Belfast Telegraph

Schoolboy's worst nightmare to must-have accessory: the history of glasses in focus

Right from the clearly short-sighted to the positively visionary, Luke Rix-Standing looks back at the evolution of spectacles

John Lennon
John Lennon
Dennis Taylor
Marilyn Monroe
Harry Potter

Glasses occupy a strange spot in the annals of fashion because technically you either require them or you don't - style needn't come into it.

But fortunately for those of us who cannot see without them, they have evolved into something sleek, smart and surprisingly trend-setting.

So, don your reading glasses as we explore the intriguingly opaque origins of spectacles and track their journey from schoolboy's nightmare to must-have accessory.

Shrouded in mystery

Perhaps ironically, the early history of spectacles is so murky that it's impossible to get a clear picture.

We don't know who invented them and instead we have a long list of candidates who might have but didn't.

It wasn't Benjamin Franklin, who invented bifocals some 400 years after the first glasses. Nor was it 14th century Florentine Salvino D'Armati, despite an epitaph on his tomb claiming it was.

It wasn't Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, who wrote a thesis on the theory of lenses in 1266, nor Arabian mathematician Alhazen, who authored a similarly prescient treatise two-and-a-half centuries earlier.

Most scholars now agree that glasses originated in northern Italy, and our best guess is in the 13th century. In 1305, Giordano da Rivalto, a friar from Pisa, delivered a sermon praising man's ingenuity with the line: "It is not 20 years since there was found the art of making spectacles." That's as far as our knowledge goes. Make of that what you will.

Fit for purpose

At the turn of the century glasses were still overwhelmingly concerned with utility, like Alfred Lord Tennyson's monocle or President Theodore Roosevelt's pince-nez.

They were so unfashionable that some men and women preferred to use 'lorgnettes' - frames that were held up to the eyes with a handle, so you only had to wear them when absolutely necessary.

"The idea that glasses could be a fashion accessory really started in the 1920s and 1930s," says Bianca Sarre, style spokesperson for Specsavers, " which was when spectacle makers started experimenting with different materials."

Glasses were knocking on the fashion world's door - with small, rounded models sporting gold and tortoiseshell patterning - but even by the Second World War they hadn't made it. Through the 1930s and 40s spectacles on the silver screen were often there to telegraph that an otherwise attractive female actress was supposed to be frumpy and plain.

Though a regular trope in Hitchcock, the best example comes from 1946 Humphrey Bogart classic The Big Sleep. Dorothy Malone plays a bespectacled bookstore clerk attempting to seduce Bogart's protagonist. "Do you have to, um," Bogart says, gesturing to her glasses, and then as she takes them off, "oh hell-o".

Necessity to accessory

Suddenly, something strange happened: glasses became cool.

Through the 1950s, a series of short-sighted celebrities took the plunge and made eyewear their own, despite an acknowledged image risk. Buddy Holly viewed glasses as a potential career-ender, but with a prescription of 20/800 his eyes were so poor he could barely read the top line at the opticians. His thick, black, horn-rimmed frames were picked out by his ophthalmologist, and kick-started the look now known as 'geek chic'.

"If people are going to like me, they're just going to have to like me with glasses on," he once said. They did, and a 750lb replica of his singular specs now stands outside the Buddy Holly Center in his home town of Lubbock in Texas.

What Buddy Holly did for men, Marilyn Monroe did for women. In her 1953 movie How To Marry A Millionaire, she plays a bespectacled would-be-wed convinced that: "Men aren't attentive to girls who wear glasses." A love interest later requests that she put on her glasses and confirms that, actually, she looks rather better with them on.

Monroe herself owned and regularly wore a pair of cat-eye specs, lending glasses some long overdue sex appeal.

A fashion revolution

Finally fixed firmly in the fashionable fold, the 1960s brought with it an explosion of different sizes and styles. John Lennon became perhaps the most famous specs-wearer of all time (at least until Harry Potter), with his small, circular frames, while Jackie Kennedy's large, thick, rectangular lenses showed the spectacled world that big could be beautiful.

Along came the Seventies and with it yet more varieties. Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman owned a pair of lenses the size of dinner plates, Andy Warhol's alternative white rims added artistic credibility, while Elton John debuted a succession of bright, colourful models that grew in popularity as he did.

Unfortunately, anything part of the fashion world is subject to its whims and the 1980s saw hair, jeans and glasses expand to near-planetary size and take on hallucinogenic colour palettes.

Eighties frames are not remembered with universal fondness and had their peak in the 1985 World Snooker final. Watched by 18.5 million people - still a record for BBC2 and for a post-midnight audience - 36-year-old Dennis Taylor defeated Steve Davis sporting elephantine frames with prism-like lenses, which, due to a low bridge and temples, initially appeared upside down. Love or loathe it, it was an iconic moment in eyewear.

The rise and rise of retro

The 1950s brought social acceptability, the 1960s style, the 1970s size and the 1980s silliness. The decade of the throwback, the 1990s, brought pretty much the whole lot.

Noel Gallagher's circular miniatures channelled John Lennon; the so-called 'nineties nerd' brought back geek chic; and Kurt Cobain's omnipresent grunge came with 'alien shades' that put Elton John to shame.

There were a few innovations - the rise of rimless models astride the noses of Silicon Valley - but the nineties was the decade that embraced a return to what came before.

"Glasses have come full circle," says Sarre. "And many of the specs you'll see in stores today will have been inspired by previous fashion trends."

Perhaps no other product epitomises the meeting of function and fashion quite like a modern pair of glasses. You can now have 20/20 vision and be effortlessly on trend.

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