For Eyes: The Story of Spectacles

Horn-rimmed glasses on a table
Image credit: Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I wrote earlier this week about how keen I was on getting glasses as a child. I don’t really know where this desire came from. Maybe it had something to do with growing up in the heyday of Pottermania. Or with being a bookish kid in general. Or just having positive associations with people who wore glasses, like the musicians on the covers of my dad’s records (John Lennon, Roy Orbison, Elton John) or my grandmother when she read to me.

It meant that I’ve always thought glasses were cool and pretty unambiguously so, which, like my similar long-held belief about jorts, was an assumption that came into sharp relief when exposed to a greater swathe of popular culture and other people out in the world. In these new contexts, I soon found that glasses mark one as an outsider. While sunglasses are a universal symbol of all that is cool, prescription spectacles were essentially a cultural shorthand for some or other deficiency. The scruffy, shy, or otherwise snarky nerd. The pretty teen pre-makeover. The superhero disguised so as to seem powerless.

It’s a dichotomy that makes a kind of literal-minded sense. Sunglasses are worn largely by choice and, as such, represent the confidence to make such sure-footed decisions about your appearance and the image you wish to project. Eyeglasses, by contrast, are a necessity born from a defect and are often worn under duress. An attendant moral judgement seems like a logical (mis)step. 

If this seems like an odd kind of conclusion to draw, it’s made all the stranger by the length of time we’ve had in which to disabuse ourselves of such prejudices. The first treatise on optics was completed a millennia ago in 1021 by an Arabian polymath known in the English-speaking world as Alhazen. His seven-volume Treasury on Optics, which concerned (among other things) the magnifying properties of glass, was translated to Latin in 1240. Just a few years later in 1266, the English Franciscan philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon produced Opus Majus, in which he outlined the principles of corrective lenses. The Middle Ages consequently saw the production of so-called ‘reading stones’, essentially early versions of what we now commonly call magnifying glasses.

Tommaso da Modena's fresco of a man wearing glasses
A fresco dating from 1352 by Tommaso da Modena’s depicting a pair of reading glasses
Image credit: Risorto Celebrano / CC BY-SA 3.0

In the thirteenth century, Venetian glassblowers had figured out how to grind these unwieldy ‘stones’ down to lenses small enough that they could be mounted in a wooden frame and attached to the face. These so-called bridge frames were not dissimilar to the glasses of today except for the notable absence of temple bars, which attach at the ears and keep the entire apparatus in place on a wearer’s face. Before those came along in 1728, people simply made do with tying ribbons around their heads, although alternatives like the lorgnette, monocle, and pince-nez have enjoyed popularity at various moments in history.

If all of this sounds terribly unwieldy, it’s worth remembering that when the first spectacles were developed their use case was rather more limited since the majority of people couldn’t read. It wasn’t until the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century, with its attendant boom in literacy and readily-available reading material, that glasses became an everyday necessity and so gradually grew to be more practical and commonplace.

Reading was, therefore, optometry’s true inciting incident and, for better or worse, bookishness continues to be perhaps the prevailing assumption made about people who wear glasses today. Luckily, however, throughout the twentieth century and beyond, there have existed some key figures in popular culture who have challenged this prevailing narrative about the bespectacled.

Harold Lloyd wearing glasses in bed
Silent film actor Harold Lloyd wearing his famous set of horn rims
Image credit: Insomnia Cured Here / CC BY-SA 2.0

Long before a certain boy wizard turned reading — and wearing readers — into a more magical pastime for people of my own generation, there was another round-spectacled hero who won people round to wearing eyeglasses. Harold Lloyd, the silent film comedian known for dangling from clock faces and sporting circular hornrims, sparked something of a craze for his style of specs in the 1920s, making him the first in a long line of marquee figures to make wearing glasses seem cool.

The other star famed for doing the same, albeit with considerably more sex appeal, is Sir Michael Caine. Although Caine himself said that ‘film stars to me were always six feet four, had perfect teeth, could do handstands on Malibu beach — and didn’t need glasses’, his appearance in The Ipcress File in 1965 proved otherwise. Caine’s outing as the hard-nosed (and, one assumes, short-sighted) spy Harry Palmer featured a pair of thick-rimmed Curry & Paxton glasses, which all but single-handedly equated specs and sex for perhaps the first time. When asked by a young lady he has invites round his flat whether he ever takes off his glasses, Harry replies ‘Only in bed’, at which point she removes the item in question and…well, you don’t need 20/20 vision to picture the rest.

Caine made it cool for stars to wear glasses on screen, paving the way for everyone from Woody Allen and Peter Sellers to Tina Fey and Seth Rogen. There was a similar opening of the flood gates in the world of music when, after several blurred early performances, Buddy Holly finally consented to wearing his much-needed corrective lenses. Good thing too: Not only did his purported 20/800 vision mean he was legally blind without them, his glasses soon became his signature and duly induced weak knees and perhaps even the occasional bout of blurry vision among his fans. Many a musician followed suit, including (in addition to those cited earlier) Hank Marvin, Elvis Costello, Bono, Jarvis Cocker, and many more.

Buddy Holly wearing glasses
Buddy Holly and his stylish (and much-needed) specs
Image credit: Brunswick Records / Public Domain

Then there are the freedom fighters like Mohandas Gandhi and Malcolm X, the billionaire brainiacs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, plus a host of creatives in every field, including fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, architect Le Corbusier, painter David Hockney, and a host of other ocularly-assisted artists.

With such a wealth of evidence to the contrary, it becomes harder for negative associations with spectacles to persist. In fact, why dwell on the negative at all? I’ve spoken all along of bookish nerds when really I should have been writing about brooding intellectuals — an equally bespectacled but altogether more desirable bunch. A little shift in perspective is all it takes, perhaps, which, in an article about eyeglasses, feels like a fitting conclusion to draw.