The March issue of Vogue drew my attention to one
fashion phenomenon that showed up on page after page of
advertising and was featured in at least two of the magazine's
"What is it," I found myself asking, "with
Americans and their sunglasses?"
Some will tell us, "They're purely pragmatic. We need
them. They keep the sun from our eyes." "Oh naïve
one," I would reply. "Then why do the designers
flaunt their logos on the lens or on the frames of the glasses?
Why are models featured wearing them on catwalks indoors?
Why does the latest ad from Dolce & Gabbana show us
a group of twenty-somethings, all in sunglasses, at what
appears to be a beach house bonfire at night?"
Indeed, I have been to many a nightclub in Las Vegas, and
what are the hottees wearing? Sunglasses.
Of course, many of the models are featured wearing sunglasses
during the day outside, but the seemingly infinite variety
of lenses and frames shows us that sunglasses are far more
than merely functional.
When did it start, this American obsession with enigmatic
eyewear? My bet is that the intrigue began in the 1960s
with such iconic figures as Jackie, Audrey, and Peter.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy became the thirty-fifth president
of the United States and brought his beautiful and fashionable
wife to live with him in the White House. What a change
the handsome Kennedys brought to Pennsylvania Avenue now
used to the shriveled Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife
Mamie. American women everywhere wanted to mimic the young
Jacqueline who was featured on the cover of magazines from
coast to coast. As she attended outdoor events or walked
across an airstrip or, after her husband was assassinated
and she married the Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, floated
on a yacht in the Mediterranean, Jackie always wore her
enormous sunglasses. Americans began to associate these
shades with power, wealth, excitement, and the jet set lifestyle
replete with skiing vacations in the Alps and sunbathing
on the Riviera.
The same year that Jackie moved into the White House, 1961,
Paramount Pictures released the film adaptation of Truman
Capote's 1958 novel Breakfast at Tiffany's. Audrey
Hepburn, cast as the film's leading lady Holly Golightly,
was delicious in her simple gowns, broad brimmed hats, strands
of pearls, diamond tiaras, and, just like Jackie, enormous
sunglasses. Holly's sexual freedom and carefree attitude
added those very associations to the connotations already
accruing around that coveted fashion accessory.
By the end of the decade, 1969, the low budget, independent
film Easy Rider further solidified sunglasses as
symbols of the new morality. Riding east from Los Angeles
across the country on his Harley-Davidson chopper, Peter
Fonda, as Wyatt, always wears sunglasses in his search for
the American of lost youthful ideals. Peter Fonda, in addition
to being tall, tan, and handsome, embodies the anti-establishment
lover of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
By the time Tom Cruise, as Joel Goodson, slides on his
shades in Risky Business (1983), we know full well
the symbolic import of that action. Enjoying the rewards
of prostitution, both fiscally and otherwise, Joel rejects
the obsequious pandering he is taught it takes to succeed
in school, in business, and with women. Ironically, that
wild rebellion guarantees his success in all three. Indeed,
that film set off a marketer's dream as thousands of teenage
and college aged young men bought the exact same Ray-ban
frames that Tom wore.
If eyes are the windows to the soul, then sunglasses block
entrance into that dark, private place. They speak to us
simultaneously and sometimes even paradoxically of wild
rebellion, cool indifference, wealth and power, glamour
and freedom. As such, they represent many of the characteristics
that Americans admire most. To put on sunglasses as an American
is not simply to protect the eyes then, it is to reaffirm
many of those values inherent to the American dream.