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The history and allure of vintage sunglasses

black and white photo of a woman wearing vintage sunglasses

If you’re looking for eyewear that shows off your personality, consider a pair of vintage sunglasses. Vintage eyewear often looks and feels different — heavier and most likely more durable than today’s models. But if you’re wearing a pair of vintage shades, don’t expect to look like a retiree heading to the shuffleboard and pickleball courts. Instead, consider this: These aren’t your grandparents’ sunglasses… and even if they are... now they’re cool.

Vintage sunglasses are shades from a past decade, and everyone seems ready to bring the sunglass trends of the past back to the present. Top fashion moguls from Louis Vuitton to Versace to Ralph Lauren are offering men’s vintage tortoise shell sunglasses, aviators and Wayfarer-style frames.

Ladies, your sunglasses, from the world’s top designers, can also transport your style to an earlier generation with a pair of vintage Versace medusa sunglasses or Giorgio Armani vintage cat-eyes.

The history of vintage sunglasses

To truly appreciate vintage sunglasses, why not learn the history of sunglasses? In 1929, Sam Foster began selling sunglasses on the Atlantic City, New Jersey, boardwalk under the name “Foster Grant.” 

You can credit celebrities, at least in part, with the rise in popularity of sunglasses as fashion, as movie stars began sporting the earliest designs in the 1930s. The ’30s saw sunglasses become more than a form of protection for the eyes; they became a fashion statement.

As the 1940s dawned, and the world found itself at war, the aforementioned aviator sunglasses made their first appearance, created specifically to aid pilots flying combat missions. In the post-war 1950s, the shape of sunglasses began to change. Cat-eye sunglasses featuring exaggerated framing around the eyes found a fan in Marilyn Monroe, who began wearing them in her films. Then, their popularity further exploded when Audrey Hepburn wore a pair in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Large frames in psychedelic designs and colors ruled the late 1960s and early ’70s while Ray-Bans dominated the ’80s thanks largely to celebrities like Madonna and Tom Cruise.

Rather than moving through each subsequent decade, suffice it to say, if you’re seeking unique vintage sunglasses, your options are vast and easy to find. After all, we’re talking almost a century of choices, popular then and now.

What do your sunglasses say about you?

The vintage sunglass frames with which you choose to accessorize can say a lot about your personality and how you feel about yourself. That feeling could reflect a desire to return to (or imagine yourself in) a bygone era. Fashion experts say the growing popularity, not to mention availability, of vintage apparel — be it shoes, outerwear or sunglasses — can be credited to our technology-laden world. 

According to Be Global Fashion Network, retro glasses and shades are popular because “modern technology allows remaking past objects for the better. People want to hang with something that offers that nostalgic value.” 

That “something” could also be an association with a celebrity, real or fictional. Vintage circular sunglasses bring to mind John Lennon or, more recently, Harry Potter. Large, colorful vintage sunglasses imply the owner could be an Elton John fan. 

In the modern era, trendsetters like Kendall Jenner and Beyoncé are constantly making fashion statements that often include sunglasses. Those photos are, in turn, scrutinized by their millions of followers seeking to look and feel like their idols. Who knows? In the year 2050, people may even be scouring thrift stores searching for that vintage Kardashian look.

If looking like a celebrity isn’t your primary reason for purchasing vintage sun shades, maybe you’re a creative type, and retro eyewear inspires you or speaks to your personal sense of nostalgia.

 SEE RELATED: Your guide to prescription sunglasses

Can I purchase vintage prescription sunglasses?

Keep in mind, the compliments you get from envious friends admiring your chic vintage look are immaterial if you can’t see who is offering the compliments. Appearance should always take a backseat to good vision. 

If your vision requires correction, it’s best to check with your local optometrist to ensure they’ll be able to fit your vintage frames with prescription lenses. In most cases, you’ll find that even those vintage half-frame sunglasses you fell in love with will accommodate prescription lenses. And if you prefer doing your research online, the website of Allyn Scura eyewear offers a state-by-state breakdown of eye care professionals who offer this service.  

There are plenty of other options for your lenses, including:

  • Single vision lenses for reading or distance

  • Progressive or bifocal lenses

  • Lenses thinner than the standard 1.5 refractive index

  • Clear, tinted, polarized, mirrored and photochromic lenses

  • Scratch-resistant and other protective lens coatings

Do a little research either online or by visiting your optometrist, and you should be able to find the perfect vintage shades in your desired shape or style that also provide outstanding vision.

It’s worth noting that, even if your vision is perfect, you can still be part of the vintage craze.  Fake glasses, also known as “plano” glasses or nonprescription sunglasses, come in a variety of styles, sizes and colors and yet serve no purpose other than to give you a fabulous look.  

Fake glasses are perfectly safe and won’t hurt your eyes.

Know your face before you shop

Now that you’re ready to shop, it’s time to make sure you understand the contour of your face.  Believe it or not, there are seven primary face shapes, and not all styles of sunglasses, vintage or otherwise, are right for each. To learn your face shape, look at your face and divide it into thirds.

If you have an oval face, consider yourself fortunate: Your features are evenly proportioned and any type of sunglasses, even something as unique as vintage flip-up sunglasses, should suit your face.

Does your face seem wider on the top and narrower at the bottom? If so, you have a heart-shaped face, and you are the perfect candidate for some vintage rectangle sunglasses. 

Your face may appear longer than it is wide. In this case, you have an “oblong face” and would look great wearing a pair of vintage frames with decorative or contrasting temples, as the embellishments can add width to your face.

Square-faced individuals are characterized by strong jaws and broad foreheads. These facial characteristics lend nicely to two of the most popular styles — oval and round vintage frames.

The diamond-shaped face, featuring a narrow forehead and jawline coupled with broad cheekbones, can be a bit more difficult to fit with a pair of vintage shades. Rimless vintage sunglasses and cat-eye frames might be just what you’re looking for.

A round face is just that, featuring width and length of similar proportion. Find a pair of vintage clear-frame sunglasses or sunnies with a clear bridge.

Finally, there’s the base-down triangular face shape, with a narrow forehead that widens out at the cheeks and chin. Heavily accented, colorful frames and the cat-eye models work well for this face shape.

Also consider skin tone and eye and hair color before settling on those vintage frames. And, don’t feel restricted by frames labeled men’s or women’s. Unisex frames can be both stylish and trendy and are especially popular in vintage eyewear.

If this all seems overwhelming, reach out to an eye care professional and get some advice.  

Where to buy vintage sunglasses?

Now that you know what type of lenses and frames you want, it’s time to figure out where to find them and decide how much you want to spend. If money is no object, head to an auction house and bid on an actual pair formerly owned by a celebrity. 

A pair of gold-metal framed sunglasses worn by the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, during the 1984 “Victory Tour,” fetched $40,516 during a 2010 auction. Even if your desire is simply to own a pair of  vintage Chanel sunglasses or frames from other high-end designers, be prepared to spend, at minimum, several hundred dollars.

If you’re trying to avoid sticker shock, there are more affordable sunglasses options that can be purchased online, starting at around $15. If you’re on a budget and feeling adventurous, check out local vintage shops, flea markets and neighborhood estate sales. Just keep in mind, good deals don’t always equal good quality. 

Do those glasses you found on the shelf of your favorite thrift store include 100% ultraviolet protection? UV rays can lead to cataracts, macular degeneration and other eye diseases that may result in blindness. Ask yourself what’s more important? Protection from the sun or sporting a pair of black retro sunglasses that do nothing to truly safeguard your eyes.   

If you’re unsure whether your new-old shades provide 100% UV protection, talk to your eye doctor. Optometrists and optical stores often have a way to test your lenses. And if they prove inadequate, ask your vision insurance provider for replacement lens rates. If the price is right, your favorite frames can do more for you than just look great.

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