The History of Sunglasses

Sunglasses are essential to our eye health. We wear sunglasses at the beach, while we’re driving, and pretty much anywhere the sun is shining, but haven’t you ever wondered where they got their start? In this post, we’ll tell all about how sunglasses began and how they became one of the essentials you grab when you leave the house. 

The origins of sunglasses actually dates back as early as prehistoric times. The Inuit tribe would utilize pierced pieces of flattened ivory fitted to their eyes to block reflections from snow and ice. As time went on, more variations of the Inuit’s glasses began to show up around the world. In China during the 12th century, glasses would be made out of smoky quartz flattened into panes. Along with blocking their eyes from the sun, Chinese court documents show that sunglasses were used during trials to prevent people seeing judges facial expressions when witnesses were being interrogated. 

By the mid-1700s sunglasses were beginning to be experimented with by English optician, James Ayscough, who is often credited as the sunglasses pioneer. Ayscough believed that blue or green lenses could help with certain vision impairments (and he was right). In the late 19th and early 20th century, glasses tinted amber or yellow were prescribed to patients with syphilis because one of the symptoms was light sensitivity. 

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that sunglasses really blew up as a fashion accessory popularized by many famous Hollywood movie stars. It was also around this time that mass production of sunglasses began happening. Sam Foster was the first to mass produce sunglasses and sell them in America. He would sell these sunglasses to beachgoers on the Atlantic City boardwalk in order for them to protect their eyes from the sun’s harmful rays. 

Sunglasses even showed up in World War II when Ray Ban invented the anti-glare aviator style sunglasses. Once invented, these frames rose to popularity and began being sold to the public in 1937. 

Sunglasses have certainly served many purposes throughout the years. From protecting patients during syphilis to helping soldiers during World War II, sunglasses became an essential part of day-to-day life. To this day, sunglasses remain an essential piece of every outfit. As styles continue to change and develop with the times, sunglasses will always be an important part of staying protected and looking your best. 


Sunglasses Through the Decades


In the 1910s, sunglasses styles remained pretty basic. The standard was a round lens with wired frames. The styles remained pretty simple, unlike what we have now. Sunglasses at this time were mostly made for functionality purposes, rather than style, so it was important that they were just small and round to protect the eyes. 

man laying down holding black round sunglasses on face
Styles remained simple during this era with small, round frames.


In the 1920s, the style virtually remained the same, round, small, and wired frames. However, it was in this decade that Sam Foster began mass producing sunglasses to be sold in America. This was the first time that sunglasses were being mass produced and sold on this level. 


It was in the 1930s that sunglasses really began to popularize as a fashion statement among Americans as they were being worn by famous celebrities. The round sunglasses were still the most popular style at this time but were very much popularized in mainstream by stars like Bette Davis. It was also during this decade that the aviator style sunglasses were born. 

woman in a white blazer and pink shirt wearing aviator style sunglasses in front of a blue wall
Aviator sunglasses were born in the 1930s.


The 1940s were truly the decade when sunglass experimentation began. It was in this decade where many people began wearing bigger and bolder frames. Most of the time shades were colorful and round. Another big trend was wearing sunglasses that resembled flowers. 

girl in front of yellow wall holding green sunglasses up to face
Experimentation with sunglasses began in this era with bigger, bolder frames.


The 1950s were when different sunglasses shapes really began to emerge. Cat eye frames became really popular and quickly became an iconic look for the decade. These frames became popularized by many celebrities, such as Audrey Hepburn. 

woman in white shirt wearing black cat eye sunglasses
Cat eye sunglasses became popularized by stars like Audrey Hepburn in this decade.


The 1960s marked the beginning of a huge cultural change. Sunglasses were changing along with the outfits of the 1960s. It was not uncommon to see huge, square frames in neon colors during this time. 


In the 1970s, large sunglasses remained the standard stemming from the ‘60s and they became more transparent. The major style shift of the era reflected in the frames and lenses with softer shapes and pastel tints giving off a more relaxed vibe. 


The 1980s were marked by powerful fashion and maximalism and this certainly showed in the sunglasses worn. Sunglasses were large and made to have darker lenses and sharper shapes. Also in this decade, the Ray-Ban Wayfarer became popularized by celebrities like Tom Cruise and Madonna. 

woman in pink shirt wearing sunglasses with sharper edges
Sharper styles and shapes became popularized in this decade.


Following many decades of large sunglasses, the 1990s switched it up. In this decade, the sunglass styles turned to vintage inspiration, embracing the round frames of the past. Lenses were decidedly darker but towards the end of the decade, neon lenses began to pop up to pay homage to the 1960s. 

woman with red rose in mouth and red round sunglasses
The 1990s made their lenses smaller, a stark difference from past decades.


The 2000s swang in the complete opposite direction of the 1990s. The frames were huge with many crazy colors. It was popularized to have large frames in a wide variety of colors and shapes, neon lenses, and lots of designer logos. 


Most of the sunglasses from the 2010s were inspired from various decades preceded with small and large frames, various lens colors, and a wide variety of frame shapes. Because of all of the colliding trends and various subcultures of the 2010s, there is not one defining style of this decade. Many unique trends and fashions statements all existed at the same time in this decade.

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