If the eyes are truly the windows to our soul, it is surprising that spectacles have generally suffered from a bad press in the West. Eyewear is currently in vogue, regardless of whether corrective lens are necessary, but it has not always been so, especially for men.
The current popularity of eyewear has undoubtedly been influenced by the ubiquity of bespectacled characters in movies and television dramas: Oliver Proudlock, a posh twenty-something in the reality show Made in Chelsea, sports a pair of tortoise shell frames, seemingly when the mood takes him. The process of adapting books into blockbusters has helped the pre-pubescent Harry Potter and the wizened master spy George Smiley to universalise eyewear, if not necessarily their specific frame styles.[i] Even James Bond has contributed to the cause. Pierce Brosnan wore glasses for the Bond franchise’s nineteenth offering, The World is Not Enough. Admittedly, 007’s specs were Q-Branch issue blue tinted x-ray lens, but they fooled casino punters, who appeared to regard them as a modish dress accessory, befitting of a debonair Brit in black tie. The specific preference for thick-rimmed frames has probably been encouraged, certainly normalised, by a slew of Geek-Chic American sitcoms, like The Big Bang Theory and Ugly Betty. The idea that dramas of this ilk would inspire spectacle wearing seems counter intuitive. The protagonists in these shows are archetypal losers. Rather like Clark Kent’s frames, the glasses worn by these characters imply physical weakness and hint at inner neuroses and anxiety; all of which is encapsulated in the clichéd phrase, ‘never hit a man with glasses’.
But our interaction with the screen, big and small, is complicated. Seeing an item of clothing on television or in a movie can enhance its status, even elevate it from sartorial obscurity and derision, especially if it is worn by a character we love; and we all love Leonard Hofstadter, Ph.D., and Betty Suarez. Anne Hollander uses the example of Jack Nicholson’s watch cap in One Flew over the Cukoo’s Nest to explain this phenomenon.[ii] The cap was a common dress accessory prior to the film’s release in 1976, but after Nicholson’s appearance everyone wanted it, to achieve ‘a sense of glamour by association.’[iii] In the world of eyewear, Buddy Holly’s shiny black Mexican imports caused a sensation in the 1950s, even though they were purchased for practicality; his vision was 20/800 in both eyes.[iv] According to Gregory DelliCaprini Jr., fashion editor of www.billboard.com, Holly’s specs even encouraged stars to become more glam:
Without Buddy Holly’s glasses, [pop-culture experts] say, the world would likely never have seen John Lenon in his granny-style glasses nor Elton John in his oversize frames. For that matter, it might never have seen Madonna in her cone-shaped bra or Lady Gaga in her meat dress.[v]
This may be claiming too much, but the clamour for celebrity looks and ephemera cannot be denied. Lunor frames similar to those worn by Steve Jobs were reported to be selling ‘more briskly’, following the announcement of his death.[vi] The apparent scramble to possess a piece of Jobs’ image, even if in replica, is not so different to the ransacking of episcopal and royal palaces that followed the death of a bishop or prince in pre-modern societies. The death of these political leaders ‘opened up a fissure in the fabric of society’[vii] and created a ‘marginal period’[viii] before a successor was appointed. Possessing, or destroying, objects of the recently deceased enabled individual feelings of anxiety to be collectively expressed. The fact that people now to react to a celebrity’s death in a similar way reveals much about the entrenchment of celebrity culture in modern society.
Hollander’s research hints at another reason for the surge in spectacle wearing. She argues – convincingly – that the advent of film and photography has made us more discriminating. Sharper resolution achieved through technological advances has made us adept, and thus increasingly inclined, to ‘read’ clothes and brands on film as signifiers of income, occupation and background. And as life imitates art, so we apply these forensic skills to the sartorial choices of friends and colleagues. Wearing styles of glasses that are popularly regarded as fringe – even wearing glasses at all – could therefore provide a means of becoming ‘undetectable’ or finding sartorial freedom.[ix]
Eyewear has often been portrayed negatively in the West, chiefly because of its association with bookish learning and old age. For the same reasons, the reception of glasses in the East has tended to be more positive, following Confucian teachings.[x] In a previous post I suggested that fictional villains often have facial hair; well, they also wear glasses (beware the character that sports both!).[xi] Of the twenty-nine James Bond villains that have appeared in film, two were bespectacled (Max Zorin and Elliot Carver). Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Le Chiffre suffered from optical deficiencies. Nazi officers are frequently depicted with a monocle, whether in Hergé’s Tintin or Hogan’s Heroes.[xii] In Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels, Baron von Pregnitz (‘Kuno’), wears a monocle, which adds to his slightly unsettling demeanour.
The Baron, who was fishy and suave, inclined his head. Leaning towards me, like a cod swimming up through water, he asked:
‘Excuse me. Do you know Naples?’
‘No. I’ve never been there.’
‘Forgive me. I’m sorry. I had the feeling that we’d met each other before.’
‘Perhaps so,’ I said politely, wondering how he could smile without dropping his eyeglass. It was rimless and ribbonless and looked as though it had been screwed into his pink, well-shaven face by means of some horrible surgical operation.
Mr Norris Changes Trains. Christopher Isherwood.
Choosing not to wear glasses in public is probably the most prevalent example of someone suffering for their style. Adolf Hitler wore glasses in private but never for official engagements. His speeches were written on a special typewriter with larger letter stamps. Leading Nazis wore spectacles (and monocles), but it was important that Hitler’s figure, which became increasingly deified after he proclaimed himself Führer in 1934, bore no hint of physical fragility.[xiii] In at least one case of eyewear extremism, looks have even killed. Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, Horatio Nelson’s second in command at Trafalgar, died of bowel problems supposedly caused by leaning over maps when he should have been wearing his spectacles. Even John Lenon, whose bespectacled portrait has become near iconic – more so following the release of Yoko Ono’s 1981 album Season of Glass, which featured his blood-flecked frames on the cover – never wore glasses when performing live.[xiv]
… Made in Italy
It is ironic, but not necessarily surprising if we think about the history of other dress accessories (if spectacles are dress accessories?[xv]) and people’s desire for individuality, that eyewear should have started to become unpopular at the moment it attained popularity. Reading glasses were developed during the thirteenth century. They were worn by clerics, and thus scholars, and fashioned from exquisite materials, including ivory, tortoise and precious metal. Refinements to the frame and the use of inexpensive metals made glasses readily available across Europe. As the lustre of academia and quality workmanship faded, the ‘mystique’ of eyewear went too. ‘Glasses came to be seen as a crutch.’[xvi] Optometrists’ association with St Jerome, whom they had adopted as their patron saint, did much to reinforce this dismissive verdict. St Jerome was famous for completing a Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) from Greek. Further developments in the manufacture of frames, particularly the creation of celluloid in the mid-nineteenth century and Optyl in the mid-twentieth century, enabled more dynamic, anthropometric and colourful frames to be made.[xvii] These technological innovations created new markets for sunglasses, which were popularised by Hollywood actors and the nonchalant JFK,[xviii] but the multi-colour and multi-dimensional frames worn by the likes of Elton John[xix] and Dame Edna Everage[xx] revealed how dowdy prescription spectacles were.
The idea of commissioning known designers to create eponymously branded frames generated a new clamour for specs and gave birth to the modern eyewear business.[xxi] But many Western producers struggled to compete with Asian competitors, who saturated the market with cheaper variants. The result was a realignment of the eyewear business: ‘Since the Asians couldn’t be beaten on price, a new strategy had to be devised – a few manufacturers decided to gamble on moving the category upmarket and competing on prestige.’[xxii] By geographical accident, optometrists located in the north of Italy were best placed to benefit from this commercial soul searching. Situated in the mountains, in close proximity to the motor industry and basking in sunshine, Italian eyewear manufacturers led the field in making aviation and motoring lens. One of the oldest and most prestigious of the Italian eyewear companies is Persol. The company’s name is derived from its products, which were per il sole, ‘for the sun’.[xxiii] Celebrity endorsements from the likes of Steve McQueen and shrewd product placement in movies like The Italian Job, did much to generate a cult status for Persol and Italian eyewear in general. Many eyewear companies boast that their frames are ‘hand made in Italy.’ A newer brand like Illesteva, which markets its products as both contemporary and classic, has gone a step further by proclaiming their frames are designed in New York and made in Italy.
I wear glasses and enjoy doing so. My expanding collection of frames includes, Cutler & Gross,[xxiv] Illesteva,[xxv] Persol,[xxvi] Prada,[xxvii] Ray Ban[xxviii] & Tom Ford.[xxix] The current ‘geek gone cool’ vogue, which is encouraging a return to vinyl records, Fairisle tanktops and slicked hair, has done much to promote, or at least prepare the ground for, the wearing of eyeglasses among a larger number of people. The fact that specs are slightly nerdy is, currently, less of an issue and the longer that bespectacled nerds appear on screen, the longer this will remain so. The present reverence for the past is also encouraging many eyewear brands to re-issue vintage frames – think of Oliver Peoples and their ‘Gregory Peck’ range – or, in the case of newer manufacturers like Thom Browne, to launch vintage-inspired frames.[xxx] This cyclical trend reveals how important history is to fashion. Past epochs are easily distinguishable from the clothes that were then worn. Harnessing or adapting these styles makes and maintains traditions and legitimacy, which has always been an important concern for clothing. The significance of tradition and legitimacy – choosing when to wear frames; choosing a style of frame that was worn by a celebrity or is made by a particular brand – seems to be a more pressing issue for the bespectacled because glasses make such an obvious physical statement. They proclaim, possibly more immediately than any other prop save crutches and bandages, a bodily impairment. For this reason, a history of eyewear also reveals how the sartorial kudos of eyewear can plummet. And if history does repeat itself, the current popularity of glasses means that a decline and fall in spectacle wearing may not far off as people seek a different means to project their individuality.
[i] J. Mullan, ‘Ten of the best pairs of glasses in literature’, Guardian Review (Saturday, 30 January 2010), 11.
[ii] A. Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley, 1975), 305. Also see her comments on the mini skirt, 360.
[iii] Ibid., 305.
[iv] C. Passy, ‘Framing a Young Rocker: The Man Who Picked Glasses for Buddy Holly’. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203833104577072583452885006.html?mod=slideshow_overlay_mod#. Accessed: 8/xij/2012.
[vi] ‘Steve Jobs’s Glasses sell well.’ http://live.wsj.com/video/steve-jobs-glasses-sell-well/F868E2FE-0EEB-4B0E-841E-94D245A6A64C.html#!017E2016-AFA8-43F2-BC67-6CE88C7ABCDD. Accessed: 8/xij/2012.
[vii] S. Bertelli, The King’s Body: Sacred Rituals of Power in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, tr. R. Burr Litchfield (Pennsylvannia, 2001), 39.
[viii] Ibid., 41.
[ix] Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes, 346-8.
[x] M. Lipow, Eyewear; Brillendesign; Lunettes (Cologne, 2011), 14.
[xi] ‘Hair Today and … Tomorrow’. October, 14 2012.
[xii] D. Gaulme & F. Gaulme, Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress (Paris, 2012), 204.
[xiii] F. Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (London, 2002), 44-8; I. Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (London, 1998), 280-81.
[xiv] N. Handley, Cult Eyewear: The World’s Enduring Classics (London, 2011), 61.
[xv] Neil Handley observes that many optometrists abhorred the fact that eyewear, which they considered to be a medical instrument, was becoming freely available on the high street, sold by a new breed of ‘shoptician.’ Handley, Cult Eyewear, 7-17.
[xvi] Lipow, Eyewear, 12.
[xvii] Ibid., 71-2; 265-66.
[xviii] Gaulme & Gaulme, Power & Style, 226.
[xix] Handley, Cult Eyewear, 117.
[xx] Ibid., 31.
[xxi] Lipow, Eyewear,130.
[xxii] Ibid., 270.
[xxiii] Handley, Cult Eyewear, 44-7.