralds to watch gladiator matches, foreshadowing the luxury eyewear of modern times. These early iterations of sunglasses laid the groundwork for the stylish and functional eyewear we enjoy today. 

Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961 / Paramount Pictures, Alamy

In the 1920s, with the rise of Hollywood cinema, sunglasses began to gain popularity among actors and actresses seeking to shield their eyes from bright studio lights. Stars like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich helped popularise sunglasses as symbols of glamour and mystique.

The mid-1930s heralded the inception of aviator glasses, originally designed for military pilots, with Ray Ban pioneering the utilisation of polarized lenses. They have been reimagined by Tom Ford and Phoebe Philo, offering sleek interpretations that blend retro charm with a bold and contemporary vision. The 1950s and ‘60s marked a turning point for sunglasses in fashion. Iconic figures like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Marilyn Monroe epitomised elegance with their oversized shades and cat eye sunglasses. 

Bottega Veneta, pair of sunglasses. Sold for $562

The influence of sunglasses extends beyond aesthetics. Innovations in lens technology, such as polarized and photochromic lenses, ensure that modern eyewear not only complements style but also enhances functionality and comfort.

The history of sunglasses is a testament to the dynamic relationship between fashion and functionality. From their humble beginnings as protective eyewear to their current status as indispensable fashion accessories, sunglasses have continuously evolved, reflecting the ever-changing tastes and attitudes of society.

As we continue to celebrate the legacy of iconic designs and embrace new innovations, one thing remains certain: sunglasses will always be a symbol of self-expression and a nod to fashion evolution.

By Indigo Keane, Luxury Specialist

Top Image: Sunglasses display, Germany 2002 / Alamy

May 2024