History of Eyeglasses: Aviator Sunglasses

posted on 2/13/14

Aviator sunglasses have been a fashion staple as of late. Characterized by their big lenses and thin, teardrop shaped metal frames, aviator sunglasses have been popular amongst men and women since Tom Cruise donned a pair in ‘Top Gun.’ What most people don’t know is that this style of frame has been around since the early 20th century and was, as the name indicates, originally developed for use by pilots.

In the early 1900’s, advancement in aviation allowed pilots to fly at heights exceeding 33,000 feet. At such a high altitude the temperature drops to as low as 80 degrees below zero. To withstand such frigid temperature pilots had to wear leather hoods and insulated goggles. Without these protective goggles a pilot risked their eyes freezing over in an instant. However, these goggles did not offer adequate protection. The problem with these goggle was that they were not tinted, providing no protection from the increased sun exposure while flying in the upper atmosphere.

Shorty Schroeder

Shorty Schroeder

In 1920, Shorty Schroeder was flying at heights greater than Mount Everest when his goggles became foggy, leaving him no choice but to rip them off. Within minutes, Schroeder’s vision had blurred and his eyes froze over. Schroeder miraculously managed to land the plane safely and his friend, John Macready, helped him from the cockpit. It was the shocking image of Schroeder’s frozen eyes that led Macready, a pilot himself who would later set the altitude record, to begin working with Bausch and Lomb to develop eyewear that could protect the eyes from the elements at such a high altitude. The design he developed became what we now know as modern day aviator sunglasses.

In 1936, Ray-Ban began selling aviator sunglasses, advertising them as scientific protection for pilots, fisherman and golfers. Branded as sporting equipment, aviators became a hot commodity, selling for several dollars a pair when other sunglasses cost as little as 25 cents. When World War II broke out aviators became standard issue military gear.

Douglas MacArthur

General Douglas MacArthur really caused an explosion in popularity of the relatively new style of sunglasses. A newspaper photographer covering World War II took an iconic image of General MacArthur wearing a pair on a beach in the Philippines. It wasn’t until the 1960’s when celebrities like The Beatles and Freddie Mercury began being seen in aviators that aviator sunglasses really took hold in popular culture.

Up until the early 1970’s, aviator sunglasses were exclusively worn by men. During the 1970’s, different colors and versions of the popular eyewear came out that appealed to the fairer sex. In the 1980’s, sepia tinted lenses were introduced, which ushered in the modern style of aviator sunglasses that are all the rage today.

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