They may be healthy for the eyes and make driving safer by reducing glare, but let’s face it, a lot of us buy sunglasses for completely non-practical reasons. Long associated with luxury, fame, the sun-drenched days of summer, and more than a little all-around glamor, sunglasses are purchasable “cool.” The sales of millions of both cheap and expensive wholesale sunglasses are assured not by their practical benefits, but by the fact that they make almost all of us seem a bit sexier.
The earliest use of off white sunglasses is hard to date. However, forerunners of today’s shades go back as far as medieval China where judges wore spectacles made of smoked quartz to conceal their reactions. The direct ancestors of today’s shades, however, were created by English inventor steampunk sunglasses James Ayscough, who experimented with tinted glasses which were later prescribed for people with health conditions that made them sensitive to light. With the arrival of the twentieth century and mass media culture, sunglasses became popular among actors in the very new movie industry. Some say they wore them to avoid recognition by fans when out in public, and some argue it was to conceal the fact that the ultra-powerful lighting used in early filmmaker left them with badly reddened eyes.
In any case, sunglasses didn’t become truly popular until the late twenties, when a previously less than successful entrepreneur in the field of women’s hair products began experimenting with injection molding equipment to make rapidly produced sunglasses. Sam Foster, who had a concession at the Atlantic City Boardwalk Woolworth Department Store (location, location, location!), began marketing the glasses to squinting beach-goers under the name Foster Grant. Though it was the early days of the Great Depression, the glasses became something of an immediate fad and photos of huge stars like Greta Garbo wearing them certainly didn’t harm their allure. After 1936, the development of the first polarized sunglasses, using technology created by Edward Land of Polaroid Film, reduced glare and eyestrain and added an important practical benefit to wearing sunglasses.
Sunglasses remained popular for the next few decades but, as with so many American products, it took Europeans to remind us of our best work. Sunglasses figured prominently in the European “new wave” hits of the late fifties and early sixties, most especially in the films of the great Italian director Federico Fellini. When he put designer shades on international superstars stars like Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, sunglasses achieved an almost metaphysical level of import.
Perhaps inspired by the use of sunglasses in then-trendy European films, Madison Avenue launched the “Who’s behind those Foster Grants?” campaign. Cannily using stars who had plenty of glamour but relatively low price tags, the Foster Grant “mad men” employed character actor Anthony Quinn; curvy superstar-to-be Raquel Welch; and two comedy legends in the making: Woody Allen and a pre-Inspector Clouseau Peter Sellers. The campaign was an enormous, years-long success and only further solidified the association between glamour and sunglasses.
Meanwhile musicians used sunglasses for reasons as varied as blindness, to hide the blood shot eyes caused by late nights and various forms of indulgence, or just because musical talent and good looks don’t always go together. It actually didn’t matter why Ray Charles, Roy Orbison, or the Beatles wore sunglasses. They looked cool wearing them. And so it continued on into the eighties when songs like “Sunglasses at Night” and “(The Future’s So Bright) I Gotta Wear Shades” further cemented the idea of sunglasses as manufactured coolness. Sales of higher-end sunglasses, most popularly Ray-Bans, skyrocketed and producers of shades found their own future quite bright.
In the nineties and on into our 21st century, an increasingly health-conscious public has become more aware of the potential benefits of wearing sunglasses, while the economy has often dictated somewhat lower prices. As manufacturers and ophthalmologists work to maximize those health benefits and lower price tags, the sales of sunglasses to people of all ages and income levels continues unabated to this day. Often sold at discount — but always in bulk because of their immense popularity — wholesale sunglasses are among the most popular items both at high-end retailers and as discount deals. That’s not likely to change. Anything that makes you feel so cool while being so comfortable and protecting your eyesight isn’t going away any time soon.