The essentials: 20 sunglasses that made the history of design and pop culture

Timeless icons, sparks of design, and visionary masks: sunglasses are an essential and provocative accessory with a history that dates back to 2,000 years.  


“There’s who wears sunglasses to gain charisma and symptomatic mystery”, sang Italian pop genius Franco Battiato in his 1982 classic Bandiera Bianca. After all, sunglasses have been able to transcend their original scopes becoming, to the need, fashionable accessories, enigmatic masks and timeless milestones of pop culture.  

Their origins date way back than prescriptions’. And, differently to what one could think, sunglasses weren’t first conceived to protect from the sun. It was the Inuit people, over 2,000 years ago, to conceive the first embryonal models using ivory shells, with the scope of screening their eyes from snow blizzards.

Roman emperor Nero was renowned for enjoying gladiator fights through coloured gemstones, while Chinese judges from the 12th century would screen their eyes behind quartzes not to let their emotions transpire – a concept that now resonates surprisingly contemporary.  

However, it's not until the Eighteen-hundreds that a pair of frames similar enough to those we now label as sunglasses made their first appearance. British doctors prescribed glasses with blue or red-tinted lenses and metal rounded frames – pretty much resembling John Lennon’s much-loved teashades – to patients suffering from syphilis, since the disease caused their eyes to be particularly sensitive to sunlight. Needless to say, it was America to turn sunglasses glamour though. The actors from the golden age of the Hollywood Babylon of the ‘30s would wear them on set, not without a certain flair, to protect their eyes from the blinding lights and flashes. It was the US Air Force pilots, though, who ultimately exported them worldwide during WWII, turning their Aviators into a staple of fashion and streetwear. 

Thus, their history also tells us about the development of productive techniques and materials, of their flirts with architects and designers, and how popular culture – with its cyclical revivals and arbitral oddities – has contributed to turning them into iconographic milestones able to constantly reinvent themselves.  

From the frames designed for Turin tram conductors that accidentally became Hollywood icons, to the sunglasses produced with performative aims during the 1968 Milano Triennale we have selected a compendium of 20 pairs that trace the evolution of this quintessential accessory. 

Opening image: Oliver Goldsmith Pyramid Shades, 1966  Photo: V&A Museum, London

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