What Do So Many Celebrities See in Ray-Ban's Wayfarer Sunglasses?

From James Dean to James Franco

Style and color are very important when it comes to sunglasses, but as any fashionista—or just anyone who lives in L.A.—will tell you, no frames get hot until celebrities put them on.

In 1955, James Dean did.

Photo: Nick Ferrari

Their maker, Ray-Ban, called them Wayfarers.

Fresh from the drafting table of Raymond Stegeman, Wayfarers were unlike any other eyewear that had come before. Made of plastic instead of metal, its temples flared, the Wayfarer was a rebellious thing—probably why Dean, the 24-year-old star of Rebel Without a Cause, put them on.

Then Audrey Hepburn put them on. That was 1961, when Breakfast at Tiffany's introduced America to daring suggestions of divorce. Givenchy designed Hepburn's dresses, but Ray- Ban completed the look. Soon, Hollywood stars including Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant and Kim Novak had put Wayfarers on. In Nashville, Roy Orbison followed suit, as did a guitarist in New York named Bob Dylan.

America had a new president in 1961, and many thought that he'd put Wayfarers on, too. In fact, JFK wore the American Optical brand (a knockoff) but no matter: The frames looked like Wayfarers, and that was close enough. Overnight, millions of American men tried to imitate the Camelot style—which meant that they put Wayfarers on, too.

What was it about these frames? Their distinctive shape possessed the ability to dress up drab outfits while dressing down formal ones. The Wayfarer's "distinctive trapezoidal frame spoke a nonverbal language that hinted at dangerousness," the critic Stephen Bayley has written. That's probably why Andy Warhol and John Lennon put their Wayfarers on, too.

Even though Debbie Harry and John Belushi had their Wayfarers on, sales were in the ditch by the late 1970s. So Ray-Ban found a new way to get celebrities to wear the goods: product placement. Tom Cruise put Wayfarers on for 1983's Risky Business. Then Don Johnson put them on, as did Don Henley, Johnny Marr and Madonna. Corey Hart wore his sunglasses at night, and by 1987, as Michael Jackson was setting off on his Bad tour, he'd put Wayfarers on, too.

Today, Italian optical giant Luxottica licenses the right to make Wayfarers, which it reintroduced in 2006 as a pristine copy of the 1952 original. Times and tastes have changed a lot over 60 years, but the cultural impetus of Wayfarers is now unstoppable. "They're one of the first things that come to mind when people think of sunglasses," said Jordan Silver, co-owner of New York's Silver Lining Opticians, and he is in a position to know. Vintage Wayfarers--when Silver can get them--can go for $800. Of course, prices like that are a pittance for the latest generation of celebrities to put Wayfarers on, including Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, James Franco, Jude Law and Orlando Bloom. We'd list more, but we hate to name drop.

Adweek Blog Network