THE STORY OF SHADES: CAT-EYE
The cat-eye represents the first explicitly feminine eyewear style. It also represents so much more: from revolutionising the eyewear industry, to breathing new life into a fading craft, the cat-eye shape characterises the endless possibilities of design, and the human desire to be playful.
Illustration: Laura Ann Huber for MYKITA JOURNAL
As the 20th century marched forward, so did women’s freedoms. The middle class continued to expand and with the growth came an increase in disposable wealth and leisure time. Women who had been fighting for equal rights were finally seeing results; they were getting out of the house en masse and looking at things further away than their own arms’ reach, literally. Women were out at the cinema, riding bikes or driving cars, skiing or sightseeing—suddenly a whole new demographic demanded clearer distance vision, sunglasses, or both. Women needed glasses that weren’t just for hiding behind at home with needlepoint and books, glasses that they could wear out and about on the town—an accessory to be seen in.
In the 1930s, American artist and sculptor Altina Schinasi designed the Harlequin frame—a shape which would come to be known as cat-eye. Bored by the standard rounded unisex offerings in opticians’ windows. Schinasi took her inspiration from the masks of Venetian Carnival and began experimenting until she came up with the form she dubbed Harlequin after the classical character from the Italian Commedia dell’arte. Although mainstream manufacturers were initially uninterested in Schinasi’s design, she found patronage from other influential women in New York City, and set up her own frame distribution. By 1939 she had been awarded an American design award and was hailed by both Vogue and Time magazines for revolutionising women’s eyewear, giving it fashion status.
The cat-eye’s period of greatest popularity was during the 1950s, after WWII, when it fit in perfectly with the “new look”of women’s clothing.
The ability to make a design like the Harlequin, or cat-eye, is paired with an innovation which moved the hinges to the upper part of the frame. This ‘pantoscopic tilt’—which made for sharper, more comfortable vision correction—opened up the creative options for designers to experiment with and allowed for more shapes that followed the natural curves of a wearer’s face.
The cat-eye was one of these new shapes, which would be iterated in numerous variations of the form. Traditionally the shape is an angled teardrop, much like the boteh in a paisley design, with the defining characteristic of the upswept lines that follow a feminine brow and cheekbones.
The cat-eye’s period of greatest popularity was during the 1950s, after WWII, when it fit in perfectly with the “new look” of women’s clothing. During wartime women wore subdued, military-inspired, or factory-friendly clothing—boxy shoulders, boxy skirts. Fabric rationing led this austere look. In 1947 Christian Dior unveiled what would become known as the New Look: a voluminous use of material which emphasised bust and hips almost as triangles which met point-to-point at the wasp waist. The cat-eye shape, tapered to points at the outer edges and tailored to show off a woman’s facial features, synchronised well with Dior’s designs. The at times voluminous use of the acetate material also matched well with the new bountiful femininity of the New Look.
With interpretations ranging from simple to flamboyant, the cat-eye became a symbol of post-war confidence, celebration, and excess. The cat-eye’s heritage as a fashion accessory and as an element of design experimentation is mirrored in the design aesthetic of the 50s.
With interpretations ranging from simple to flamboyant, the cat-eye became a symbol of post-war confidence, celebration, and excess. The cat-eye’s heritage as a fashion accessory and as an element of design experimentation is mirrored in the design aesthetic of the 50s. Seen in American cars with their unnecessary fins and rocket-lights, as well as the abstract motifs of Atomic design inspired by space exploration and scientific innovations, this form aesthetic was even represented in the conical bras popular at the time. There is an overarching theme of playfulness and the acetate material was a canvas for eyewear designers to express this celebratory zeitgeist of anything-is-possible.
With the more ornate designs, the cat-eye recalls art nouveau or fin-de-siècle decorative hair combs. This is no coincidence; producers of ornamental hair combs deftly manipulated cellulose acetate —the same material used for most plastic eyeglass frames—and as the demand for fussy hair combs declined due to changes in hair style fashions, these producers smartly began to use their craft skills to create fanciful eyewear frames. These craftsmen then used their network of resellers, the drug and beauty stores where hair combs were distributed, to sell their new frame designs. This led to increased availability of cat-eye frames, while keeping the craftsmen in business and injecting the eyewear industry with another bout of creativity based solely on ornament and aesthetic design.
Marylyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn wore cat-eyes, cementing the shape’s popularity and iconic status while personifying the greatest statement this new look made: a woman with glasses was smart, sexy, and liberated.
Find a selection of MYKITA's cat-eye shapes available at the MYKITA E-Shop.