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Making a spectacle of yourself: how glasses went from old school to cool

Once seen as the preserve of fuddy-duddies and academics, glasses have been reimagined as a cool accessory that everybody wants in on

Bette Davis, who transformed in her earlier days from frumpy bespectacled spinster to smoking sex-pot in ‘Now, Voyager’

I stared in astonishment across the kitchen at a sliced pan minding its own business on the counter. “Oh! I can see the writing on the bread!” I gasped. Brennans, Irish Pride, whatever. It wasn’t the words that counted, but that I could read them, improbably sharp, suddenly in focus.

One or both parents had just placed my very first pair of spectacles on to my face. Small brown frames in an indeterminate shape, silver arms that hooked around my ears to ensure they stayed in situ whenever I fell from a tree or off a bike.

Everything else is vague – my age (around six or seven perhaps), how I came to acquire my first pair, the reactions of grown-ups and pals. But I can still vividly recall the letters on the packet jumping from a jumble to a readable word in literally the blink of an eye.

And so began a lifelong relationship with glasses. It wasn’t, of course, a same-specs marriage – through the decades I’ve speed-dated myriad frames and fallen head-over-heels with contact lenses.

Yet until recent years, there are relatively few photos of this writer saying “cheese” while sporting glasses. By the age of 17, I had embraced contacts which I wore from dawn to after-dark. And this being the era BCP (Before Camera Phones), it was an automatic reaction to remove specs whenever a camera hove into view. No way would you want to be snapped with specs on. Not cool at all.

Glasses were uncool, anti-glamour, the sad mark of a specky-four-eyes, a hopeless nerd, a spinster-in-waiting, an old person of over 50. Writer and wit Dorothy Parker, whose perspicacity was as sharp as 20/20 vision, nailed the dilemma as far back as the 1920s with her brutal observation, “Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses.”

Which, when you think about it, is terribly unfair to a simple but incredibly effective contraption that prevents almost three-quarters of the world’s population from walking into walls.

“Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” were the words of American author Dorothy Parker, photographed here circa 1935. Her perspicacity was as sharp as 20/20 vision

Exactly when and where glasses were invented is uncertain, but by 1000CE far-sighted folk could use ‘reading-stones’, small hemispherical lenses of glass or rock crystals which could be placed on text to magnify it.

In Europe, eyeglasses first appeared in Italy, most likely in Pisa around 1290 – knowledge of this date comes from a sermon in 1306 by one Friar Giordano da Pisa, who told his congregation in Florence that the invention was now 20 years old and was “one of the most useful devices in the world”. Venice in particular – due to its production of high-quality Murano glass – became the centre of the specs industry.

They eventually became widely available via Alessandro di Spina of Florence, who appears to have been a sound lad. According to The Ancient Chronicle of the Dominican Monastery of St Catherine in Pisa, “Eyeglasses, having first been made by someone else who was unwilling to share them, he [Spina] made them and shared them with everyone with a cheerful and willing heart.”

For a couple of centuries, all glasses were made with convex lenses to aid reading. And with the invention of the printing press in 1452, churning out books and pamphlets to a rapidly increasing literate populace, demand for eye-glasses grew, and the first specialist spectacle shop opened in Strasbourg in 1466.

Manufacturers branched out from convex lenses, which help people see close-up, and learned how to grind concave lenses to allow people to focus on things far away. Eventually, in 1784, American scientist and polymath Benjamin Franklin, being both shortsighted (myopic) and farsighted (presbyopic) himself, created bifocals, in a classic case of necessity being the mother of invention.

Contact lenses began to get popular from the 1950s, but really took off when, in the early 1970s, Bausch & Lomb released the first commercial soft contacts. Easy to wear and (alas) all too easy to lose on a dance-floor.

Making a spectacle of myself: part II

“Look up. Now blink,” she instructed. I blinked, and the pale blue, feather-light contacts slid perfectly on to the centre of my eyes. Later, I sat and stared into the bathroom mirror. A semi-stranger’s face stared back. I looked older than 17 without specs. More freckles than I had realised. My cheekbones rocked, though.

It took a while for the eyeglass industry to tumble to the idea of adding arms to the spectacles. First came ‘scissors glasses’ held to the eyes, or ‘pince-nez’ which were placed firmly on the bridge of the nose – to be fair, pince-nez sounds more elegant than “pinch-nose”.

Promotional headshot portrait from around 1945 of a young girl and peering through an antique pince-nez

However, the first stirring of specs as a fashion accessory was the lorgnette, a pair of glasses with a handle to hold them in situ. Inevitably, the wearing of specs was acceptable for men, but it was considered indecorous for women to wear them in public.

But the lorgnette, often bejewelled and ornate, became a fashionable and useful accessory in the 19th century – particularly in high society, who wave about ostentatiously at masquerade balls and at the opera, whether or not one needed them to clearly see Mimi’s tragic death scene.

The lorgnette even made a fashion comeback in the 20th century when Britain’s arch-villainess-turned-fashion icon Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, was found to have a collection. She was described to have been especially fond of a particular lorgnette that “springs out from a small tiger handle of gold, striped in black enamel, emerald-eyed”. Such an eye-catching accessory may be due another revival, should Donald Trump ever retake the White House.

Making a spectacle of myself: part III

The Top Eye Man looked and measured and made calculations while I nervously waited. Eye laser surgery had just landed in Ireland and as a fearless 20-something I was straight in the door of the clinic. Contact lenses were all fine and dandy, but glasses were still gross, the choice mainly being either prim, angular metal frames or big plastic shapes which made one resemble a startled owl – or as one rude knave once devastatingly informed me, “You look like Deirdre Barlow” (of Coronation Street fame – though it may also have been due to the curly perm, to be fair).

Eventually, Top Eye Man looked up and shook his head. “I won’t risk it. Your prescription is too high. Let’s wait a few years.”

Unsurprisingly, it was the movies which began to bring about a more rose-tinted view of the necessity of glasses among a hitherto beady-eyed public. It began with Harold Lloyd, silent film star and stuntman extraordinaire, whose horn-rimmed specs became his trademark.

So much so, that an article in the Journal of the American Optometric Association noted, “For optometrists in the 1920s, he was the man who popularised the use of glasses, especially horn-rimmed glasses, to a population who resisted the use of spectacles. Suddenly, there he was on the silent screen demonstrating for all to see that the wearing of eyeglasses added to one’s personality.”

Ironically, the frames were lensless – the actor didn’t actually need corrective specs until he was in his 60s.

But, again inevitably, it took longer for female stars to shake off the image that specs were glamour-killers. Marilyn Monroe quotes Dorothy Parker’s famous dictum in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), in between bumping into walls. Her character would rather be blind as a bat and flirt with injury than be the wearisome stereotype of a repressed female trapped behind her specs.

The apogee of this resistance to specs appeal was the transformation of Bette Davis from frumpy bespectacled spinster to smoking sex-pot in Now, Voyager (1942). “You don’t need those,” psychiatrist Claude Rains tells a beaten-down Davis, who replies that she doesn’t “feel dressed without them”. But divested of her horn-rims, hey presto, she transmogrifies into the goddess of smouldering gazes.

In time, specs became the symbol of the secret superhero; demure glasses became a crucial part of their disguises as nondescript mortals when off duty from saving the world, beating baddies.

In a nod to Harold Lloyd, Superman wore old-fashioned horn-rimmed glasses as Clark Kent, while Wonder Woman sported either round, Harold Lloyd-style glasses or 1970s-style bug-eye glasses as Diana Prince. Professor Indiana Jones wore his scholarly specs when teaching bored students about Minoan architecture.

Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent in a scene from the film Superman III, 1983

And then along came child wizard Harry Potter, who took spectacles to that crucial last stage – leaving his round specs on throughout every book and film, much to the unbounded joy of parents with myopic kiddies. Though one Twitter wit did point out a frankly unbelievable plot-line: “The most unrealistic part of Harry Potter was that nobody asked to try on Harry’s glasses and make fun of how blind he was,” he tweeted, most likely from bitter experience.

Musicians played their part, too. Buddy Holly performed almost blind for years before his manager suggested that the large black frames he wore in private could, in fact, become a part of an instantly recognisable look.

Likewise, the abjectly short-sighted John Lennon – frequently taunted by Paul McCartney as “four-eyes” during their various fights – hated wearing specs until given a round NHS-made pair to wear during filming How I Won the War in 1967. He liked the utilitarian ‘granny’ glasses so much that he made them his trademark style.

Making a spectacle of myself: part IV

I had begun to do that thing, holding menus away from my face, trying to make out the small print. What could this mean? By now I was dispiritingly short-sighted, forking over small fortunes to ensure I wasn’t lumbered with bottle-top lenses.

The good news at least was that glasses-frames were now fabulously varied, interesting and cool. The bad news was that contacts weren’t working for me anymore. The optician was succinct. “You need varifocals. It’s an age thing. They’ll be expensive.”

Sunglasses, on the other hand, effortlessly acquired status in the 20th century almost from the get-go. Although they had been in existence for centuries: used by judges in 12th century China as expression-blockers while in court; as medical aids in the treatment of syphilis in 19th century England – one of the symptoms of the disease is light sensitivity.

But they took hold as a must-have fashion accessory as soon as 1929 when Foster Grant founder Sam Foster created the very first affordable sunglasses. These were followed by Ray-Ban’s creation of aviator-style sunglasses for pilots fighting in World War II – for which Tom Cruise is surely endlessly grateful.

Actor Tom Cruise is known to favour aviator-style sunglasses

It could even be argued that shades were the star of one movie, Blues Brothers. It’s a rare couple of pals who haven’t rolled out of a club sporting sunnies and instantly channelled the chaotic spirit of Jake and Elwood.

Elwood: “It’s a hundred and six miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, a half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

Jake: “Hit it.”

Making a spectacle of myself: part V

I can’t see an effing thing, near or distant. It’s an optishambles. Single car-lights, traffic-lights and lamps appear in clusters of three, like tidy shamrocks. My eyesight is hovering around -10. Varifocals are kaput. The sun is too bright, yet stuff looks dim, colours all washed out.

The consultant Paul O’Brien confirms it. “You have two cataracts.” He ponders. “We’ll aim for minus three. You’ll still need glasses for distance, but not for close work.” I don’t understand. “I don’t understand,” I told him. “You won’t need glasses for reading or computer work,” he explains patiently. I still didn’t understand. How can that be?

Twice within a month I’m wheeled in and wheeled out of an operating theatre. I’m fully awake, slightly sedated, in and out in less than 30 minutes. I see vague shapes, hear quiet voices, feel nothing at all.

Glasses are everywhere now, both a cool thing and no big deal. Millennials grew up with Harry Potter; generation Z with disposable contacts and laser eye surgery. Specs are no longer regarded as an ugly necessity, but a fun choice. It’s nothing short of a see-change.

Making a spectacle of myself: part VI

One month post-op, and the consultant is checking my sight. 20/20 with -3 lenses. “The day after my first eye surgery, I could spot cobwebs everywhere in the house,” I told him. Paul O’Brien laughed. “Many women say that. They see cobwebs, and wrinkles. Men never say that, ever.”

I told him that it’s a kind of miracle – after all, for the very short-sighted, glasses and lenses aren’t accessories, they’re hiding a disability. “It’s not ‘just cataract surgery’, it’s a life-changing wonder,” I said. He was pleased. “It always annoys me to hear it dismissed as ‘just’ cataract surgery. It takes years of training to make it look like a small operation. But it isn’t.”

The day after my first op, I removed the patch and went for a walk by the coast. For the first time as an adult, I could see without lenses and I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was blustery, and I could feel gusts of wind brushing against my brand new peepers.

The salt on my face was probably sea-spray. Yes, it was probably sea-spray.