The birth of modern eyewear can be traced back to the turn of the 20th century, in a time where the spectacle-wearing consumer was cautious, manufacturing was rudimentary. Most of all, fashions were slow to change (no new collection every year, we are sorry!), mainly pince-nez and monocle. Could you believe there was a stigma attached to wearing spectacles in public?
The view changed around the twenties, making sunglasses a more common sight, thanks to the renovated technology developed around them.
The most common materials for frames were gold and silver, metal alloys made from nickel and tin, tortoiseshell or horn, cellulose acetate, and Casein from cow’s milk. American manufacturers, aware that attractive frames would encourage a healthy trade, began to advertise in optical journals, competing with new techniques and designs. Even women adopted monocles, as revealed in a 1903 article of the New York Herald, revealing this accessory’s popularity among American women.
The advent of cinema brought new style icons to which audiences could aspire. As the first movies were silent, visual tricks and props became essentials. Harold Lloyd is credited with popularizing spectacles (especially the horn-rimmed variety, popular among men) for everyday wear at a time when many people felt awkward about being seen in glasses. In Over the France comedy (1917), Lloyd used the glasses to differentiate himself from his on-screen persona without resorting to heavy make-up and extravagant costumes. After a year and a half, the character was so successful that when Lloyd asked the manufacturers for a duplicate pair, they sent him twenty (free of charge!), crediting him for making horn rims so fashionable. Lloyd had unwittingly demonstrated the success of product placement in film, and the potential of glasses in shaping different characters and personalities, not only for the celebrities but the fans who imitated his look.
While Lloyd was establishing his bespectacled character, a photographer and optical shop owner in Turin was laying the foundations for a brand that has become synonymous with celebrity and Italian style. In 1917 Giuseppe Ratti began experimenting with creating glasses for commercial travel pioneers, flying, and motor racing. The resulting model had smokey lenses and rubber sides, close to the head with rubber bands. The familiar graphic character ‘Cinesino’, a Chinese man in sunglasses featured in advertisement campaigns, helped to shape the identity of what would become the Persol brand.
For the most part, frame styles remained limited to a standard set of shapes: oblong, oval, and round, worn by both sexes, although the more decorative lorgnettes were reserved for women at evening occasions. Consumers generally chose from a range of readymade spectacles. They selected the most practical, whereas a more flattering frame was a rare luxury.