To Wear or Not to Wear: Changing social norms with regard to eyewear

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Studying the history of spectacles brings together the twin themes of technological development and mankind's increasing understanding of physical optics, but it is as much about charting different historical attitudes to the face and one's appearance before others. Only if we attempt to understand the cultural influences and motivations for wearing (or not wearing) spectacles do we gain an accurate picture of why some developments in eyewear styles were so slow to gain speed and why ideas of fashion have always caused some people to prefer suffering over the available relief.

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21 March 2012

To Wear or Not To Wear:
Changing the Social Norms
With regard to Eyewear

Neil Handley

Studying the history of spectacles brings together the twin themes of technological development and mankind's increasing understanding of physical optics, but it is as much about charting different historical attitudes to the face and one's appearance before others. Only if we attempt to understand the cultural influences and motivations for wearing (or not wearing) spectacles do we gain an accurate picture of why some developments in eyewear styles were so slow to gain speed and why ideas of fashion have always caused some people to prefer suffering over the available relief.

This lecture is about the psychology of wearing spectacles and the cultural contexts in which we do so.  As an historian of the subject I’ll be looking at examples from both the past and the present.

We’ll look at what caused some people to avoid wearing glasses and the alternative options available to them. We’ll look at how some people concealed their use of eyewear and at the earliest spectacles, which being hand-held, cannot count as eyewear at all. I’ll make some comments about the comparatively recent phenomenon of spectacles as fashion accessories and I’ll show how consumer research has opened our eyes to the perceptions, misperceptions and prejudices of the public that the optical professions seek to serve.

Now there is more than one way to ‘wear’ spectacles; ’wearing’ does not necessarily mean ‘using’ and even today many sunglass designers take into account that women customers in particular like to perch their shades on top of their hair. Spectacles can form part of an assemblage of items, giving us an overall ‘look’. In fashion terms they are classed as ‘accessories’ along with shoes, jewellery, handbags or watches. In healthcare terms they are of course a medical device and in many languages other than English they are often described as a ‘prosthesis’, as an artificial part of the body…part of you, making you who you are.

Choosing your spectacles is a major decision. Increasingly people own two or more pairs for different occasions or times of the day. There is a phrase for this in the industry. It’s called ‘lifestyle dispensing’ and it dates back to the 1950s. The idea is that you wear one type of glasses in the workplace and quite another on the beach. Here are the results of two photo-shoots from Frederick Bateman & Co, one of the first British manufacturers to start advertising in popular consumer magazines (see presentation).

In order to help us to look good we can now turn to the latest technology to help us select our frames. On our smart phones we can wear our glasses virtually. We can experiment with different styles, seek a second opinion or just engage in flights of fancy without actually investing in the product.

For most people, however, the decision to wear some form of spectacles is an enforced one.

As recent research conducted by my institution, The College of Optometrists, has shown, some two thirds of adults of working age, living in the UK, need to wear some form of corrective eyewear. The use of corrective eyewear (spectacles or contact lenses) is thus very common in the UK as opposed to some other countries, particularly those in the Third World. The chances of wearing corrective eyewear increase, not surprisingly, with age and most people aged over forty will experience some degree of presbyopia where the natural elongation of the eyeball due to ageing results in the need for a reading correction. Of the two main types of eyewear, spectacles would appear to be the preferred option since the College found that as many as 62% of adults living in the UK wear spectacles, whilst only 14% wear contact lenses. There is some overlap between these groups, with 11% of adults wearing both spectacles and contacts. Indeed although contact lenses were once heralded as ‘the death of spectacles’, contact lens wearers now present one of the largest and most lucrative markets for another (non-corrective) form of eyewear – sunglasses.

Some of us love our glasses and some of us hate them. Others feign indifference though such people often have poorly chosen spectacles. Some just refuse to wear them at all, even when the benefits of doing so would appear obvious. Here is a diary entry from the famous Parson Woodford, writing in 1793:

“Mr Du Quesne is far advanced in Years but he will not own it. He is by no means fit to drive a single Horse Chaise. His Servant Man that came on horseback with him, was afraid that he would overturn...  He cannot see the ruts distinctly, he will not however wear Spectacles at all. He cannot bear to appear old, but must be as young in anything as the youngest person.”

As for me though still (just about) a youngster, I love glasses. It wasn’t always the case but fourteen years curating the world’s oldest specialist museum on the subject means that the appeal of the subject has rubbed off more than just a little.

How many of us, though, have taken our spectacles OFF for a photograph? Or, in earlier times, for a painted portrait, as in the College of Optometrists’ picture of an ‘Old Lady with Bonnet and Spectacles’, old and yet with her personal pride still intact. It’s as if she is saying to the artist ‘Hang on whilst I takes me glasses off first’.

If you have ever done this you are in famous, not to mention infamous, company.

I want to share with you the fate of Cuthbert, Baron Collingwood. To most people he is famous for having been Nelson’s second in command at the Battle of Trafalgar. From a public health perspective his story ought to be rammed down the throats of every schoolchild because of his fatal error in not wearing spectacles, for Admiral Collingwood met his demise when his myopia caused him to lean rather too much over navigational charts in order to see them. This leaning resulted in a stomach blockage that killed him. He should have followed the example of his fellow Nelsonian admiral Peter Rainier, but glasses would be inconvenient at sea; the iron frames might rust or the glass lenses steam up. Rainier is in fact the only naval officer from the period to have his portrait made showing the sitter with corrective eyewear as opposed to a working visual aid such as a telescope.

My second warning from history concerns Adolf Hitler. Hitler allowed unprecedented access to his personal photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, but the Nazi regime didn’t allow most of those pictures to reach the public. In particular, images of The Fuhrer wearing his reading spectacles were purged less they impact upon his authority. Hitler’s spectacles worn in the 1920s, when his prescription was only +2.50, were offered for auction in Munich in October 2011 to an outcry lest admirers of Hitler should want to purchase a memento of him for the wrong reasons. They could have been yours for around 6000 Euros. In fact this early instance of image management wasn’t a simple case of vanity, vain though the author of ‘Mein Kampf’ may have been. Rather Hitler was keen not to let anything distract from a near-mystical public persona, carefully laid on, and largely built upon facial expression and that famous stare. In his view and that of his propagandists, the spectacles would have been a barrier to the German Nation from making a close and personal connection to its adored leader.

I am also showing you a remarkable image mocked up by the United States Secret Service in Maryland in 1945. Unsure of whether Hitler was really dead they issued a wanted poster showing how the deposed leader might look if he were to reshape his moustache and don a pair of spectacles. I think it is remarkable how ordinary this makes him look – just like anyone you might pass in the street.

So the idea of not wearing spectacles can be deemed misadventure (as with Admiral Collingwood), or alternatively it can attributed to such motivations as vanity or political calculation, but College of Optometrists research has also identified that reluctance to wear glasses when one really should be doing so can also be characterised along cultural and racial lines.

A most interesting finding was that Afro-Caribbean people are more likely to discard their spectacles even though as an ethnic group they had a higher awareness of the value of regular eye tests. An alarming finding was that many drivers choose not to wear their spectacles even though they may have needed them to pass their driving test and to drive without them when needed is a punishable offence.

I personally wear spectacles to correct an imbalance of vision between the two eyes but I can see adequately unaided and so often go without them, but I’m not ashamed to be seen sporting a pair on my face and could be said to have a personal ‘wardrobe’ of glasses. I am content to be seen wearing what amounts to a facial prosthesis in a corporate studio portrait, in press photographs, appearing on television, or at leisure in my holiday snaps. In common with many in the arts and creative industries I recognise that eyewear can assist with the expression of personality and the creation of a public character. This can begin as an artificial construct but it has a habit of taking over.

To give one example the film and television scholar Dr Will Brooker of Kingston University has written about Irish rock star Bono, for our society has developed such that stars of popular culture are now the subject of serious academic analysis. Bono, real name Paul Hewson, is famous for his dark sunglasses worn indoors as well as out, for talking face-to-face with Presidents and prime ministers as well as performing in front of thousands on the concert stage. Now, he is incapable of taking off his signature glasses as his persona is as much a branded item as the Armani shades he wears on his nose. Even his wife calls him Bono, rather than Paul. As Dr Brooker says of Bono:

“He claims he has sensitive eyes, and has to protect them from camera flash. That’s like Batman claiming he has a sensitive face, and wears a cowl to stop sunburn.”

If he were to take off his glasses Bono would pass unrecognised. Maybe he does this sometimes? It wouldn’t be in his interest to let it be known.

An altogether more intelligent and more watchable star was the silent film comedian Harold Lloyd.In Lloyd’s case we see the contrived and medically unnecessary use of spectacles as a prop. In the 1910s he turned his hand to various comic characters until, in 1917, he put on a pair of spectacles (the rims were empty because lenses would have reflected the studio lights) and became simply ‘The Glasses Character’ in the comedy feature ‘Over The Fence’. The beauty of this character was that it supposedly made him look like ‘an everyday guy’, an unusual step since at that time character was usually conveyed in silent films through exaggerated facial features and excessive make-up. It also meant that the rest of his regular costume could comprise normal clothes. He knew how to make things easier for himself!  Thereafter the glasses certainly spurred a growth in demand for spectacles across America, particularly amongst the young, keen to adopt the ‘College look’, but perhaps persuading consumers that far from helping you to blend into the crowd, adopting eyewear could contribute towards an enhanced personality. Speaking towards the end of his life Lloyd claimed to have ‘felt bound in', before he put on the spectacles after which, for the first time, he became 'free'. Not least in his thinking was that he could take them off again in ordinary life and wallow in glorious anonymity. Another advantage was that the glasses made his character recognisable in non-English-speaking parts of Europe where the name Harold Lloyd was perhaps not known.

Lloyd is therefore a slightly problematic but nonetheless early example of celebrity endorsement, not for a specific brand of eyewear, but for the concept of wearing it at all.

Today we are used to media images of celebrities wearing spectacles and sunglasses and some like Sir Elton John or Dame Edna Everage have a particular association in the public’s mind with their eyewear. Some of these celebrities may only need to wear a particular brand on a single occasion to be mentioned in that company’s advertising for years to come.

It may surprise you that there are earlier examples, dating back to medieval times. First we must explore why the need for this arose.

It’s worth starting by explaining that the notion of ‘eyewear’ is largely a misnomer before the eighteenth century. Single lenses had been used in the hand since at least the turn of the first millennium. The first spectacles evolved in the final quarter of the thirteenth century, combining two of these lenses by joining the ends of their elongated handles. They were used mainly in monastic scriptoria for close work such as the illumination of book illustrations and were supported before the face with the hand. They were generally used briefly for a specific task before being put down again. A monk might even have had a special hook on the side of his writing desk for holding the spectacles whilst they were not in use.

There has been ongoing research into works of art showing historic spectacles. This has been carried out by various historians (for instance that of the late diplomatic and economic historian Vincent Ilardi in the United States) and has revealed a surprisingly large body of paintings, prints and book illustrations. Some of this is wildly anachronistic such as this 17th century reproduction of a sixteenth century painting of ‘The Holy Family with John the Baptist’. There’s the baby Jesus – flashing at us – and there is his father Joseph holding a pair of spectacles, only 1300 years before they were invented. As a carpenter no doubt he might have benefited from their use. The spectacles are of course of the type current at the time of the artist and it is interesting that he did not think it odd to place them in the hand of a working man – a skilled craftsman perhaps, but a humble man nevertheless, certainly not an intellectual and not a wealthy man. Certainly in analysing why the subjects in paintings are wearing or not wearing spectacles we can rule out the possibility that they couldn’t afford them. The available evidence is pointing increasingly to their widespread availability and the key year in this respect is 1583.

In 1583 a Venetian merchant ship sank in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of modern-day Croatia. Divers recovered the contents from the mid 1960s for the museum in Biograd. In the hold were 240 pairs of leather spectacles in boxes of a dozen of the type known to have been made in Nuremberg. This reveals a flourishing export trade, using international carriers, for a type of spectacle frame that historians had hitherto considered rare since before this shipwreck was discovered only a few dozen examples of leather spectacles had been identified in museum and private collections worldwide.

Also in 1583 a German statute fixed the price of spectacles and specifically forbade the sale of ‘cheap’ pairs. We see in this measure of state intervention an act to protect the established makers. It was probably dressed up to portray it as a measure to protect the public, to take poor quality items off the market, but one suspects that the South German spectacle makers were not entirely altruistic in their support for the measure. Clearly cheap glasses were available and to an extent that risked flooding the market and lowering the overall price. In the ensuing two centuries Nuremberg became famous for spectacles on one-piece construction, a single length of wire secured around the lenses and fastened with thread. Such eyewear was simple to mass produce.

In the picture of ‘The Misers’, based on a 16th century original, we see that not only were spectacles not the preserve of the rich, but that the rich themselves preferred the cheapest form of the product! The man weighs coins in a hand balance whilst his stingy wife inspects everything that he does through her one-piece spectacles. This is someone who practises what she preaches and won’t pay a penny more than she has to.

So we learn that spectacles were used by artists as a device, in order to make a critical comment of the person depicted…in this case to suggest venality or meanness.

In the painting ‘The Money Changers’ (which is sometimes also known in its many other versions as ‘The Misers’, but we couldn’t have two paintings with the same title) we see two government officials, possibly tax gatherers. Not all versions of this picture include the spectacles. That in the National Gallery for example omits them. So we must conclude that the artist has included them on this occasion to reinforce a particular point. The point is that these officials are over-zealous in carrying out their duties. They are too keen to extract our hard-earned money from our pockets and place it in the Exchequer. Next time you open a newspaper and see a photo of the Chancellor, George Osborne, why not draw a pair of glasses over his face? You’ll be following in a long tradition.

And the story gets even worse still with this Flemish morality picture. The moral is given in an oval-framed section towards the top and reads in Dutch:“Soo de Oude Songhen Soo Pepen de Jongen”, translated as 'As the Old Sang, so the Young Pipe’, which is based in turn on an old Dutch proverb ‘As the Birds Sing the Young Twitter’. But in case anyone is tempted to send a tweet from this lecture, don’t because the implication is that we youngsters learn from the example of our elders…but it’s not a good example! We see in this picture exposed flesh, gluttony and drunkenness. There is a dog at the table which would have been considered unclean, although jolly useful for wiping your sticky fingers upon. The dog’s ears are erect and that is an erotic device that would not have escaped the seventeenth century viewer. There is singing and music-making going on at one and the same time. You would have sung the Psalms unaccompanied, so these must be secular songs, more than likely bawdy songs and we note that the spectacles are the very agents that allow these immoral old people to read their bawdy song sheets. In another sense their moral decline is mirrored in their physical decay. As their behaviour deteriorates so their eyesight fades. And the women are as a wicked as the men. Pity the poor children!

So if being shown wearing spectacles in a Renaissance painting implied that you were mean, morally despicable, a Jew, or that you worked for the government is it any wonder that no one given any say in the matter would choose to be depicted wearing them?

So the Medieval spectacle makers in France felt the need to engage in a public relations exercise. As with any PR campaign they felt it would benefit from a figurehead and as nobody living would want to take on this role they selected somebody long dead. St Jerome was the translator of the Vulgate version of the Bible. What if he had used spectacles to bring the very word of God to the wider population? He hadn’t of course, because he died in the 4th century, but as a scholar and a man beyond moral reproach he was a good person to choose. He even had his cuddly side, having removed a thorn from the paw of a lion in the desert and so become friend to all the beasts. We see here St Jerome with an anachronistic pair of spectacles on the table. Maybe it was just a step too far to show him wearing them? In this painting we also see how there was still another major psychological obstacle to overcome. If spectacles were not to be considered as agents of immorality and degeneracy, they were still a badge of physical decay and approaching death. The symbolism of the skull is obvious. The beard has grown long. Jerome even looks tired. The pages of his book are slowly turning and when we speak of closing the book on something we mean it is about to end. The candle has gone out, and in the window the sands of time are swiftly running away. In case all this symbolism failed to convey the message, the artist has spelled it out for you at the top. ‘Memento Mori, Respice Finem’– Remember your death, consider the end. You were meant to contemplate this morbid picture for an extended period and somehow feel better and more virtuous for having done so. What we can say is that this public relations campaign, which extended over centuries, did eventually work! By 1623 as a painting in the Royal Collection shows, St Jerome had finally picked up his glasses!

The portrait of a Venetian Procurator from around 1610-1620 is one of the earliest commissioned portraits to feature spectacles. We no longer know the name of this important office-holder but the point is that he would have been known at the time - as an individual not just some generic type such as a miser or money changer – and he would therefore have had some say in how he was shown. Gone is the fear of what the eyewear might negatively imply. His only fear seems to be that the glasses might fall off and his hands are outstretched as if to catch them. To this man the spectacles might perhaps signify intelligence, literacy and social standing. The lenses are particularly thick ‘bottle’ lenses that distort the appearance of the eye behind to us the viewer. In this sense the artist has painted them surprisingly accurately but the motivation is no longer belligerent.

Now famous people came to be models that the public wanted to copy.

The invention of spectacle sides in the second quarter of the eighteenth century meant that spectacles now stayed in place much more easily. These are possibly to be considered the oldest known pair of ‘modern’ spectacles. The pointy spikes between the bridge and the rims are a purely decorative feature and the lugs which if you study them closely reveal themselves to be wedge-shaped rather than rectangular imply that this is a frame for seeing through and being seen in. You could get up and walk around, take a sedan chair or ride a horse whilst wearing them. Consequently you were much more likely to encounter a spectacle wearer in the street and an awareness of this triggered new developments in style.

Very popular for over a century from the 1750s onwards were these spectacles with inner margins of horn or tortoiseshell known as Martins Margins after their inventor Benjamin Martin, optician of Fleet Street. Though a spectacle maker, Martin thought his product merited a new name so in 1758 he referred in print to his ‘Visual Glasses, vulgarly called spectacles’ and over his shop was a large sign in the same shape.

Martin’s Margins continued to be worn well after the design was obsolete. In the painting ‘A Certain Cure’ an old woman wears spectacles that are one hundred years out of date! We know that spectacles were often handed down as heirlooms within a family. If you were lucky you could afford to have the frame re-glazed to your own prescription, but if not, then grandma or grandpa’s specs were all you had to manage with. If we think that things are better now we may be in for a shock. In the College of Optometrists research of 2010 a huge four out of ten spectacle wearers admitted they sometimes use an old pair when they can’t find their current pair, meaning that they could be wearing an out-of-date prescription, not to mention an out-of-fashion frame.

One implication of this research is that spectacle wearers don’t necessarily care about their appearance. A no-nonsense approach is to see glasses as a purely functional device in the same way that some people buy a cheap car because it gets them from A to B and that’s all that matters. Martin’s Margins began life as a new fashion trend and ended up as an all-too common spectacle type encountered upon the faces of the elderly years after they had last been in fashion. Fortunately for the frame industry there has long been a market for new designs and most distinctive fashions have been much shorter-lived.

Back in Venice we encounter one of the first ever examples of celebrity endorsement when the theatre manager and playwright Goldoni started wearing large round spectacles made from horn with green-tinted lenses to protect against the glare of the sun reflecting off the waters of the Venetian canals. There was a brief-lived craze for such frames and they became known as the Goldoni-type.

If practical considerations were giving people in sunny countries a fresh enthusiasm for donning eyewear, the removal of impractical obstacles was about to boost spectacle-wearing in cloudier countries like ours. Many of us know what a pain it can be to exchange one type of glasses for another – one pair to look up, another to look down at what we are reading. It seems that artists in London in the 1760s or thereabouts may have experimented with split lenses of different powers mounted within the one spectacle rim. From this developed the first bifocals. There was a clearly visible demarcation line and you needed to train the eye to look either above or below the line depending upon your need, but at least you didn’t need to exchange your spectacles for another pair altogether. The great Benjamin Franklin heard about these split lenses and ordered his own pair (we’re not sure from whom) but the famous optician Peter Dollond may have supplied several such pairs already since correspondence with members of Franklin’s circle shows he clearly seems familiar with Franklin’s written instructions. As the important man about town Franklin popularised the use of bifocals so that they came to be known as ‘Franklin split bifocals’. Sitting at the dinner table when he moved to France he found he could use them both to read the menu in front of him and to watch the lips of the ladies sitting opposite. By this way he claimed his glasses helped him the better to understand spoken French.

Around the 1820s another new design of spectacles started to take off in a big way. These were D-spectacles, with a lens rim in the shape of a letter D and with side visors of similar shape hinged to either side. You could either wear the visors folded out as you see here to guard against extraneous sunlight coming in from all angles, or you could fold the visors shut, bringing the lenses into line with the front lenses. If the lenses had a prescription power this meant you could alter the function of the spectacles by folding shut the visors, from a distance prescription to a pair of reading spectacles for example. Think of this as an alternative to bifocals.

The ‘Portrait of a Spanish Gentleman’ is a remarkable painting because you cannot see the sitter’s eyes! It means that your attention is focused instead upon the design of the spectacles, shown at a jaunty angle so you can appreciate their design which was still very new and innovative at the time this portrait was painted. This may have been the intention since the construction of the frame is most accurately depicted at a time when spectacles in art were often painted more impressionistically. This young man’s decision to wear his spectacles may, however have other causes and since we don’t know his name we can only speculate, but the tinted lenses may indicate blindness or he may be deliberately concealing a disfigurement. The venereal disease syphilis, for example, could seriously affect the appearance of the eyes and surrounding tissue. Maybe our nineteenth century Spanish gentleman wants to hide behind his dark glasses as much as Greta Garbo in the twentieth century, or Bono in our own.

If my earlier suggestion is the true explanation  - that our Spanish gentleman owned a stylish pair of glasses and wanted to show them off – we may wonder if he would always have worn them since, as I’ve already indicated, owning and wearing glasses are two separate things. When the National Health Service was introduced in 1948 there was a mad rush to obtain spectacles, provided free-of-charge by the State. Many of the people who rushed had never owned spectacles before and they didn’t necessarily risk breaking the precious gift from heaven by actually wearing them! Furthermore the demand was so great that many people only received their spectacles a full eighteen months after ordering them, in which time their prescription might have changed, so not some were rendered useless from the moment they were obtained.

This phenomenon is not confined to subsidised spectacles. It is perhaps even more understandable that people might be reluctant to wear their expensive purchases. In 1997 a spokeswoman for Cartier Luxury Eyewear actually admitted to the optical press that Cartier spectacle frames were so expensive that many of her customers never wore them! Amongst those that did wear them was the owner of the pair shown here from my museum. The Santos frame wasa luxury frame intended as a sunglass frame, the carefully-crafted appearance of which is nonetheless ruined by the insertion of non-tinted prescription bifocal lenses with a visible segment!

It is surely no wonder that some people who needed to wear spectacles and the state of whose eyesight compelled them to do so, nevertheless took steps to minimise their obtrusiveness or even hide the fact that they were wearing spectacles altogether.

I am showing you here a very ordinary portrait photograph of an ordinary woman, her identity lost to history, but she is wearing pince-nez - nose pinching eyeglasses that attach by the force of a spring and hence require far less substance to their frame. Many pince-nez were rimless. More attention was drawn to them if you attached a suspension cord though that was worthwhile since it stopped them falling to the floor. Nevertheless these items of eyewear were so unobtrusive that photographing them for the museum and getting them to show up is a real challenge! On historic black and white portrait photos it is often hard to tell if the subject is wearing them or not. Perhaps this is what caused Queen Victoria to request a pair. Walter Dixey was the Royal Optician at the time and he once had the unenviable task of telling the queen that, unfortunately, her nose was quite unsuited to wearing pince-nez. He reported returning home that evening ‘a little shaken’.

Even full spectacles could be made unobtrusive. In 1850s France there was even a type of spectacle made from very thin wire set into a groove along the edge of the lens so that to all intents and purposes you couldn’t see it. Known to posterity as ‘invisibles’ they also had the advantage of being extremely lightweight.

A trade advertisement from 1939 for ‘Phantom’ glasses shows that they were promoted as ‘practically invisible’. The patented bridge was transparent. The advert is aimed at the male optician, but expects he will target the female market with the product, unashamedly noting that ‘Many women dislike the idea of spectacles so much that they would sooner damage their sight that wear them’.

The teenage character Meg Griffin from the anarchic cartoon series ‘Family Guy’ shows just how prevalent remains the view that less-than-attractive young women wear glasses. One of her catchphrases is the plaintive question ‘Am I Ugly?’ to which sadly she already knows the answer that her less than supportive family will give in response! Meg is known for wearing large round eye spectacles and she is frequently mocked, even by her own family, for her unattractiveness.

Perhaps what Meg needs are the ultimate in invisible glasses – which are contact lenses and ‘invisible glasses’ is exactly how they were described in the 1940s when they first started to become widely available in the UK. As the advertising indicates they were considered to provide a natural appearance, quite apart from being safer at a time when most spectacle lenses were still made of very fragile glass. The pink leaflet declares that they are ‘completely invisible’. Again, the expected users were young females, but as a pair of contact lenses cost the same as a small motor car, it was assumed that the female customer would be unable to afford them, so much of the advertising was actually aimed at the fathers of daughters who were about to come of age, with the idea that contact lenses
would make the perfect 21st birthday present from doting Dad to his bespectacled daughter.

A remarkable leaflet from just three years ago promoted contact lenses by appealing to every woman’s sense of vanity: ‘Contact lenses let everyone see the real me’. This is ‘A Story of confidence’ for the young woman on the most important day of her life – her wedding day – and implies that the real person may be concealed by the barrier of visible eyewear. It also questions:  ‘Are there times you wish you could go out without wearing your glasses?’ suggesting that this is an almost timeless incentive to discourage spectacle-wearing. The promotional blurb plays heavily on the love and romance theme, even suggesting you might acquire 'a more lasting relationship' with your contact lenses.

Set against this type of advertising is the promotional juggernaut that is the spectacle frame industry. Advertising for eyewear was slow to take off in this country because it was felt that a medical related profession should have no dealings with such commercial activity. There was a term of abuse for those who did (‘Shoptician’) and to be labelled a shoptician by your peers was a professional disgrace. Most advertising was directed not at the end user but to the optician as the middle man. An advert for 1953 is quaint in that it refers not to a discriminating ‘customer’ but a discriminating ‘patient’, the medical association of the product still coming foremost.

In the later twentieth century the biggest names were wheeled out to sell more frames, famously David Beckham and George Clooney as the face of Police sunglasses for the optical firm De Rigo, but even the most ordinary designs of optical frames (that is frames designed to take prescription lenses) have been rebranded in order to attract new mass markets! The Harry Potter craze sent opticians running to their back storerooms to find anything black and round when children suddenly started to want to wear glasses, whether they needed them  or not!

The major fashion houses got in on the act somewhat belatedly. Christian Dior, as recently as 1966 was the first major couturier to allow its name to be placed on spectacle frames (albeit only under external licence). Meanwhile Mary Quant was the first big name designer to attach her name to a British range of sunglasses. The frame manufacturer approached her, and regretted it because the resulting product was notorious for its poor fit. For yes, the industry can mess up. One problem is which celebrity to choose. I’ll give you just one example: The major German firm of Rodenstock issued a brochure, now a rare collectible, in 1960. It features a section on driving spectacles and recommends you follow the example of ‘successful racing driver’ Graf Berghe von Trips. He was on course to win the 1961 Formula One championship having already won the Dutch and British Grand Prix when unfortunately he crashed at Monza, colliding with Jim Clark, and killing not only himself, but also fifteen spectators. Naturally the remaining advertising had to be pulped.

One does wonder if every product advertised on the market is really all it seems. When researching my recent book on ‘Cult Eyewear’, the Austrian designer Robert La Roche seemed pleased to tell me that not all the frames in his brochures were available to buy. They served, rather, to create an ‘aura’ around the product. His promotional imagery featured imaginary glasses exploding or dissolving into milk. I also just have to share this item from Chicago. The Afro-American designer Jamal Robinson claims to be the first to transform eyewear, not by decorating the frame, but the lens itself. Has no one told him you are supposed to look through the lenses? The attention-grabbing has done him no harm commercially, however, and he has attracted an impressive range of clients in the music industry and since launched a more conventional range for ordinary people to buy.

Whereas certain market sectors can be targeted effectively by brand advisors and slick media campaigns it’s questionable if any of this
marketing really rubs off on the bulk of the population. It seems that a popular cynicism has developed.

As the College of Optometrists discovered 11%, or an estimated 3.8 million adults, believe there is no difference between different pairs of sunglasses other than the price, and 10%, or approximately 3.5 million adults, see sunglasses as purely a fashion statement. It will be important to overcome these cynical perceptions if the well-being and safety aspects of wearing either optical spectacles or sunglasses are to be promoted.

Make no mistake therefore, most optometrists approve of the fashion element because it encourages people to wear the spectacles that will help them.

In recent years we have, for instance, acquired greater awareness of the influence of colour in shaping consumer choices. The first origins of this study began back in the 1930s. Today, frame designers work alongside psychologists to exploit this knowledge effectively and members of the profession use social media to discuss the issues with each other. Here is a twitter feed from just a few days ago called #embarrassedaboutwearingglasses.

We also now have forty or fifty years or more of consumer research to analyse, from all different countries of the world. Here’s a great statistic arrived at by our optometry colleagues in the Netherlands. The number of respondents who believed that glasses represent a handicap fell from a third to just 3% in the course of two decades. The statistical change was even more marked amongst men aged over fifty. The Dutch academic JCM Jansen writing way back in 1965, noted that men wearing thick so-called ‘library’ spectacles were thought by people who saw them to hold a more prestigious occupation. Look at this man here – is he a bank manager, or a lawyer perhaps? Unfortunately Jansen’s research was demolished by an American study in the late 1970s that concluded this effect was confined to looking at photographs and when you met a spectacle-wearer in person they had no more than five minutes before the effect wore off. So much for the apocryphal 15 minutes of fame – your glasses only assure you of one third of that amount of time to impress your colleagues!  Maybe therefore it is much more important that our glasses impress us. We, the people who see them the least (unless looking in the mirror or at a photograph) are the main judge as to how we look in our spectacles.

The London-based lecturer Lewis Sasieni whose text book on ‘Spectacle Fitting and Dispensing’ was known to generations of new optometry graduates makes the pertinent point that it is no use ‘giving a person glasses which are comfortable visually and physically, but which will not be worn because of the appearance of the frame’. The same point had been made even earlier.

A particularly early example that I have unearthed comes as the foreword to one of the first ever (possibly the first ever) fashion frame catalogues for a British spectacle frame manufacturer:

“The ‘fashions-in-spectacles’ idea is not a frivolous cult conceived solely with the idea of selling more spectacles, although this is frequently an incidental result. It is an idea based on the fact that, if people can be persuaded to enjoy wearing spectacles, more people will be persuaded to take care of their eyes.” 

(W. E. Hardy in foreword to the first ever Wiseman Frames catalogue, 1933)

To this audience then here tonight I say I hope you have found this lecture far from frivolous…but ignore what other people think of you, enjoy wearing glasses, have fun…and look after your eyes!


© Neil Handley 2012


This event was on Wed, 21 Mar 2012


Neil Handley

Neil Handley is recognised as one of this country's principal historians of spectacles and vision aids. He has been curator of the British Optical Association...

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