Designer sunglasses may seem a relatively modern phenomenon, the celebrities we see today posing in designer shades on the promenades of the south of France and Los Angeles are not however the archetypes of this style, the trend is far older than that. The history of sunglasses goes back eons with a wide variety of materials used in construction as well as a huge variance in the uses, one thing is certain, the designer sunglasses we see today are in no way the first.
If the annals of history are correct the first time sunglasses were used was in ancient Rome. Emperor Nero reportedly has a pair of shades made up from polished emeralds; the purpose of these designer shades? To let the emperor watch gladiator bouts without straining his eyes. Conjecture still surrounds their effectiveness, some historians now believe that the emerald acted as a mirror meaning that sight was hindered rather than enhanced.
After Nero's pair of specs the next recorded used of sunglasses comes from ancient China. The designer of these Chinese sunglasses once again could not use glass and hence natural materials were used. This time, instead of emeralds the glasses were manufactured using flat, smoky quartz. Their usage however was not comparable to how we use our sunglasses today; in Chinese society these glasses were used by judges; not to shield their eyes from the sun, but to shield their eyes from the courtroom. The reasoning behind this was that if those inside the courtroom could not see the judge's eyes, they would not be able to read any of his emotions or facial expressions, and subsequently a clue to the outcome of the trial.
These early sets of sunglasses cannot be compared to the varieties we see today. While Nero wanted eye protection from the sun, the polished emeralds did not have the same UV protection as modern polarised lenses. In addition, while it is now possible to obtain designer shades with sight correction properties, these ancient sets had no such ability.
After these two initial uses the widespread use of sunglasses took centuries. Arguably it was the work of scientist James Ayscough who invented the technology needed for the lens. By studying the effect of certain colours of lens on the eyes he believed that he could cure visual defects. His work was never far reaching enough to be labelled comprehensive however and he never reached the point where UV protection was an objective. It was during the twentieth century that sunglasses became truly popular, especially in the United States where their popularity grew unbelievably. The protection of the eyes first became a goal with the work of Sam Foster; an entrepreneur who sold many pairs of glasses on the beaches of New Jersey and Atlantic City during the summer months.
With the popularity of Hollywood and celebrity ever growing during the thirties and forties, designer sunglasses really came into their own. Thanks to movie stars and musicians constantly wearing what was now considered a fashion accessory; the general public were enthralled by the idea of having shades. As a result the fashion industry embraced the glasses producing iconic designs that screamed chic and were hotly desired all around the globe.
Since this time sunglasses as a fashion accessory have continued to be the trend. Nowadays legislation ensures that no matter what style of glasses you buy your eyes will be protected from the harmful effects of the sun. Today the place of sunglasses as the world's favourite summer accessory seems to be assured. As celebrities continue to wear these designer sunglasses, undoubtedly their popularity with the general public will not diminish.
Fashion expert Thomas Pretty traces the development of designer glasses from ancient times to the modern day.