Aviator sunglasses have a very distinctive design: that thin, metal frame with its instantly recognisable double bridge, the teardrop-shaped lens dipping down over the eye socket, hiding much of the face from view. Seen balanced on the noses of film stars, 1970s glamazons and many a celebrity dodging paparazzi, the sunglasses have been an enduring accessory for decades.
Above: Naomi Campbell
The aviator’s origins, however, started with a very practical solution to a problem. When pilots began to ascend to ever-higher heights in the early 20th century, they ran into a new issue. These altitudes brought with them headaches and sickness: as well as an inability to see without thick, fur-lined goggles. So the story goes, one American pilot – John Macready – saw a friend’s eyes swollen and frozen when, for a second, at the height of 33,000 feet, he removed his misted-up goggles. The experience shocked him, and ensured that when Macready went on to form a working relationship with Bausch & Lomb, protecting pilots’ eyesight from the glaring sun was top of his agenda.
Above: Amelia Earhart
The result of this partnership was a much more lightweight goggle with green lenses that minimised dazzle, and maximised vision. They were an immediate success, and subsequently went on sale to the public in the late 1930s: Bausch & Lomb labelling them as “Ray-Ban” aviators for consumers, with several new lenses and designs marketed for activities like golf and fishing.
As the Second World War hit, their use within the military remained widespread: advanced versions of aviators employed both above the clouds and on the ground. In fact, when General Douglas MacArthur landed on the beach in the Philippines in 1944, he was wearing a pair. It was a moment captured by numerous photojournalists and one that is often credited with helping to popularise the design.
Post-war they slowly became lauded for their fashion potential, as well as their functionality. Alongside continued presence in the military (and later the police), plus sportswear, over time they also made their way onto famous faces. Think of Elvis Presley’s kitsch gold frames, David Bowie with a cigarette dangling nonchalantly from his mouth (above), Paul and Linda McCartney in matching pairs for a family portrait, or Freddie Mercury in a white vest, staring over one shoulder, lenses reflecting back the light.
From the 1970s onwards, aviators were also adopted by a wave of very fabulous women too. Gloria Steinem chose blue lenses while speaking on stage at feminist rallies. Stevie Nicks framed the sunglasses with her wayward fringe. Bianca Jagger paired hers with a slick, all-white suit. Charlotte Rampling (above) wore them with jeans and blazers. Debbie Harry was pure, forceful rock chick in aviators – and she still wears them regularly now, along with the likes of Lily Tomlin who continues to enjoy the aviator’s assertive power. Together, they looked bold – an imposing reclamation of a style more traditionally worn by men.
Aviators were – and are – a unique kind of sunglasses, suggesting something different to other styles like Wayfarers or cats’ eyes. They have a particular swagger: one suggesting braggadocio and bad behaviour, or maybe just an aloof kind of cool. It’s an energy embodied by a leather-jacket clad Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, and Tom Cruise as Top Gun’s action hero (above). The same mood is set by Jennifer Lawrence in Joy, capturing the hunger and brittleness of ambition, while pushing her aviators decisively further up her nose.
Today, there are plenty of aviator styles to choose from, ranging from bright and poppy to angularly futuristic. At Celine’s autumn/winter ’19/’20 show the models looked like perfect 1970s replicas in their knee-length leather boots and dark lenses; Miu Miu elevated the proportions, placing the top bar higher than usual, resting against the wearer’s eyebrows (above); and riffs on the classic design can also be found at Emilio Pucci, Emporio Armani, Eudon Choi and Givenchy. It’s a long way from soaring through the skies – but maybe a bit of that airborne magic still remains.