I don’t know why, but I often specifically wonder how the Romans handled the Italian sun, especially when working on the field. Surely, the people who came up with the newspaper and plumbing must also have had a hand in the creation of sunglasses. No?
No. Our gaze is to be turned further up north and way back in time. Sunglasses, so it seems, have been around since prehistory and the Inuit are credited with the invention of sun goggles: they would wear broad, flat shades made of ivory, bone or antlers over their eyes, with thin slits permitting them to see anything at all. The device was meant to protect them from snow blindness, caused by strong light reflected in the snow, and frost. The shades “hugged” the entire face and wearers would often rub gunpowder or soot around the edges to further cut down the light. Handy side-effect; the narrow slits and the manipulation of light and dark helped improve the vision -which can be a big plus when one’s survival depends on hunting white animals in an all-white decor… (Later, more decorative version of the shades, by the way, bare some similarities to Kanye West’s so-called shutter shades, although I can’t tell you whether the man sat down for a class on Inuit lifestyle or not.)
Back to the Romans: surely they had some sort of sunglasses too, right? Again: no! None, except for the emperor Nero seemed to deem it necessary to shield the eyes from the sun. According to the writings of Pliny the Elder, said emperor used to watch gladiator fights through polished gemstones. Very cool, props for his star attitude, but highly ineffective when it comes to actually protecting the eye. (Many historians dismiss it as rubbish by the way, but I didn’t want to deny you the mental vision of a laurel crown wearing man rocking bright pink shades back in the day -think Elton John dressed in a purple robe.) Anyway, back to a historically approved fact: glasses were in use in 12th-century China, but not in the way you would imagine it. Made of flat panels of crystal, they were worn by judges and magistrates to keep a stern pokerface during trials and important debates. Medieval Italy is said to have launched the idea of cool darkened glasses, which would surprise virtually no one, yet not much proof has been found to support this claim.
Fast forward to the 18th century, more specifically 1752, when London-based optician James Ayscough provided his patients with spectacles with blue and green-tinted glass, two colors that are indeed highly effective for protection and even have a correcting effect on the eyesight. The modern silhouette of glasses was also introduced: held by a frame that ran from ear to ear. Needless to say: big milestone in the history of shades! People started experimenting with other colors to treat all sorts of vision-related problems and by the end of the 19th century, amber-colored, brownish glasses were the most commonly-prescribed cure for syphilis patients -as the disease makes people highly sensitive to light. Needless to say: sunglasses didn’t have the best reputation by then. Even more so: they were associated with disease and impurity, nothing glamorous there.
Funny thing: this is exactly the reason why they turned out to be a symbol of everything glam and cool in the end! The early 20th century saw the rise of Hollywood and its celebrity culture. Movie stars however, commonly had overly sensitive eyes because of the strong lighting on movie sets and the aggressive flash bulbs of cameras. Sunglasses were a welcome way to spare their poor vision a bit, as well as to stay incognito. They massively adapted the accessory, which became a vehicle of cool overnight. In their wake, everybody started wearing glasses and from the late twenties on every cool kid was seen -or not seen, depending on how you see it- with big, black shades. The popularity of the trend boomed after polarized glasses, blocking intense light reflected off other surfaces like snow or water, were invented in 1936 and WWII was also responsible for some good PR. A small brand founded by the American eye health company Bausch and Lomb provided the US Air Force with special glasses for its pilots: its name was Ray Ban and the look would forever be associated with heros and freedom. Since then, we’ve seen sunglasses grow and shrink like yo-yos, from the bug-like models of the seventies to the thin little shades of the nineties. They polished Audrey Hepburn’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s look, gave shape to the Elton John myth, went to bed and woke up every morning with Karl Lagerfeld and I honestly would recognize The Matrix’ Orpheus without his razor-sharp pair of glasses.
With that said, you’re pretty much covered for every sunglasses-related question you may or may not receive on your next quiz night. My pleasure.