STORY OF SHADES: A CENTURY OF CIRCLES
For the latest instalment of Story of Shades, MYKITA JOURNAL explores the reoccurring popularity of round glasses through the ages: Ever wondered what’s with the intellectual and hippie connotations? Or why round optical frames or sunglasses feel so right (again) now? Read on and find out.
Illustration: Robert Bailey for MYKITA JOURNAL
A circle: one fluid and symmetrical movement connecting the start and the end of a line. A simple shape with a lot of history. Other would follow, but round is where it starts. Eyeglasses have been worn for over 700 years, and for the vast majority of those years round was the predominate shape — it is THE iconic form for glasses.
Much like telescopes, which used lenses to view the stars, round was a logical choice to cover the eyes and provide an unobstructed viewing area, while being technically simpler than other shapes to produce and set into a frame. Initially worn by Christian monks to help with reading manuscripts, eyeglasses were associated with the literate elite, and therefore to the intellectual and academic.
By the mid 60s, disaffected and rebellious youth played a large part in resurrecting the round shape. Propelled by an anti-consumer movement of reuse and repurpose, the trend was to buy vintage spectacles from the flea market, or use your grandparents old frames.
It would take centuries of technical advances and a growing demand for protective eyewear to bring the little round spectacle to the masses. Until then, they were status symbols for those who could afford them. By the early 1900s, although limited in size and material, the round frame could be seen on many faces. The look was still elite and academic — or eccentric. The extreme quality of a thick and dark round frame could be comical or avant-garde; dramatic like silent film actors with their overdone eyeliner. This is the time of leisure sports in linen trousers; Cambridge students in punt boats, Harald Lloyd, Buster Keaton and boater hats. The silver screen and related print media gave glasses a new glamour, a new association. Famous costume designer Edith Head wore tinted round specs. Marlene Dietrich wore her bold round sunglasses with a suit. Editorials in Vogue Magazine, and ads for the French Riviera or St. Moritz, showcased attractive and sporty men and women in their striking round sunglasses.
Technical innovations allowing for an experimentation with new shapes led to the decline in popularity of the round frame. For eyewear designers, the end of WWII was a time of celebration and excess. The proliferation of colours and wild motifs retired the humble round while new designs took centre stage, such as the cat-eye and wayfarer, shapes synonymous with the 1950s.
By the mid 60s, disaffected and rebellious youth played a large part in resurrecting the round shape. Propelled by an anti-consumer movement of reuse and repurpose, the trend was to buy vintage spectacles from the flea market, or use your grandparents old frames. Nostalgic street style fashion trends such as the New Victorian and New Edwardian, which catered to used clothes from those eras (or copies of), required simple vintage glasses to match.
Round was an allusion to the peace sign, encapsulated in a circle, or the round inner circle of daisies from the flower power movement.
Simple round metal spectacles also referenced the intellectuals of the 20s and 30s, and therefore represented opposition to the brute force of Cold War military actions. Round frames countered the ubiquitous cat-eyes and thick square frames of the people in power and declared, “We are different, we have different values, we are not like you”. These are the round sunglasses of John Lennon and Janis Joplin. Round was an allusion to the peace sign, encapsulated in a circle, or the round inner circle of daisies from the flower power movement.
As technology for mass-market products improved, lens sizes could reach larger diameters. This equalled round frames, which by the early 70s had reached their largest proportions. Like pop art and modernist movements that rebelled against the stuffy conservative art establishment, the round frames of the late 60s and early 70s blew up the historical shape to unseen proportions.
Ultimately, as the first shape invented for glasses, round stands for the optimism of dreamers, artists, and creators.
We find ourselves now in the third renaissance of the round (there was a short-lived fashion for them in the 90s, but it never reached mainstream proportions). What is this current fascination based on? The history with the persona of round sunglasses is tied to each wave of popularity that round has experienced, whether as a literate elite, an avant-garde architect, or a peace-loving hippie. Ultimately, as the first shape invented for glasses, round stands for the optimism of dreamers, artists, and creators.
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