Many sunglass styles have made their mark on popular culture: John Lennon’s signature rounded lenses, vintage cat-eye frames, and even the shutter shades from the mid-2000s. But none have reached the same status as aviator sunglasses.
Here’s how this timeless style rose from a practical solution to a fashion phenomenon.
Not long after the Wright brothers took off on their first flight, pilots began pushing the limits and soaring up to newer and greater heights. To protect themselves against the extreme temperatures and conditions that come with flying at high altitudes, test pilots typically wore fur-lined goggles. The original design, however, would prove to be not just inconvenient but outright dangerous.
One test pilot, Rudolph “Shorty” Schroeder, was flying up at 33,000 feet when his goggles became foggy. To continue flying without any visual obstruction, he had no choice but to remove his goggles. Within minutes both of his eyes froze over.
Fellow test pilot John Macready, who helped Schroeder exit his plane, was shocked at the state of his friend’s eyes. He quickly set out to find a solution, and aviator sunglasses were born.
A New Design
Macready began working with Bausch & Lomb to develop a better form of eye protection, and in the 1930s, they launched the first pair of the aviator sunglasses that we know and love today. With a thin frame, anti-reflective green lenses, and a large tear-drop shape, aviator sunglasses were quickly adopted by the military and began to enter commercial markets, advertised as eye protection for sport and nature enthusiasts.
During World War II, General Douglas McArthur was photographed landing on a beach in the Philippines wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses. Though aviators would not skyrocket to fame until after the war, these photos of McArthur sporting the sunglasses would spark their rise in commercial markets.
Following the war, the aviator style exploded in popularity and became a cultural icon throughout the decades. In the 1950s, they were a staple in military-style fashion and worn by big-name celebrities like Elvis Presley.
As sentiments about war shifted, so did its association with aviator sunglasses. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the signature shape could be seen on musicians, activists, and Hollywood celebrities everywhere. Gloria Steinem frequently donned nearly transparent lenses, and Freddie Mercury famously wore a more classic variation of the sunglass style.
Perhaps the most iconic appearance of aviator sunglasses, Tom Cruise’s character in the film Top Gun brought aviators back to their military origins, and the movie’s success solidified the aviator style’s place as an icon of pop culture.