Originally designed to protect pilots’ eyes against the elements, Ray-Ban’s classic sunglasses have crossed over from cockpit to catwalk. Katya Foreman looks back.

Sometimes a name becomes so ubiquitous we forget its original meaning. A case in point is Ray-Ban, which was behind the world’s first aviator sunglasses, conceived in the 1930s to ban rays from the eyes of US Air Force pilots. Though marketed under the Ray-Ban banner, it was the brand’s parent company, Bausch & Lomb – a US firm specialising in eye health products – that came up with the invention. Developed as an alternative to the fur-lined goggles worn by pilots in the early 20th-Century – which simply didn’t perform technically – aviator sunglasses became the perfect solution to protect a pilot’s eyes against the elements, help to avoid headaches and to combat decreased visibility caused by the blinding glare of the sun at high altitude.

According to The New York Times, the true force behind the aviator’s invention was American pilot John Macready, who is said to have been motivated by an incident involving a fellow test-pilot, Shorty Schroeder. During a test flight in 1920, in which he broke the 33,000-ft barrier in his biplane, Schroeder had ripped off his fogged-up goggles, causing his eyes to freeze over. On helping to pull him out of the plane, so shocked was Macready by Schroeder’s state, he set out to find a solution, making contact with Bausch & Lomb. “My dad gave Bausch & Lomb the original shape, tint and fit,” his daughter, Sally Macready Wallace, told the newspaper’s weekend magazine.

Aviator sunglasses became the perfect solution to protect a pilot's eyes against the elements

The aviator was not to remain confined to the cockpit, however. Fitted with green lenses that could cut out the glare without obscuring vision, the first examples, which went on sale to the public in 1937, featured a plastic frame in the now-classic teardrop shape (echoing the form of pilot’s goggles), but was remodelled with a metal frame the following year and rebranded as the Ray-Ban Aviator.

War games 

With their anti-glare lenses, the Ray-Ban Aviator shades became popular with outdoor pursuits enthusiasts from fishermen to golfers, leading to the introduction of new models. The Ray-Ban Shooter – released in 1938 – boasted green or pale yellow Kalichrome lenses designed to sharpen details and minimise haze by filtering out blue light, making them ideal for misty conditions. The model’s signature feature was its so-called ‘cigarette-holder’ middle circle, designed to free the hands of the shooter. The Ray-Ban Outdoorsman, issued the next year, targeted hunting, shooting and fishing enthusiasts.

In the 1940s, World War Two saw American Air Force pilots continue to rely on the Ray-Ban Aviator, with the introduction of a gradient mirror lens with a special coating on the upper part for enhanced protection, but an uncoated lower lens for a clear view of the plane’s instrument panel. The most iconic shots of military in Ray-Ban Aviators during WWII include those of General Douglas MacArthur landing on a beach in the Philippines wearing a pair.

Military style influenced fashion trends and the shades took off with civilians, gaining momentum in the 1950s with the launch of the Ray-Ban Caravan (1957), a squarer version later worn by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976). Thus begun their transition from a functional to an aspirational fashion accessory. “In the 1950s, Ray-Ban started to run advertising campaigns and you started to see them on all the major Hollywood celebrities,” says Sara Beneventi, brand director at Ray-Ban.

Shady people

Other Ray-Ban styles have entered the market but the original aviators – whose shape was adopted as a generic style by other eyewear brands like Polo, Maui Jim, Serengeti, Persol and top fashion brands such as Gucci, Burberry, Dolce and Gabbana – have always maintained their momentum, according to Beneventi, though certain powerful pop culture moments have contributed to peaks in popularity. Take for example Michael Jackson’s appearance at the 1984 Grammys in a pair of black Ray-Ban Aviators, while Tom Cruise in Top Gun (1986) took the shades back to their fighter pilot roots, boosting sales of the Ray-Ban original.

“In general you can see two key Ray-Ban styles in any decade, from the 1940s to today, so the role of Ray-Ban, both in the past and today, has always been to play a part in the pop culture of the specific period,” says Beneventi, noting that the music scene has also contributed to the aviator’s myth. “Ray-Ban have always been very much part of the scene from rock culture in the 1970s to the indie culture today. In the 1970s it became totally normal to see rock stars like Iggy Pop in Ray-Ban Aviators.”

By the 1970s, aviators already asserted themselves as the ultimate fashion accessory for many cultural icons, but up to this point they had largely been considered a men’s style. However, with an element of colour and femininity now being introduced to both frames and lenses by way of delicate rhinestone details and softer lens colours such as browns and pinks, the glasses started to grace the catwalks and red carpets, becoming synonymous with the glitterati.

If back in the 1950s the market focus was on one aviator style in one lens colour, today Ray-Ban markets a family of products ranging from functional and classic to fashion-forward styles with new colours and materials. The focus, says Beneventi, is always on innovation. “The evolution of the aviator in any decade has focused on the continued innovation that we apply to this product, such as special materials coming from the aerospace industry.” This autumn will see a new take on the ‘37 Ray-Ban Aviator frames, sporting a distressed effect as if worn through time. With this type of dedication to design and evolution, the timeless aviator, now more a staple of people’s cabin luggage than the cockpit, is certain to continue its journey into the future.

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