Back in Style: The Best Retro Eyewear

Last updated on May 20th, 2024 at 11:28 am

Home » Vintage Sunglasses » Back in Style: The Best Retro Eyewear

In this post, I am excited to share with you a comprehensive guide on how to select the best retro eyewear. I will cover everything from the different types of frames, lenses, and materials to the most popular styles and colours. Moreover, I have curated a stunning collection of photos featuring iconic Old Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe, who rocked some of the most fashionable spectacles of their time.

In addition to the fashion aspect, I will dive deep into the history of reading glasses and sunglasses, going back to their origins in ancient times and tracing their evolution to modern-day designs. I will share with you part of my research on the earliest recorded use of corrective lenses, the emergence of sunglasses as a fashion statement, and how eyewear has adapted to changing trends and technologies over the centuries.

So, whether you’re a fashion enthusiast, a history buff, or just looking to upgrade your eyewear game, this in-depth article has something for everyone. Get ready to be inspired and informed!

My favourite American poet, Dorothy Parker wrote in her two-line poem, ‘News Item’ that

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses

Best retro eyeglasses.

I doubt that Parker, who injected a lot of (dark) humour and satire into her writing meant it literary.

She was probably alluding to the fact that men favour, in her opinion, silly and flirty women to the intellectual bookworm type.

Like the character, Dorothy Malone portrayed in The Big Sleep from 1946. Although in my view the eyeglasses-wearing “bookworm” oozes sex appeal.

And yes, it’s all in the eyewear. After all, that’s the topic at hand.


Best retro eyeglasses.
Joan Crawford in her beautiful eyeglasses. The picture on the right is a still from the film ‘Humoresque”.

Here is my Joan Crawford-inspired look and what started the idea for this post. In the picture, I’m wearing a dress from the late 1930s or early 1940s paired with retro reading glasses I found this year at a flea market.

I bought them specifically to re-create the look Crawford’s character wore in the ‘Humoresque’ film from 1946. Coincidently, and just the other day, I found this beautiful picture of Lucille Ball in my Pinterest feed.

Lucille Ball
Actress Lucille Ball.
best retro eyewear

Best retro eyewear. 1940s movie stars wearing glasses
Eleanor Parker, Ava Gardner and Joan Crawford in very stylish eyewear.

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How to Dress Like a Femme Fatale!

Bets retro sunglasses. Old Hollywood stars wearing sunglasses.
The best retro eyewear for a vintage Femme Fatale.

DISCLOSURE: I’m part of an affiliate program, and I get a commission when you purchase a product through the links in this post. That’s how I keep my website alive, for which I’m very grateful to you. Shopping via my affiliate links comes at no additional cost to you. All opinions expressed here are mine, and I only recommend products I love!


Best Summer Sunglasses – Embrace the Retro Vibes!

The summer calls for stylish sunglasses to protect the eyes and elevate your summer outfit. My handpicked selection of retro summer sunglasses, from cat-eye wonders to round-frame delights, will make you the epitome of vintage coolness.

Whether you’re drawn to the Hollywood glamour of cat-eye frames, the whimsy of round sunglasses, or the timeless appeal of aviators, there’s a style out there for everyone.

Brief History of Eyeglasses

Did you know that the oldest reference to eyeglasses was in a sermon delivered, by Friar Giordano da Rivolta of Pisa, in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy on 23 February 1306? 1

It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses which make for good vision, one of the best arts and most necessary that the world has. So short a time it is since there was invented a new art that never existed. And the teacher said, I have seen the man who first invented and created it and I have talked to him.”

Friar Giordano da Rivolta of Pisa

Based on Rivolta’s sermon we know that eyeglasses have existed since at least 1285. However, the name of the inventor of spectacles still remains unknown.

It’s not that surprising considering that there was no patent in place in Italy until the 15th century, and secrecy was the only way to keep a monopoly on one’s inventions.

The patent system was later introduced to encourage originators to share the details of their invention and new technology in exchange for giving the inventor the exclusive rights to manufacture and sell the patented product for a specified amount of time.

Fashionable Eyeglasses in the 15th-Century, Milan

INTERESTING FACT!

It was quite fashionable to wear glasses, even if it wasn’t necessary, in the 15th century at Sforza’s court. This was a matter of prestige. In fact, a letter dated October 21st, 1462 from Duke Francesco Sforza of Milan to his Ambassador in Florence, Dicodemo Tranchedini da Pontremoli, expressed his belief that the best eyeglasses were made in Florence, and so he wished three dozen shipped to him.2

Because there are many who request of us eyeglasses that are made there in Florence, since it is reputed that they are made more perfectly than in any other place in Italy, we wish and charge you to send us three dozens of the aforesaid eyeglasses placed in cases so that they will not break; that is to say, one dozen of those apt and suitable for distant vision, that is for the young; another [dozen] that are suitable for near vision, that is for the elderly; and the third [dozen] for normal vision. We inform you that we do not want them for our use because, thank God, we do not need them, but we want them in order to please this one or that one who asks us for them. Send them by the post of our couriers directing them to our secretary Giovanni Simonetta. Inform us of their cost so that we can send you the money

Duke Francesco Sforza of Milan

It’s interesting to note that eyeglasses with convex lenses have been around since 1285, but there is no record of eyeglasses with concave lenses before the mid-16th century. Professor Vasco Ronchi, a well-known expert on optics history, has stated that the earliest mention of concave lenses was in Francesco Maurolico’s “Diaphanorum libri tres” in 1554.

The Improvement of Eyeglasses

History of eyewear. Best retro eyeglasses
History of eyeglasses. In the picture on the left, bow Nuremberg spectacles, cased, Germany, 1651-1710.

Before the sixteenth century, people typically held spectacles in their hands but over the centuries, the original eyeglasses were modified, improved and eventually worn comfortably on the bridge of the nose.

In the 18th century, for example, the use of steel introduced a new way to connect two framed lenses. A steel bridge piece enabled eyeglasses to be held in place by the force associated with pinching the nose between the lens frames which was very uncomfortable.

Improvements to the poor engineering of eyeglasses were made by introducing the first metal frame that hooked around the back of the ears, but unfortunately, it was heavy and slid down the nose.

In 1727, English optician, Edward Scarlett invented the contemporary spectacle frame.

Eventually, lighter frames and lenses were introduced making wearing spectacles rather comfortable and definitely very fashionable.

Fast forward to the 20th century. Here is an example of beautiful eyewear from the 1950s in a variety of colours and styles.

In 1952 American Optical signed a contract with Elsa Schiaparelli creating the first Schiaparelli eyewear collection depicted in the ad on the right.

best retro eyeglasses
The fabulous 1950s eyeglasses in a variety of colours. On the right, is Schiaparelli eyewear that never goes out of style.

The Retro Cat-Eye Glasses Will Elevate Your Look

If you are not sure what shape of the frame of eyeglasses to choose, I suggest you opt for the flattering cat-eye style.

history of cat eye glasses

“Be glad you wear glasses…Wear HARLEQUINS.

No longer is the girl who wears glasses doomed to look owlish, bookish, or just plain dull! Flattering HARLEQUINS are so gay and debonair, they give your very spirits a lift! Remember, it is HARLEQUIN’S exclusive design that makes the difference…

HARLEQUIN frames for sight, for sun, for snow.”

Harlequins ad from 1943.

A Brief History of the Cat-Eye Glasses

In the 1930s, Altina Schinasi Miranda, an American artist, designed a new style of eyeglasses known as the Harlequin frame. These glasses were inspired by the ornate Venetian carnival masks and would later be called cat-eye glasses.

Altina was tired of the boring eyewear that existed at the time and wanted to create something enduring and stylish. Initially, manufacturers were not interested in Schinasi’s design, but that, thankfully, didn’t stop her from pursuing her venture.

According to an obituary published in the New York Times on August 21, 1999, the big manufacturers did not initially accept Mrs. Miranda’s new glasses. However, she teamed up with a chic optical shop called Lugene on Madison Avenue. The writer Clare Boothe Luce bought one of the first pairs and other fashionable New Yorkers soon followed her lead. By the late 1930s, Harlequin glasses had become very popular.

The cat-eye shape became a celebrity favourite and it owes its success to famous icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, who helped increase its popularity in the 1950s.

It’s important to note that in 1931 the American Optical Company launched the very first “pantoscopic” frame, the Ful-Vue. What set this frame apart was the hinges on the upper part of the frame that allowed lenses to tilt down towards the wearer’s face.

This tilt was not only for optical purposes, but it also created a more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing fit for the wearer’s face. Thanks to the Ful-Vue, it was possible to create the ‘cat eyes’ style.

Best retro reading glasses in cat-eye shape

In the picture, I’m wearing my very first retro reading glasses in my absolute favourite cat-eye style. These particular frames are from Versace, and I bought them about six years ago.

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Marilyn Monroe Glasses in How to Marry a Millionaire

In ” How to Marry a Millionaire, ” the glamorous Marilyn Monroe is wearing the iconic cat-eye spectacles adorned with diamond-like decoration. After all, diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

DID YOU KNOW?

Many of the eyeglass frames featured an ornamental comb design because the makers of decorative combs went out of business in the 1920s due to the rise in the popularity of short hair.

The artisans had no choice but to adapt to the new reality and instead of combs, they started designing eyewear.

Best retro eyewear.

Buy My Favourite Marilyn Monroe-Style Glasses


Stylish Retro Eyeglasses Under $100


how to shop for vintage sunglasses
Examples of beautiful 1940s and 1950s eyewear. The picture in the middle was taken by Nina Leen in 1945 for Life magazine.

I found the best retro reading glasses and fabulous sunglasses that won’t break the bank at Retropeepers.


Best retro eyewear in cat eye shape.

Retro reading glasses a-la Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire

Here is a pair of my brand new 1950s-style ‘Betty’ reading glasses I recently bought from Retropeepers. I opted for a pair of eyewear in tortoiseshell adorned with diamonte studded tips. As you can see, the ‘Betty’ frames resemble what Marilyn Monroe wore in ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’.

It’s the best retro eyewear for a vintage vixen!


The retro eyewear brand has been in existence for 18 years. It was founded by Annie, who was on the lookout for a unique pair of glasses that differed from the regular high street styles.

She identified a gap in the market for vintage-style eyewear that was affordable. Starting small with a couple of cat-eye styles, such as Peggy, she gradually expanded the business. Caroline and Lauretta took over the business about eight years ago and have since focused on diversifying the range of styles offered while providing excellent customer service.

Caroline told me that she is always excited to receive emails from people seeking style advice and trying something new, so don’t hesitate to get in touch with her if you are unsure of what frames to choose.

Stylish 1950s eyeglasses.
Stylish 1950s eyeglasses.

How to Find the Perfect Pair of Retro Sunglasses

Beauteous sunglasses are the perfect accessory all year round. Yes, sometimes I do wear them in winter. And it’s not just because I’m a vintage goth and like to wear sunglasses at night, but because my eyes are very sensitive to artificial light. So, to avoid tears running down my cheeks while grocery shopping, I wear big shades that protect my eyes and, let’s face it, add a bit of mystique.

Whether you wish to have the best-dressed eyes in town or you simply fell in love with eyewear from the past, retro sunglasses are back in style and they are here to stay!

As I mentioned earlier, the cat-eye frames are the quintessential vintage shape and will certainly make you stand out in a crowd, but If your taste leans towards the 1970s, go big!

Back in style-best retro sunglasses
Best retro sunglasses for the vintage Queen.

Choose the Right Frames for Your Face Shape

I don’t entirely agree with the statement that people with this or that face shape can’t wear certain frames. Yes, it’s true that some people look better in bigger or smaller frames but that’s to do with the actual size of the frames and not their shape.


Best retro sunglasses cat-eye shape

I’ll give you an example. My face, which is square suits oversized frames and it doesn’t matter if they are my favourite cat-eye frames or very round ones.

A long time ago, I was told by someone working at an optical shop to never wear round frames with my face shape. Complete nonsense, if you ask me.

My mom, with her very prominent cheekbones and small face, was told not to wear cat-eye frames and yet, they look amazing on her, but only if they are of a slightly smaller size than mine.


In the picture, I’m wearing my favourite retro sunglasses from LilapobCreations! That’s what I call the best retro eyewear.

BUY MY RETRO SUNGLASSES


My advice to you for finding the perfect retro eyewear is to experiment with different sizes of your favourite frames. Small round 1930s-style sunglasses might not be right for you but the big round 1970s shades might look as if they were designed with you in mind.

To quote American Optic’s stylist from a 1950s ad on how to look glamorous in eyeglasses; ‘The right eyewear should help you look better as well as see better. Now you can enjoy the personal satisfaction of frames shaped to suit your face and enhance your hair style..in colors to complement each of your smart ensembles.

Classic Cool: Unleashing the Power of Retro Eyewear

The best retro sunglasses

The stunning Bette Davis in ‘Now, Voyager’, 1942 wearing sunglasses in one of the most flattering of shapes.

The shades were fashionable in the 1940s and continue to be so today.

Larger-than-life oversized sunglasses add a touch of mystery, help conceal the consequences of indulging in too many cocktails the night before, and protect the covered skin around your eyes from the sun’s harmful rays.

The best retro eyewear
1970s oversized glasses.

Classic 1930s round frames can be a little tricky to pull off but since they are the epitome of the 30s, do try them on. And who knows, perhaps they will look spectacular on you.

Stylish retro sunglasses

best retro sunglasses

The fun 1940s beach sunglasses are the latest fad. Loewe was clearly inspired by them.

Picture by, Alfred Eisenstaed for Life magazine, February 1940s.

Designer Retro Sunglasses



Movie stars in retro sunglasses
Movie stars in retro sunglasses. Back in Style: The Best Retro Eyewear
Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall in cat eye glasses

Vintage glamour is easy to achieve when you dress up your outfit with retro eyewear.


Big Frames

“For women who do everything with style”

1970s sunglasses

Oversized retro sunglasses

THE MUST-HAVE OVERSIZED ‘KOKO’ SUNGLASSES FROM OLIVER GOLDSMITH!


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Best 70s Sunglasses!

1968 MOOSH style from Oliver Goldsmith

1970s oversized sunglasses

And don’t forget to match your frames to your outfit!

Brief History of Sunglasses

Nero’s Emerald.

Did you know that the first form of sunglasses in the world was believed to have been created in the times of the Roman Emperor Nero? According to Pliny the Elder, Nero watched gladiator fights through a concave emerald that helped to reduce the glare of the sun and his nearsightedness.

Nero princeps gladiatorum pugnas spectabat smaragdo. (The Emperor Nero used to watch the fights between gladiators in a reflecting ‘smaragdus.’)

Pliny the Elder

In the 12th century, the Chinese made ‘sunglasses’ using smoky quartz for lenses, but it’s important to note that they were not created to protect eyes from the sun but rather to conceal judges’ facial expressions while questioning witnesses.


The Inuit Sunglasses

The indigenous people of Alaska used snow goggles made from strips of bone or wood to prevent snow blindness for thousands of years.

Inuit snow goggles. Image Source: Wikipedia.

First Sunglasses

In 1752, the English inventor and optician James Ayscough introduced green and blue-tinted lenses in order to protect eyes from harsh glare. These were the precursors to sunglasses but it wasn’t until the 20th century that modern sunglasses were invented.

Famous Vintage Sunglasses Brands

  1. Foster Grant was founded by Sam Foster and Bill Grant in 1919 but it wasn’t until 1929 that they began selling the first mass-produced, over-the-counter, shades which soon became a fashion staple.

“Smartest Eye Protection Under the Sun. Fosta-Grantly Sunglasses.”

Fosta Grantly sunglasses
"Who's behind those Foster Grants?"

Back in 1965, Foster Grant launched a memorable advertising campaign called “Who’s behind those Foster Grants?”

This campaign, which featured popular personalities of the time wearing Foster Grant sunglasses, was seen on both TV and print media.

It showcased the likes of Mia Farrow, Claudia Cardinale, Raquel Welch, Peter Sellers, and Woody Allen, who were some of the most fashionable and up-and-coming actors of their time.


Foster Grant became a household name, thanks to the exposure it received through its celebrity ads. Despite featuring A-list celebrities in its advertising, Foster Grant sold its glasses to mass marketers like Woolworths and Walgreens at reasonable prices.

1960s sunglasses

In 1932, the American scientist and inventor Edwin Herbert Land, together with George Wheelright, founded the Land-Wheelright Laboratories, to produce an inexpensive plastic-sheet polarizer.

1936 marks the year in which polarized sunglasses were born, as that’s when Land started using polarized material in eyewear. It was also the year when he renamed his company to Polaroid Corporation. In 1947, Land introduced the world to the Polaroid Land camera.


HISTORY OF THE RAY-BAN SUNGLASSES

2. Ray-Ban has a fascinating history that dates back to the 1930s. It all started when the company Bausch & Lomb, founders of the Ray-Ban brand, a medical equipment manufacturer from Rochester, New York, created aviator-style sunglasses intended to provide protection against the sun’s rays for US Air Force flyers. The style of glasses quickly became a fashion staple in the 1940s.

Ray-Ban created the first Aviator-Style glasses sold to civilians.

*Please, note that American Optical was the first company the US military commissioned to produce sunglasses.

In 1952, Ray-Ban started manufacturing the Wayfarer style of sunglasses which came back in favour in the 1980s.

The brand’s popularity skyrocketed thanks to its association with celebrities and cultural icons who incorporated Ray-Ban sunglasses into their personal style.

The best retro sunglasses.

Back in Style: The Best Retro Eyewear. Buy the Perfect Pair of Ray-Ban Sunglasses


The American Optical Brings High Fashion to Eye Fashion

3. American Optical was established by William Beacher in 1833. Beacher was a former jeweller’s apprentice who started by making silver spectacles.

He became the first person to manufacture steel eyeglasses in the US a decade later. By 1892, American Optical had grown to become the world’s largest eyewear manufacturer.

Beacher is credited with introducing rimless spectacles, supplying goggles to US pilots, and developing the Ful-Vue frame.

In 1935, American Optical was commissioned by the US Army to create sunglasses specifically for pilots.

This marked the start of exciting collaborations, including a partnership with Polaroid in 1942 for a new line of polarized Cool-Ray sunglasses.

history of sunglasses

History of eyewear. 1950s Schiaparelli Eyeglasses

American Optical also created sunglasses for Claire McCardell in 1952 and partnered with Elsa Schiaparelli in 1955 to create beautiful and ornate spectacles.

The brand gained even more fame in 1969 when the entire Apollo 11 crew wore their eyewear to the moon.

In 1975, the company ventured into a very successful collaboration with Oscar de la Renta, creating iconic oversized eyewear favoured by fashion mavens even today.

” I want to dress you. The real you. Your face.” Oscar de La Renta

Vintage Oscar de la Renta sunglasses.

Audrey Hepburn’s Sunglasses in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Looking to emulate the timeless style of Audrey Hepburn in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’? Look no further than the Oliver Goldsmith Manhattan Sunglasses. Originally designed by Goldsmith for Hepburn’s character, Holly Golightly, these shades are authentic replicas.

The frame even features an embossed 1960 production date. Made in Italy with the highest quality materials, these sunglasses are designed to flatter any face shape, and they are a must-have accessory for everyone who wants to channel their inner Audrey Hepburn!

Audrey Hepburn's Sunglasses
Oliver Goldsmith, the original designer behind Audrey Hepburn’s sunglasses.

My ‘Audrey’ look with the iconic Manhattan sunglasses from OG, paired with a 1940s gown and a 1950s jewellery set.

The best retro eyewear!

Audrey Hepburn sunglasses from Oliver Goldsmith

Don’t Forget the Sunscreen!

Dr Irena Eris ClinicWay

No matter how large your frames are, don’t forget to apply a cream with high SPF!

If you are based in Europe, try one of my favourite beauty brands, Dr Irena Eris.

The Clinic Way line is perfect for very sensitive skin and their Multi Protective Anti-Aging Cream with SPF 50 is a heaven-sent for anyone with very pale skin.

Dr Irena Eris/ Pharmaceris made my dreams come true by introducing to the market sunscreen with SPF 100! It doesn’t get any better than this.

Dr Irena Eris sunscreen 2023

For my US readers, I highly recommend Shiseido sunscreen!



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FOOTNOTE:

  1. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
    Vol. 11, No. 1 (January, 1956), pp. 13-46. ↩︎
  2. American Scientist, Volume 101, Engineering: The Evolution of Eyeglasses, Henry Petrosky. ↩︎

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7 Comments
  • Susannah
    June 30, 2023

    Beautifully written post, Dominique, and as Carla said, very well researched. I have over 50 pairs of sunglasses collected over the past 20 years and my absolute favourites are from the 1950s designed by Schiaparelli.

    • Dominique de Merteuil
      June 30, 2023

      Thank you so much! Schiaparelli sunglasses are beyond beautiful and you are one lucky lady to own a pair.

  • Susannah
    June 30, 2023

    Beautifully written post, Dominique. And as Carla said, they are always so well-researched. I have over 50 pairs of sunglasses from different eras but my absolute favourites are from the 1950s designed by Schiaparelli.

  • Carla
    June 3, 2023

    I love your sunglasses so much, I’m getting a pair right now!

    Your articles are always so well-researched, it’s refreshing. Have you ever thought about writing a book about vintage fashion?