audrey hepburn - old hollywood glamour

The Allure of Enormous Sunglasses

This post comes to you direct from Old Hollywood Glamour: Volume I.

Try to think of the oldest image you can of someone wearing sunglasses. Stumped? You should be. Although shades have been around since 60 B.C., they didn’t sit on mainstream American faces until approximately 1970.

But you know where they were long before the average Jane was covering up her hangover with bug-eye frames?  The silver screen.

Sunglasses had been sold in the U.S. since 1929, and Ray-Ban invented aviators in the late 1930s, but it always takes a bit of time for some glamorous starlet to see a trend and think — “Hey! I could totally wear that!” So men (and particularly pilots) were wearing these glasses long before your Jackie O’s came around. This trend lasted so long that it even went into the 1980s and gave us such treasures as Tom Cruise in Top Gun. But progress was slow, so sunglasses were really groundbreaking on-screen.

Part of the reason that 1950s babes were so into shades is due to the power of what they don’t show. Sunglasses were good for one thing particular to starlets: they helped them disguise their identities (such as Marilyn Monroe, who would put on a dark wig and sunglasses and call herself Zelda. But that is, maybe, another story).


This is Ava Gardner, not “Zelda.” OR IS IT? Image credit.

They must not have been so easy for cinematographers, who had to light the sets, and cameramen, who had to shoot the scenes without getting their own reflections caught in the glasses; but who cares about techies when we are talking about real live stars? (That was sarcasm. All film nerds like me care about techies.)

Marilyn was among the first to don sunglasses in the form of those cat-eyed frames; and once the 1960s rolled along, with their beach party movies and Audrey Hepburn in glam glasses, the jig was up: sunglasses were an official part of the glamorous woman’s wardrobe.

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Vivian Leigh, a trendsetter, sports sunglasses, a headscarf, a necklace AND a jaunty cigarette. Could anything be more glam?  

It makes sense that actresses would want to hide their faces off-screen; but why would they want to hide them on-screen? Well, at first, sunglasses added a sense of leisure and luxury to the stars (like they spent all day on the beach); they added mystery and allure to a character (such as the infamous Holly Golightly); and they made for an easy, and usually relatively cheap, addition to a costume that could tell a lot about a character — when she wanted to hide, if she was a secret spy for the USSR. Things like that.

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The sunglasses look great, Jane! Question the haircut. 

Of course, big sunglasses are everywhere today, and not likely to go anywhere soon (what’s our alternative? John Lennon glasses? Come on). Wear them with jeans, a dress, a hangover, a black eye, to hide a pirate eye patch — anything! I don’t judge.

But the next time you slip on those Ray-Bans, think about the lovely ladies of Hollywood who stole a page from pilots and decided to shield themselves from the sun.

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