A History Of The World's Most Famous Sunglasses

Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images.
We define so many icons and celebrities through their eyewear choices. When we think Audrey Hepburn, we think oversized cat-eyes. Nowadays, we expect Kim Kardashian to shield her eyes from the paparazzi with flat-top sunnies. On top of being extremely practical, the simple piece can transform the wearer's face. But, how much do you really know about your favorite accessory? We dug through the archives to help you become a more informed shopper (and kill it at trivia night).

The idea for sun-shielding lenses goes back to Roman times. In Fashion and Accessories, Karin Schacknat notes that Emperor Nero would enjoy outdoor gladiator spectacles through an emerald, so the light wouldn't bother his eyes. True eyeglasses wouldn't appear for another millennia, though: The “who” and “when” are contested, but we can generally place the first glasses to Italy in the 1280s. 

Some
 attribute the invention to a monk named Salvino D'Armato degli Armati in Florence in 1287; others, like Vincent Ilardi in Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes, push it up a year to an unnamed craftsman in Pisa, whose invention was then recreated and propagated by Friar Alessandro della Spina. In any case, these OG specs were quite different from the eyeglasses we know today: two magnifying lenses, bolted together by a bridge meant to be balanced on the nose. The shape we recognize today — with legs that hook over and around the earlobe for hands-free wear — came about in 18th century England.

But, it wasn't until the 20th century that emperor Nero's original idea took hold: As the cinematic industry was taking off in the 1920s, actors and actresses would spend the bulk of their payable hours filming outside in super-sunny Hollywood. What started as a solution to an occupational hazard led to iconic photographs, which led to mass obsession over the eye-covering shades. So, you could say things haven’t changed that much.

Sunglasses have come a long way — from practical, protective eyewear to staple fashion accessory. We’re throwing it back to some of the early iterations of our now-favorite frames, from oversized round specs to wackier statement shades. (There’s even a pre-Kanye shutter shade in there.) We also picked out contemporary takes on these classic sunnies, so you can put your newfound knowledge to good use.

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