Sunglasses & Cinema: A Historical Retrospective
Article by Dave Mcdermand
Every time I see an asshole on a boat, I am overwhelmed. As he and his fraternal order open their Yeti Cooler® and pretend to relate to A$AP Rocky, I can’t stop looking at the floating Croakies latched to their necks, keeping their Wayfarers securely fastened to their sunburned heads...
There is no doubting that Ray-Ban sunglasses maintain a position of undeniable and unapologetic cultural iconicity over the last (almost) century. We feel our own rebellious freedom with Tom Cruise as he gets into Risky Business and slides across the floor without pants (which is an interesting Mandela Effect). We absorb mysterious severity as the Reservoir Dogs step heavy on the pavement. We exude glamour with Audrey Hepburn as she delicately sips her coffee and lowers her shades. We contemplate with JFK. We see reflections in Bob Dylan’s dark lenses. It’s almost as if the Hollywood organism has plastic frames engrained in its genetic code.
However, sunglasses as we know them today had a long path of topsy-turvy to be the thing perched on Rowdy Roddy Piper’s nose to allow him to see the hidden ideology buried deep within the obviousness of society. So let’s take a quick trip in the Wayback Machine!
The Romans may take credit for shades (imperialist bastards), but it’s recognized by people smarter than me that sunglasses got their start in the courts of China around the 1300s. During this time, judges would wear smoke tinted lenses to hide their expressions after threatening to cut a baby in half to find out who the real mother was and other normal Chinese court things.
After a few hundred years of experimentation with corrective-vision lenses with smoked-out shades, we make it to the late 1700s, where an English optometrist dude named James Ayscough had an optical obstacle. Too many people were fucking with dirty dicks and were coming to him with bouts of syphilis.
"But Dave, I thought you said he was an optometrist, not a dick doctor." Well, lots of these cheeky Brits would have an extreme sensitivity to light that came as a symptom with Ye Olde Whore’s Disease.
So Ayscough came up with an idea to make blue and green tinted lenses to help filter out some of the light. The mash-up of this, along with the Chinese corrective smoke lenses, eventually became sun-blocking specs. Anyways, a few wars happen and we jump ahead to the 1900s in the grand ol’ USA.
Edison is credited for the invention of Kinetoscope, which took images and made them move, which eventually leads us to the golden age of black and white Hollywood film. The silent film era generated some amazing pieces of artistic history, despite the limited amount of technology.
Basically, we were jamming 16 pieces of film per second through a pinhole of light. The film needed a lot of light to get the images to expose properly, so producers would supplement this with high intensity Arc Lamps (which basically ignite ionized gas molecules inside of a tube which can reach up to 500 degree Celsius) and magnesium camera flashes -- just imagine the creepy guy standing inside of a cloth box sparking a huge rail of chemicals on a piece of wood.
The incredible brightness of the light caused retinal damage to many actors, and no one wants to be seen with puffy red eyes. So, just as the peanut butter truck crashed into the chocolate truck to make Reese Cups, sunglasses crashed into the faces of the budding stars of this new and magical form of scientific and glamour drenched art. These sunglasses were metal framed, not very accessible -- unless you were someone like Charlie Chaplin -- uncomfortable, and just beginning to gain traction in the world of fashion because of the association with famous figures.
It wasn’t until 1929 that your everyday jack-off was able to dip their dilly into the deep well of shades. A man named Sam Foster moved to America in the 1910s from Austria (shout out to Arnie Schwartz) and began working for a company called Viscoloid that figured out how to turn celluloid into plastic objects. Their main hustle was combs and toiletries.
Celluloid, on its own, could be considered the single most important item in the history of movies. Basically, it’s a combustible paper-like material made from an organic compound, like cotton, wood, or hemp. You add a bunch of shit like nitrogen and a flammable waxy material called Camphor and voilà! Celluloid is considered the first type of plastic to exist. But more importantly, it revolutionized both still and motion photography after being developed in the 1880s by combining it with light sensitive emulsion to become a more efficient way to capture an image. Plus, it was way cheaper than silver.
Edison used this fancy new celluloid material for his kinetograph, and in 1889 Kodak modified this material after scooping up the patent and making it more flexible to begin the evolution and adventure into motion pictures.
Anyway, back to Sam Foster and Viscoloid. In 1919, Foster would give the finger to Viscoloid to go start his own, more fruitful business, which also involved selling plastic combs, after learning all Visoloid's dirty little secrets.
Viscoloid turned out to be fine though. They were bought up by DuPont in 1925. Around that time, the DuPont family is known for campaigning against hemp, which Viscoloid used to help make their celluloid. Although it’s debated, DuPont lobbied for the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which effectively shutdown the hemp growing industry so there’s some connectivity here. But I digress.
The Roaring 20s weren’t too great for people in the business of selling plastic combs. Women were getting looser by the minute; drinking illegal alcohol, dancing to jazz, flapping about and such. But unfortunately for Foster’s new company, Foster Grant, ladies were cutting their hair short. As a result, they didn’t really need combs anymore. So Foster Grant pivoted his business on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
He noticed the rising popularity of sunglasses worn more and more frequently by actors and actresses who were protecting their eyes and concealing their identities. In 1929, he thought, ‘Hey I could just convert my plastic molds to make some hater-blockers for the public.’ And even though the great depression was causing a full on shit-storm to the economy, people were buying the shit out of Foster Grant Sunglasses.
Flash forward 7 years to the US Army. Planes are starting to kick ass, but pilot’s eyes are getting destroyed by being so close to the sun for too long. So some old hats in the optometry game called Bausch & Lomb teamed up with the Air Force by developing a new type of Anti-Glare goggle lens modeled after the Polaroid’s Polarizing filter. This would help to ban the sun’s rays for the aviators, and the new style of eyewear would go on in 1937 to become the product we know today as Ray-Ban Aviators. Eventually, they end up on Tom Cruise as he declares his sensual-bro love for Goose in Top Gun.
In 1952, the company goes on to launch the Wayfarer model, which would find themselves perched on the mugs of legends such as James Dean, Andy Warhol, and Muhammad Ali. But as the hippies and John Lennon make everyone feel square and switch to round frame glasses in the 70s, the Wayfarers’ sales numbers slumped.
Fortunately, there was a team of rich people in suits in an Arkansas board room in 1982 who wanted to get the Wayfarer back in the public sphere. The team noticed a boost of sales in 1980 aided by Jake and Elwood Blues in the classic film, The Blues Brothers, but then sales nose-dived the following year. They thought, 'Hey, if we get our products in more movies, maybe people will start buying them again.'
So that’s what exactly they did. They threw money at their money problems with a $50,000 deal to get their product in over 60 movies and TV shows a year, leading to millions of unit sales. The deal went on until 2007, the year of Transformers (ft. Wayfarers), Superbad (ft. Wayfarers) There Will Be Blood (no Wayfarers), and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (I think there’s Wayfarers hidden somewhere in there) and the rest is history.
And as I think about the asshole, now covered in lake scum and slurring words because of all the Four Loko shots, I see the magnificence of innovation. Bio-engineered plastic spawning into life as the device that captures and develops light and the object that blocks it become entwined as two strands of the same DNA. It's not hard to see the symbiotic relationship these two symbols of freedom and excellence share and how they’ve helped shape the fragmented image that comes to mind when we think of American culture.
Still, I will never wear Wayfarers again because they make me feel like a douchebag.
What do you think? Did you know sunglasses and cinema were so tightly bound? Do you feel like a douche in Wayfarers? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and, as always, remember to viddy well!