Perspective: Shifting Focus

Wearing glasses used to mark you as a hopeless social introvert—nothing a little bit of marketing can't fix

Last year, Americans dropped $8.37 billion on prescription eyeglasses, according to the Vision Council—a good portion of that going to pay for high-end designer frames that, ordinary plastic though they be, fetch out-of-sight prices. (Toss in designer sunglasses, and you can add another $2.28 billion to the figure.) Many are shoppers who grumbled about the high cost of frames but bought them anyway. Why? Because glasses, as everybody knows, are fashion accessories.

Things were not always this way, a fact that the two ads on these pages render with startling clarity. How was it that the humble pair of eyeglasses went from a staid and sensible piece of ophthalmological hardware to an über-sexy design accessory? Marketing, dear reader, marketing.

Eyeglasses have actually had a serious PR problem for most of their existence. In the year 1289, Florentine writer Sandra di Popozo spoke of a new invention called spectacles, which were “for the benefit of poor old people whose sight has become weak.” Thus were eyeglasses first stigmatized—and they stayed that way for the next 600 years. Never mind that 75 percent of people require vision correction. Eyeglasses were perennial emblems of the nerdy, the weak and the introverted. Eighteenth-century Frenchmen, ashamed of their spectacles, wore them only in private. In Mark Twain’s stories, boys unfortunate enough to need glasses invariably got kicked around.

As far as the frames went, the optometrist soldered the bridge and frame together to fit the size of the lenses; there was nothing fashionable about it. “They were made by hand, and it could take a month for you to receive them,” relates Benjamin Montoya, an optician, optical historian and designer who makes glasses under the brand Benjamin Eyewear in Los Angeles. “Once you made that investment, the glasses were not disposable.”

All this explains why Tillyer Lenses’ 1929 ad, right, wasn’t selling fashion, but utility: “The sweeping rush of modern life” forces our sober businessman to “see more, do more, read more—all at top speed on tight nerves.” Tillyer’s revolutionary new wide-angle lenses made such feats possible.

Glasses marketing might have stayed this way were it not for the collision of three trends. First was iconoclasts like Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison who wore their glasses proudly. Second, 1960s fashion designers like André Courrèges began to make frames they could put on their runway models. And finally, Dennis Roberts opened a store in Hollywood in 1968 called the Optique Boutique, becoming the first optometrist to make custom frames for movie stars. “Optique Boutique changed the industry,” Montoya says. “It made frames into a real category.”

One that, today, lets fashion brands like Dolce & Gabbana get away with the sort of ad on the opposite page. It’s one that Montoya thinks is clever and effective. “They’re isolating the product,” he says, “and doing it in an impactful way”—with a model who happens to be naked. Then again, he’s not totally naked. He’s wearing his fashionable frames.