The history of eyewear is long and not just limited to the past century. In fact, experts believe that glasses have been around since the beginning of time. Ancient Egyptians are believed to have worn them as early as 2000 BC, and Romans wore them too.
However, we can definitely say that today’s eyeglasses (as we know them) started appearing in the late 1800s.
In this article, we’ll look at how eyeglasses have evolved over the past century — from their humble beginnings all the way up to modern-day styles.
The Invention of Eyeglasses
While no conclusive proof exists that any particular person invented eyeglasses, many claim it.
Salvino D’Armate is generally accredited with the invention of eyeglasses in the 13th century. He was known for his expertise in optics and lenses, but most notably, he made a curved lens that could be used to focus light so that it would be clearer to the human eye.
The first pair of eyeglasses were shaped like a pair of spectacles, with two lenses made out of quartz crystal. Metal frames held together these lenses and could be adjusted to fit the wearer’s face. They had no hinges, so they could not be folded up or down like modern-day glasses.
The early version of these glasses didn’t have any corrective power, but they did allow people with poor eyesight to see better. Over time, more and more people began using these glasses. Their design continued to improve until someone created what we know today as eyeglasses.
1900: Becoming of Pince-Nez Monocles
The 1900s were an era of transformation. The Industrial Revolution occurred, and people were beginning to think about how to use this new technology to improve their lives.
This also marked a time of great innovation in the field of eyewear. The monocle was born in this decade.
Men and women wore monocles, but they were mostly associated with the upper classes. The first monocles in history were made of glass and had a wire loop that the wearer would place over their ear.
Worn by prominent figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Anton Chekov, this rimless frame sits on your nose bridge, which can be incredibly difficult to get used to. The upper crust of 19th-century English society made up the main clientele for this enduring trend.
The Round Frames of the 1920s–1930s
The 1920s and 1930s were an era of experimentation in all areas, including eyewear. It was also a time of considerable change in American culture. Round glasses symbolized sophistication and elegance, and both men and women wore them.
During this time, women were beginning to step out of the shadow of their husbands. The 1920s may not be remembered for their activism, but they played a crucial role in championing freedom between the sexes and among minorities. Consequently, round frames became quite popular among liberated women.
The round frames first became popular in 1929, when Sam Foster sold sunglasses on boardwalks on the Jersey Shore. Round eyeglasses are characterized by their circular shape. The frames can be thick or thin but never angular.
While it would take some time for them to catch on among the masses, early Hollywood stars were wearing them.
The 1940s–1950s: Browline Frames, Aviators, and the Classic Cat Eye Shape
This decade is well known as an era of war and reconstruction. The United States was not only being rebuilt but also being pushed forward into the future.
Fashion began to change during this decade, and many glasses styles became popular, including browline, aviators, and cat-eye glasses.
In the 1950s, a new type of frame was introduced: browline glasses. Browline glasses are a classic for a reason. They’re classy, timeless, and go with pretty much anything. But where did they get their name?
Browline glasses got their name from their shape and design. They have a prominent browline, which is the part of the frame that sits across the top of your face. These glasses were popular in the 1950s, so much so that they accounted for half of all eyeglass sales.
They became popular because they were flattering and easy to wear for both men and women. You could get them in any color or shape, so there was no reason not to buy a pair.
Aviator sunglasses are one of eyewear’s most iconic and recognizable styles. Aviators were originally used in the late 1930s to shield pilots’ eyes from the sun’s rays when flying, but it wasn’t until 1940 that they became popularized for the general public.
These glasses were designed with a lightweight metal frame and had no nose pads, which made them easy to wear for people who wore them while flying airplanes. They also had thick lenses that gave the wearer a wider field of vision and did not obstruct their view.
While aviator sunglasses became fashionable in the 1940s due to photos of General Douglas MacArthur, their popularity soared in the 1950s when celebrities like Marlon Brando wore them out in public. Their popularity as a fashion statement led to soaring sales.
A trend that swept the nation in the 1950s was the thin browline, which eventually gave way to another style — the cat eye. The only difference was that cat eye eyeglasses were bracketed by angled corners rather than square ones like those worn by browline glasses.
Their edgy look made it appealing to young people, but their versatility allowed adults of all ages to wear them.
The cat-eye shape was especially popular among women who wanted to look glamorous or sophisticated. During this time, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and other icons of the 1950s were often spotted in this style.
Cat-eye eyeglasses eventually became a fashion statement in their own right and were often embellished with artistic flair. Eventually, colored and shaped lenses were added to the design, and the production of unusually shaped lenses became popular.
The popularity of cat-eye eyeglasses has ebbed and flowed over the years as trends come and go, but they’ve always been a fun way to express one’s personality. Today, you can find cat-eye eyeglasses in many different colors, styles, and shapes.
The 1960s–1970s: Geometric Shapes, Teashades & Oversized Frames
In the 1960s, the world was changing. People were starting to question what was considered normal and how they looked at the world reflected that. When it came to eyewear, that meant the bigger, the better.
The round teashade first appeared on the catwalk in the early 1960s. This style was soon adopted by many celebrities and artists, including John Lennon and Mick Jagger, who made them even more popular. Some say that this was because it helped hide their drug use, while others say it was simply because they liked how it looked.
Whatever the reason, the round teashade is still considered by many as one of fashion’s most iconic trends.
In the 1970s, both Mods and hippies ruled the fashion world with their love of oversized specs in round or geometric shapes. These glasses were so big that they became a signature look for both groups — a look that has endured to this day.
The oversized glasses trend was also popularized by the style of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who was known for her love of these types of glasses.
1980: The Classic Wayfarer
The Wayfarer-style frame is a classic, and it’s easy to see why. With its flare-shaped lens, this style of glasses is the perfect combination of retro chic and modern technology.
The style was first introduced in 1952 by Ray-Ban. During the early days, it was worn by all types of celebrities, from Audrey Hepburn to John Lennon to James Dean. However, it wasn’t until 1983, when Tom Cruise wore these glasses in a movie, that the style became popular again.
Rounded edges, a prominent nose bridge, and an oval lens shape characterize the design of these glasses. The shape of the lens and frames make this style very flattering on most faces, making them a popular choice for people who want something fun yet functional.
For this reason, the classic Wayfarer style has been around for decades and is still going strong.
Minimalist Oval Glasses for 1990
The 1980s were a decade of excess, while the 1990s were all about minimalism.
The decade was all about sleek, streamlined frames that could be worn with any outfit in any decade. We saw a lot of bold, thick frames (the kind you’d expect to see on someone who really knows what they’re doing) while also seeing lots of thin, rounded styles.
But what really made the decade stand out were the asymmetrical and artsy shapes — lenses that curved and swooped along their edges like modern art. They were all about bringing back old trends while still keeping up with the latest styles.
These glasses were part of a fashion cycle that would go through many iterations before finally settling down in the 2000s.
The 2000s: Rimless, Oversized & Bold
It was the dawn of a new millennium — a time of rebellion and reinvention. While this decade had plenty of low-rise jeans and crop tops, the sunglasses rebelled against their 1990s predecessors by swinging the other way. Giant pairs in all shapes and colors became staples.
The boldness didn’t stop there. Oversized frames were paired with bold colors like reds and greens, while rimless glasses gave an avant-garde look to anyone who wore them.
Transparency was huge in the 2000s, and glasses makers quickly jumped on the trend. From Dolce & Gabbana’s futuristic frames to Versace’s high-end sunglasses, the most popular styles for eyewear in the 2000s included bright colors and clunky plastic frames that were anything but subtle.
These glasses were very bold and dramatic — and also very popular. They were worn by celebrities such as Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, and Britney Spears.
2010 Eyewear: The Return of Aviators & Rectangular Frames
This was a decade of reflection and renewal, and that was reflected in the glasses trends. What was old became new again.
Aviators came back in a big way, with their iconic shape making an appearance everywhere. Rectangular frames also came back, bringing a bit of edge to otherwise simple designs.
Mirrored sunnies were also popular. They are ideal for anyone going for the edgy look but still wanting to keep things lighthearted.
The decade saw a lot of experimentation with styles from previous decades — the 1980s in particular — and some new twists on classic shapes that had never been seen before.
2022 Eyewear Trends
In 2022, glasses are more than just something you wear on your face. Over the years, they have become a fashion accessory and a statement piece, like jewelry or perfume.
In addition to an emergence of functional trends, we’ve seen a resurgence in the popularity of vintage-inspired frames and an increase in the popularity of glasses overall.
There are a few reasons for this. First, glasses are no longer seen as a necessity for those with poor vision. They’re now considered fashion accessories, which means more people are willing to experiment with different styles.
We’re seeing more and more people who don’t need glasses wearing them just because they love their style. As we spend more time on screens, more people are wearing computer glasses or blue light glasses to minimize some of the effects of blue light and eye strain.
Additionally, we can now create more intricate designs thanks to technological advances. Celebrities and style icons have helped to make glasses cool again.
There’s no doubt that glasses will continue to remain at the forefront of fashion. In 2023 and beyond, we expect to see continued popularity of some timeless styles as well as new trends on the horizon.
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The Quest for Clearer Vision: The History of Eyeglasses. (March 2019). Pennsylvania College of Optometry.
History of Eyewear: 1500-1775. (July 2021). The Optical Journal.
History of Eyewear: Antiquity to 1499. (June 2021). The Optical Journal.
Last Updated December 20, 2022
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