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The Eye Line

From the first mention of eyeglasses in 13th-century Italy to today’s high-tech sports frames, WWD chronicles a few moments in the history of specs and shades.

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Eyewear through the ages.

Photo By WWD Staff

Eyewear through the ages.

Photo By WWD Staff

Eyewear through the ages.

Photo By WWD Staff

Eyewear through the ages.

Photo By WWD Staff

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD 100 issue 11/01/2010

• The first recorded mention of eyeglasses appears in 1262. Although the identity of the actual creator is a dispute for the ages, they are traditionally thought to have been invented in Italy.

 

• As if he didn’t have enough to do, Benjamin Franklin—in between inventing the library, firehouse and insurance and discovering electricity—created the first pair of bifocals, for those both nearsighted and farsighted, in 1784.

 

• In 1878, Calalzo di Cadore, the first industrial complex for lens and frame manufacturing in Italy, is founded in the Veneto region. It would eventually become Safilo SpA.

 

• The pioneer of eyewear advertising emerges in 1929, when Sam Foster begins hawking Foster Grant eyewear on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Decades later, Foster incorporates the stars of the day, including Peter Sellers and Raquel Welch, into his promotional ads, with the tag line, “Who’s behind those Foster Grants?”

 

• Glasses fail to gain much in the way of commercial steam until movie actors start wearing them in the Thirties as a means of shielding red eyes—allegedly due to harsh studio lighting.

 

• Also in the Thirties, the Army Air Corps commissions Bausch & Lomb to create glare-less sunglasses for its pilots, and the Aviator style is born. The frames take off commercially in 1937, when Ray-Ban is founded, and after General Douglas MacArthur is photographed wearing the famous Aviators while landing in the Philippines during World War II.

 

• In 1936, the American inventor and co-founder of Polaroid Corp., Edwin H. Land, patents the first Polaroid filter for sunglasses, which reflects glare away from the wearer’s eyes.

 

• Optical-grade acrylic is first used for eyeglass lenses in the early Forties.

 

• In one of the more iconic images in eyewear history, Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly wears oversize tortoiseshell frames in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

 

• The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. introduces the first lightweight plastic lens in 1962.

 

• Sometime in the late Sixties, John Lennon starts wearing “granny” frames, often with shaded lenses. They would become part of his trademark post-Beatles look.

 

• In 1968, Italian eyewear company Persol gets a warm welcome in the U.S. when Steve McQueen wears its sunglasses offscreen and on, in The Thomas Crown Affair and The Getaway.

 

• The Seventies shine a spotlight on eccentric frames, with help from rocker Elton John and his taste for wearing unusually shaped glasses while performing.

 

• Safilo patents the Elasta hinge, allowing for broader bending without snapping, in the Seventies and through the years would manufacture for brands including Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Jacobs, Dior, Balenciaga, Tommy Hilfiger, Diesel and scores of others.

 

• In 1982, Ray-Ban scores a product-placement coup and lands its shades on the big and small screen, with appearances including The Blues Brothers, Miami Vice, The Breakfast Club, Top Gun and, in his breakout role, on an underwear-clad Tom Cruise in Risky Business. After that film is released in 1983, sales of Wayfarers skyrocket.

 

• Polycarbonate lenses are introduced to the marketplace in 1983, making lenses more durable, lighter and thinner than previously possible.

 

• Luxottica begins its foray into fashion eyewear in 1988 under a licensing agreement with Armani Eyewear. Over the next 22 years, the company becomes the manufacturer for such brands as Ray-Ban, Oakley, Persol, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, Bulgari and Chanel, among others.

 

• In the new millennium, Oakleys become the unofficial go-to for action movie heroes and are worn by The Terminator, Jason Bourne and Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

 

• In 2008, pop star Lady Gaga rushes the national stage with her premiere album and, while on tour, resurrects the Seventies penchant for kooky eyewear. She consistently appears in videos and in public in flamboyant designs, some of which appear completely nonfunctional and opaque. Although she wears frames from Oliver Goldsmith, Prada, Dior and Versace, plus Swarovski Elements–encrusted sunglasses custom-made by Giorgio Armani and Louis Vuitton “bindi” sunglasses, a good deal of her more unique looks are designed by The Haus of Gaga—her personal design team—and are not available for purchase. n

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