Seeing is Believing: Extravagant 1950s & ’60s Eyewear

Seeing is Believing: Extravagant 1950s & '60s Eyewear

By Donald-Brian Johnson
Photos by Leslie Piña

Writer Dorothy Parker once declared that “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.” Judging by what, for many years, constituted eyewear fashion, Dorothy may have had a point.

Although eyeglasses had been around since medieval times (illustrations exist of early Chinese and Italians wearing them), they were originally regarded as necessary evils, available only to the wealthy and the well-connected. Functional and unattractive, they were also hand-crafted, and thus affordable for only a select few.

Viewing The Past
Mass-market availability came with the Industrial Revolution of the mid-1800s. Inexpensive glasses were now within the grasp of every consumer, but the emphasis was on serviceability rather than style. The choice of a frame was generally left to the optician, much as the choice of medication was left to the family doctor. Those in need of visual aid gave no more thought to the concept of “fashionable” glasses than they did to the concept of fashionable dentures. Glasses were what they were-and what they were wasn’t very appealing.

By the mid-twentieth century, glasses-wearers, after years of interchangeably dull frames, were in the mood for something more flattering. Paving the way for change were the eyewear manufacturers themselves, who saw possibilities in a previously untapped market. In 1930, for the first time, eyeglasses were featured as part of a major fashion show, held at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. In 1939, Altina Sanders won an America Design award for her “Harlequin frame,” regarded as the first real fashion frame design, and forerunner of the upswept cat-eyes so popular in the ’50s. Then, following World War II, cellulose acetate emerged as an inexpensive, workable frame component, leading to 1948’s introduction of the first molded frame. Finally, eyeglass designers could let their imaginations run wild.

Seeing the Light
Eyewear advertising soon focused on the appeal of glasses as a desirable fashion accessory. Who could resist Ray-Bans, with “frame styles so flattering they’re almost wicked.” Who could say “no” to American Optical frames that guaranteed “everything will look dazzling tomorrow. Especially you.” Even Hollywood chimed in, with glamorous Marilyn Maxwell not only owning up to being a glasses-wearer, but also, according to news reports, “posing for cheesecake photos, to prove that glasses don’t detract from a girl’s attraction.” Dorothy Parker’s vision of things was finally laid to rest in 1953, when eyewear giant Bausch & Lomb crowned the first “Miss Specs Appeal” (“America’s prettiest model who wears glasses”). Said the happy winner, “of course men make passes at girls who wear glasses. It simply depends on the frame.”

Different eye fashions were now specifically geared for work, for play, for dress, and for everything in between. Bausch & Lomb ran an entire campaign based on the premise that “one pair of glasses is not enough,” and 1954’s “Miss Beauty in Glasses” declared “modern frames for various occasions are as much a part of fashion today as shoes, hats, or jewelry.” Miss Beauty’s personal collection included “Hi-Lites, Balrims, Ray-Bans, and rhinestone-studded Cordelles for evening.” Eyewear production firms had a new guiding principle: sell the consumer one pair of glasses, and the market is limited; sell the consumer a different pair of glasses for every occasion, and the market is limitless!

In addition to Bausch & Lomb, other manufacturers leading the visual fashion parade in the ’50s and ’60s included American Optical, Art-Craft, Gandy, J. Hasday, Kona, Swank, Tura, Trans-World Eyewear Corporation (TWEC/TWE), and Victory. Romantic style names and decorative accents became the norm, for even the most basic designs. “Venus Pearl,” “Twilight Jewel,” “Sweetie Delight,” and “Coquette” all sound enticing, but each was a model intended primarily for daily use, suggesting that even office-wear could be alluring. And, bowing to what Business Week called a “teenage rebellion against the solemn, round, owl-eyed type of hornrims,” young girls could enjoy the same styles in scaled-down versions. The accent was definitely on the feminine, with an eyeful of available options; eyewear for men and boys received scant attention. When it did, the result was no-frills; such hearty-sounding model names as “Hawkeye,” “Everyman,” and for the boys, “Cub” and “Jr. Attorney” reflect their stolid stylings.

Highly Visible
Eyeglasses, of course, had to retain their basic function: vision improvement. Within that framework, however, there was plenty of room for creative experimentation. Short-lived eyeglass innovations included “radio glasses” which came with a built-in transistor radio; “headband glasses,” which combined hair care and eyewear; “earring glasses,” which did double-duty as jewelry; “eyelash glasses,” and even “awning glasses,” equipped with mini-shades to ward off raindrops. Such novelties attracted fleeting attention, then were abandoned as new looks caught the public’s eye.

Achieving longer life spans were glasses that kept the function simple, experimenting instead with form. Prominent among them was 1950s “cat-eye,” successor to Altina Sander’s “Harlequin.” Although the cat-eye’s upswept brow edges were almost uniformly unflattering, the style remains firmly identified with the 1950s. Variations included the “double cat-eye,” the “triple cat-eye,” and even versions with yellow, blue, or green lenses.

Also popular were “highbrows,” among the most imaginative (and most expensive) of eyewear designs. These were most definitely not glasses for everyday wear. Liberally dotted with rhinestones, pearls, and other decorative accents, highbrows came in a variety of fanciful shapes deliberately intended to attract the eye. Some were built up like sparkling tiaras; others took on the form and patterning of colorful butterflies, or had brow edges reminiscent of soaring bird wings. Entertainer Dame Edna Everage referred to her highbrows as “face furniture,” and glasses like these do seem to serve a furniture-like purpose: they complement (or in many cases dictate) the overall decor.

As fashion eyewear grew in popularity, it also grew in respectability. In 1961, the Fashion Eyewear Group of America was established, and in 1962, Vogue devoted an entire section to the topic. Name designers such as Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, and Pucci turned out their own signature lines; less-expensive knock-off versions quickly followed. For those not yet ready to admit the need for glasses, manufacturers obliged with sparkling “readers” (half-glasses), folding glasses, and even modern adaptations of the trusty, hand-held lorgnette. Glasses became seen as an outer manifestation of the inner personality, with certain styles indelibly linked to certain personalities. Think of oversize smoky oval sun glasses, for instance, and the image of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis comes to mind. Imagine glittery, rock-and-roll eyewear, and Elton John takes the stage. Glasses may not have created the persona, but they certainly enhanced it in the public eye.

Made in the Shade
For those whose vision remained 20/20, sunglasses were a highly visible alternative. Here, extreme designs not right for the office could be given full reign, with Hollywood serving as the inspiration. For years, countless stars had masked their eyes with huge dark glasses in hopes of avoiding public attention. Sunglasses created an instant aura of glamorous mystery, a fact not lost on the buying public. The Hollywood link was played up with great success by manufacturer Foster Grant in a clever ad campaign of the ’60s. A variety of sunglass-clad celebrities were profiled, and readers were asked, “Who’s that hiding behind those Foster Grants?” Previously, sun glass ads had stressed the practical: sunglasses were “scientifically designed to eliminate the visual punishment produced by brilliant sunlight.” Now, the not-so-practical took center stage: sunglasses provided “an enchanting air that makes heads turn, and gives you a very special place in the sun.”

Second Sight
Today, vintage eyeglass frames continue to grow in popularity. Their revival began as far back as the late 1960s, when “The Outasight Co.” capitalized on the then-popular “hippie” look by marketing round metal frames from the late 1800s as “the original granny glasses.” More recently, those with an eye for recycled fashion acquire highbrows, cat-eyes, and other period frames, then have the original lenses replaced with a new prescription, or restyled as sunglasses. Good sources for original frames include major modern shows, which attract dealers in vintage fashion accessories. As an added advantage, some dealers specialize in “New Old Stock” (NOS). These are unsold, never-used period frames, just right for those who like their vision of the past dust-free.

New frame designs that embrace the look of the old are also popular, echoing the twentieth century decade by decade. Among today’s available choices are metal ovals similar to those of the 1920s … geometrics and rounds recalling the 1930s … 1940s-like tortoise-shells … variations on the bejeweled plastics of the 1950s … and stylistic ideas that owe a debt to the designer lines of the ’60s, the oversized frames of the ’70’s, and the tailored “yuppie” styles of the ’80s. Retro, whether authentic or re-created, is in demand.

Most eyewear collectors buy glasses with the intention of at least occasionally wearing them. If that’s your intent, here are a few hints for successful spectacle shopping:

  • Although metal frames can almost always be adjusted or repaired, plastic (or celluloid) frames cannot.
  • Make sure plastic frames are a comfortable fit, with the bridge resting easily on your nose, and eyes centered.
  • Temples, hinges, pads, and screws are almost always replaceable.
  • Older glass lenses may not be shatterproof, and vintage plastic lenses are susceptible to scratches.
  • It’s often possible to replace original prescription lenses with your own prescription, or with sunglass lenses.
  • Older sunglasses may not have UV-coated lenses. If ultraviolet rays are a concern, have the lenses replaced.
  • When trying on glasses, look your best. That way you’ll see the frames at their most flattering.

Eyewear of the 1950s and ’60s continues to make an extravagant fashion statement all its own. Whether on the face or simply on display, one word sums up their enduring appeal: they’re “spec-tacular!”

Photo Associates: Hank Kuhlmann, Ramón Piña. Donald-Brian Johnson (text) and Leslie Piña (photos) are co-authors of numerous books on twentieth-century decorative arts, including Specs Appeal: Extravagant 1950s & 1960s Eyewear. Please address inquiries to: donaldbrian@msn.com

Seeing is Believing: Extravagant 1950s & ’60s Eyewear