Top Glasses: A History of Aviator Sunglasses

Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses
Image credit: Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

As of the writing of this sentence, I have yet to see the new Top Gun movie. In fact, until a week or two ago I didn’t even know there was a new Top Gun movie. It was a trip to my local cinema that imparted this particular bit of knowledge via a trailer that had me leaning over to my movie-going companion and whispering with misplaced confidence the words: ‘Does anyone actually want another Top Gun movie. Who on earth is this even for?’ The answers, as it turns out, are ‘yes’ and ‘absolutely everyone’, respectively, since the film has thus far been met with nearly universally positive reviews and is set to make hundreds of millions at the box office.

With my words duly swallowed, it did get me thinking. What is it that’s bringing people out in droves to see a sequel to a film that was originally made thirty-six years ago? Is it an exercise in nostalgia? A post-COVID rush back to the multiplex? A thirst for some good, old-fashioned aerial-based action? Or just the hope that whatever Tom Cruise is doing to keep looking the way he does will somehow rub off on the rest of us?

And then it hit me: It’s got to be the sunglasses.

Permit me to pose another risky rhetorical: What’s the first thing you think of when picturing Top Gun? No, not the fighter jets or the patched jumpsuits. Nor the silly nicknames or the erotically charged volleyball scene. It is, of course, those sweet aviator sunnies. And ever since the world first got an eyeful of them, we haven’t been able to get enough. 

Aviator sunglasses from Top Gun
Aviator sunglasses in their most famous role on the silver screen
Image credit: Pikrepo

Aviators have enjoyed a storied cinematic history. There was Peter Fonda who wore them in Easy Rider with a biker jacket and mutton chops. Robert De Niro paired his with a mohawk and M-65 field jacket in Taxi Driver. Or Robert Duvall’s in Apocalypse Now which he donned alongside a cavalry hat and yellow kerchief. Then there’s Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, John Goodman in Big Lebowski, Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, and — my personal favourite — Sam Neill in Jurassic Park, who famously fumbles in removing his particular pair when first met with the understandably distracting sight of a living, breathing dinosaur. And this is barely to scratch the proverbial darkened, reflective, and hopefully scratch-resistant surface.

There is perhaps no film, however, where aviators proved a more perfect fit than in Top Gun — in every sense of the phrase. As Josh Sims puts it:

‘Perhaps no accessory has been reborn with more impact thanks to an appearance in a movie than Ray-Ban Aviators. In 1986’s Top Gun student fighter pilots played by Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer competed to be the best in their class. Their clothes may have provided limited opportunities for imitation — they wore flying suits for much of the film — but their Aviator sunglasses sparked massive worldwide sales […] It was the machismo of Top Gun — a perfect vehicle for the brash spirit of the 1980s — that made them not only a classic, but also what is reputed to be the world’s best-selling style of sunglasses.’

Early pilot with a leather hood and goggles
Early twentieth century flying goggles from the days before aviator sunglasses
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

A film about fighter pilots was a natural place for aviator sunglasses to shine. The style represented a leap forward in the evolution of pilot goggles in the early decades of the twentieth century. As test pilots began ascending to ever greater heights, they had to contend with temperatures as low as minus-60 degrees Celsius (around minus-80 Fahrenheit). As a result, they wore leather hoods and fur-lined goggles to protect themselves. To lift one’s goggles even for a moment was to tempt fate, as Shorty Schroeder discovered when his eye gear fogged over and he was forced to pull them off as he was breaking the 33 000-ft barrier in a biplane. Within seconds, his eyes froze over. Fortunately, he still managed to land his plane, at which point his friend and fellow pilot John Macready pulled him out of the cockpit. 

Haunted by his friend’s swollen eyelids and knowing all too well the dangers of flying at high altitudes from his own experiences as an airman, Macready set about in search of a solution. He began working with a company called Bausch & Lomb to design goggles that were up to the task of dealing with the unique challenges encountered within the stratosphere. The result was a set of polarised spectacles that were first sold to the public in 1937 by Bausch & Lomb under the newly-created label of Ray-Ban.

Before they were called Aviators, Ray-Ban’s signature sunglasses were known only by the model number D-1. The very first incarnation had plastic rather than metal frames but they did feature those familiar teardrop-shaped, anti-glare lenses with their distinctive green colour. The following year, a metal-framed version was released and officially dubbed the Aviator.

The design caught on beyond aviation among outdoorsy types and soon other purpose-built models were added to Ray-Ban’s product line. The first was the Shooter, introduced in 1938, which featured either green or pale yellow lenses designed to sharpen the details of a landscape and minimise haziness by filtering out blue light, making them ideal for hunting in misty conditions. They further included a so-called ‘cigarette-holder’ between the bridge and the top bar to keep a shooter’s hand’s unencumbered. The Outdoorsman, on the other hand, which followed the next year, boasted a pronounced bridge bar intended to keep sweat and debris from impeding its wearer’s vision. 

Unsurprisingly given their origins and intended purpose, aviator sunglasses found a natural home in the military during the Second World War, particularly among Air Force pilots. A new gradient mirror lens was specially developed by Ray-Ban to offer special glare protection in the upper lens while an uncoated lower portion allowed for a clear view of the plane’s control panel below. A variation of the style that had a smaller, squarer shape and straight temple bars — first made by and perhaps still primarily associated with American Optical, although the similar-looking Ray-Ban Caravan has given them a run for their money — also caught on for being easier to put on and take off while wearing a helmet.

While military men like General Douglas MacArthur would make aviators their signature, the design eventually caught on beyond the armed forces to become a truly democratic style choice. To wit: what else do people like Elvis, Hunter S. Thompson, Gloria Steinem, Michael Jackson, Joe Biden, and the Unabomber all have in common apart from their choice of eyewear?

I’ve been eyeing some aviators for ages myself and, in the spirit of Top Gun fever, I might just finally pull the trigger on a pair. But first I’ll start with buying a ticket to go see Top Gun: Maverick. That way I can find out what all the fuss is about and do a spot of window shopping all in one go. Although thanks to seeing them on the likes of Maverick, Goose, and Iceman back in the ’80s — to borrow a phrase from that immortal soundtrack — I already know they take my breath away.

US Army test pilot wearing aviator sunglasses
Image credit: Library of Congress / Public domain