How Sunwear Became Funwear: Optical Heritage Museum

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In a 1916 article published by American Optical, chemist H.T. Reeve marveled over an exciting new technology: tinted glass lenses. But this scientist, for all his enthusiasm, was forced to admit that few people really wanted to wear sunwear. These lenses would never get dispensed, he explained, “unless those prescribing them were convinced that such glasses were a necessary and beneficial precaution.”

That was the reality 100 years ago. Tinted lenses were viewed with suspicion. But over the next several decades, sunwear became much more than a way of protecting eyes. It turned into a glamorous fashion accessory.

This fascinating story is now being told through photos and documents shared by the Optical Heritage Museum in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Many of these images, drawn from the archives of American Optical, now part of Carl Zeiss Vision, have not been seen since the early decades of the last century.

The idea that people might look better wearing sunglasses never occurred to Dr. Reeve, or to most other people in the eyecare field back then. He even claimed, back in 1916, that the best tinted lens was one with “so little color as to be indistinguishable from white glass when worn on the face.”

Back in those distant days, eyecare professionals were just starting to grasp the long-term risks associated with exposure to ultraviolet light. American Optical played a key role in raising awareness, but not without pushback. A century ago, some experts even argued that UV light was healthy for eyes and feared that blocking it might damage patients’ vision. American Optical eventually prevailed over the skeptics and worked with practitioners to develop the sunwear category.

The public’s reluctance to wear tinted lenses led to some unusual technologies. The Kilglare glasses, for example, were one-third sunwear and two-thirds clear. Only the top part of the lens was tinted, and wearers were advised to tilt their heads forward when facing blinding headlights on the road. “The wearer looks through the dark amber glass until the danger has passed,” according to American Optical’s 1916 product catalog. Kilglare, the company boasted, “literally saves eyes by day and lives by night.”

Wearers gradually decided that sunglasses were glamorous as well as healthy, but here they took the lead from Hollywood rather than eyecare professionals. Starting in the 1920s and 1930s, magazines began featuring behind-the-scenes photos of movie stars in their private life, and often they were shown wearing tinted lenses.

Fans saw Marlene Dietrich wearing shades while eating at the Paramount cafeteria or Clark Gable out on a date in stylish sunwear, and decided they wanted to do the same. In later years, almost every superstar, from Audrey Hepburn to Jackie Kennedy, served as unofficial endorsers. It’s no wonder that sunglasses were embraced as the ultimate fashion statement.

The eyecare field grew much bolder in response to this shift in attitudes. In the 1950s and 1960s, new developments in eyewear reflected a greater awareness of glasses as lifestyle accessories. Frames grew bigger and flashier. Tints embraced the full spectrum of colors. You wore these glasses for self-expression, not merely as a medical device and a way of protecting your eyes.

But there’s some irony here. You might think that sunwear would have been most popular when the economy was built on outdoor jobs in farming and construction. The constant UV exposure involved in that work makes eye protection a necessity, not a luxury. Yet the actual history of sunwear shows that the opposite happened. People got excited about sunglasses after most of the population had shifted to indoor work in factories and offices.

But tinted lenses returned to their origins as outdoor accessories in the 1980s and 1990s with the growing public interest in sportswear and high-performance gear. Just as you needed the right shoes and wardrobe for your weekend warrior activities, you also required the proper eyewear.

Protection from ultraviolet was now more critical than ever, as NASA satellite studies showed that the use of ozone-depleting gases and other factors had caused a marked increase in levels of UV exposure. But this new generation of high tech sunwear offered many other features and benefits—everything from superior scratch resistance to improved optics for wraparound frames.

“Sunwear today needs to offer multiple benefits,” according to Zeiss Vision Care vice president Karen Roberts. “Safe, healthy vision is a must—and Zeiss now offers 100 percent UV protection in all our sun lenses and now in clear lenses too. But wearers deserve high performance and some glamour as well. After all, just because it’s high tech, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be fun too.”