Shades Through the Decades

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After checking the weather app and concluding that the day shall yet again vary from tropical climates through to torrential downpours or arctic conditions, there are a few foolproof fail safes we Brits live by when venturing out our front doors in the summer: take a jumper, bring a brolly and don't forget the factor 50. With an immense capacity for overarching optimism, we are always prepared for a patch of sunshine. Perched atop our heads or stowed in a bag, sunglasses are often our closest companion and most trusted accessory throughout the year, whether providing an outfit lift, channelling a vintage era or masking a hangover a little more effectively than a large takeaway Starbucks cup.

Words by Sophie Soar

A Star's Greatest Ally

The Hollywood stars from the early 1920s are who to thank for the popularity and evolution of our trusty sunglasses, used as the ultimate disguise from fans as well as their primary use as sun protection. They were first mass-produced later in that decade by Sam Foster on beaches in New Jersey, who went on to develop and produce large bulk amounts in the thirties and forties.

So what were the iconic sunglasses through the decades and who was wearing what?


When creating a film character and developing an iconic look, what better basis to start with than an accessory that entirely alters an actor's face? You can adopt a persona when placing a pair of specs on your face and, if anything, it also emphasises the capability of an actor when emotion is conveyed despite hidden eyes.

Audrey Hepburn's look in Breakfast at Tiffany's is a prime example of sunglasses completing a character's look and conveying persona. The Oliver Goldsmith Manhattans now feature as one of the most recognisable frames in cinematic history, as Hepburn's 'Holly Golightly' silhouette is replicated in mass produced pop art. Her favoured wayfarers were also preferred by Johnny Cash and James Dean.

Tom Cruise's appearance in Top Gun conjures images of aviator jackets, jumpsuits, sleek motorbikes and of course those Ray Ban Aviators. Green-tinted Ray Ban Aviator sunglasses were invented in the early thirties for pilots affected by high-altitude glare, designed to cover the entire range of the eye to let in as little light as possible.

It was General Douglas MacArthur who was photographed wearing aviators after landing on a beach in the Philippines in World War Two. The look gained popularity for their metal rather than plastic frames in the 1960s and aviators saw an increase of 40% in their sales following the release of Top Gun and Cruise's pilot portrayal.

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Nineties accessory style is perhaps epitomised by Alicia Silverstone's character Cher in cult classic Clueless. Style oval cat eye sunglasses with knee high socks and a perfect pout for a wonderfully clueless look. Alternatively, other nineties icons include the twin duo Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Britney Spears, whose tinted lenses caused a craze amongst the fashion scene. The round frame was a further iconic look of the era, creating a very different look to its predecessors of oversized shades and the cat eye style.

Film icon comes in the form of Jack Nicholson, with his husky laugh, crazy eyebrows and unforgettable catch phrase ('Heeeeeere's Johnny!'). The actor has commented on the power of glasses before, stating "with my sunglasses on, I'm Jack Nicholson. Without them, I'm fat and 70."


Of course, icons within the fashion world have also taken their spin on the different shapes and styles of shades throughout the decades, whether used to half mask a gaze of contempt from Anna Wintour or cemented on Karl Lagerfeld's face as a permanently present pair.

The Hollywood actress turned princess Grace Kelly epitomises fifties glamour. This era saw cat eye sunglasses reign supreme, as styled by the fashion icon continuously in the public eye until her tragic death in the 1982.

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Twiggy, style icon and supermodel in the sixties, became known for her circular frames, inspiring Wildfox's current spin offs named after her. "Teashades" were another popular look, as seen on John Lennon and Ozzy Osbourne. These perfectly epitomise the fashion of the sixties; aesthetic and fun, not functional or high quality. The sixties was also a time of experimentation, as futuristic styles and larger-than-life frames appeared, as demonstrated by Jackie Kennedy's oversized specs that infiltrated the look of the seventies.

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Who better to mention first than the spectacled music legend Elton John? Seemingly living by the notion 'the bigger the better', Elton's sunglasses are a masterpiece in themselves. Whilst the musician spellbinds with his performances and musical talents, his choice of sunglasses are always another highly anticipated moment in any appearance.

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The lead singer of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, was another public figure with an iconic sunglass style. Due to his drug use, the white round sunglasses were rarely removed even whilst performing on stage. Sometimes the front man opted for a red or blue pair but white was generally the favoured colour.

Beatles band member John Lennon's orange circular specs and Elvis Presley's gold sunnies, made specifically for the rock n roll singer, are two further examples of iconic glasses that have adopted their wearers' names. Their eyewear of choice became synonymous with the wearer, still remembered today for their shaded look.

Making History

As expansive as Rokit's vintage range of sunglasses may be, our range hits a limit when exploring the oldest of sunnies; those of prehistoric origins. The Inuit Tribe of Eskimos in prehistoric Arctic fashioned the first sunglasses from flattened pieces of walrus ivory. These acted as a means of protection against sun glare from the snow and ice. The only light came through two tiny slits as viewing holes, whilst the main frame fitted tightly around the face; similar to what contemporary ski goggles accomplish.

During the 12th Century in Ancient China, frames with flat panes of smoky quartz were created as a means of protecting eyes from sun glare. Judges in court also used these glasses during trials so as to disguise their expressions whilst interviewing witnesses. In the 15th Century, the equivalent of what we know today as prescription glasses were tinted green or blue so as to aid those with weak vision. This then became popular amongst those suffering from syphilis, with one of the disease's side effects being sensitivity to light.

By the Victorian era, sunglasses didn't quite have the same positive connotations as we associate them with today, associated with libertinism and overt sexual behaviour (bear in mind this was an époque where piano stool legs were covered as they were considered erotic). It was then in 1913 that scientist William Crookes designed the lens which absorbs UV rays and infrared light and the specs took on a functional, beneficial role.

So what do your sunglasses say about you? Whether functional, fun or fabulous, they're a must-have accessory and vintage favourite that is truly hard to beat.

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