Everything You Need To Know About Sunglasses

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Everything You Need To Know About Sunglasses

Words by Mr Chris Elvidge

21 June 2024

There’s nothing quite like sunglasses for adding the finishing touch to an outfit. But with hundreds, if not thousands of different pairs to choose from, finding the one that’s right for you can seem like an impossibly daunting task. It’s not just the practical concerns you have to keep in mind, such as how well they protect your eyes from the sun or how they complement the shape of your face. (We have some thoughts on the latter, if you’re wondering.) You also have to consider what they say about you.

That’s because sunglasses are a uniquely potent style statement, capable of lending an air of mystique, adding a dash of personality or just making you look cooler and more attractive. As such, they’re closely tied up with notions of identity and self-image – far more so than, say, a pair of socks or a T-shirt. So, when you buy a pair of sunglasses, you’re not just buying a pair of sunglasses. You’re asking yourself what kind of person you are.

But look, we’re not here to provide you with a psychological evaluation. We’re here to help you up your frame game by arming you with all you need to know about sunglasses, from the most common frame shapes to the technical jargon you’re likely to encounter on your quest for the perfect pair. The guide you’re about to read is by no means comprehensive – entire books can and have been written on the subject – but it should ensure that you’re not completely in the dark.

01. Aviators

The very first model of sunglasses to be marketed under the now legendary Ray-Ban brand name, the Aviator was designed in the 1930s for US Air Force pilots and came to prominence during WWII, when it was manufactured in massive quantities and famously modelled by US Army General Douglas MacArthur.

Form tends to follow function when it comes to military gear. It’s a principle illustrated here by those signature teardrop-shaped lenses, which were originally designed to protect pilots’ eyes from glare when looking down at their instrument panels, and the slender metal frames, which allowed the sunglasses to be worn comfortably with a flying hat.

The aviator style retains a strong link to the world of aviation – they’re practically standard-issue for commercial pilots – but thanks to the support of Hollywood, and in particular Mr Tom Cruise in Top Gun, they’re now just as popular on the ground as they are in the skies. And while Ray-Ban remains the go-to name if you’re in the market for a pair of original aviators, it’s far from the only option, with TOM FORD, Cartier Eyewear and Jacques Marie Mage among the other brands to keep in mind.

02. Wayfarers

Making its debut in 1952 with a striking design that channelled the avant-garde sensibilities of the mid-century US, the Ray-Ban Wayfarer – a pair of D-shaped lenses wrapped in thick black acetate frames – quickly established itself as the jazzy 1950s hepcat to the Aviator’s heroic flying ace. D-frame styles were first popularised by musicians such as Messrs Roy Orbison, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan before later being embraced by a new school of 1980s cool kids, including Messrs Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi in The Blues Brothers and – yes, him again – Tom Cruise, who donned a pair of Wayfarers in Risky Business.

This long-standing connection to the glamorous world of celebrity has turned the Wayfarer into something of a wearable design icon. And while its enduring popularity has arguably robbed it of some of the rebellious, countercultural cool it enjoyed in its mid-century heyday, it’s still a failsafe choice for summer festivals and beach breaks.

In common with Ray-Ban’s other iconic design, the aviator, the Wayfarer-inspired D-shaped frame has been adopted by plenty of other brands over the years. Look out for high-fashion versions from CELINE HOMME, SAINT LAURENT, Givenchy and Dior Eyewear, to name just a few.

03. Wraparound sunglasses

A relic of Y2K-era fashion – which means, of course, that they’ve spent the past few years edging their way back into the style conversation. Wraparound sunglasses do more or less what they say on the tin, with frames that curve to sit closer to the face and lenses that extend backwards for better peripheral vision. It’s a sporty, streamlined shape that echoes the functional design of ski and motocross goggles, and it can be credited almost entirely to one brand: Oakley.

This Californian sporting label kick-started the trend in 1984 with its Factory Pilot Eyeshades, which took the form of a pair of ski goggles with arms instead of a head strap, before creating the ultimate expression of 1990s retrofuturism with the alien-like Eye Jacket, a curvaceous, bug-eyed design that stood in stark contrast to the geometric shapes popular at the time.

Wraparound sunglasses fell out of the mainstream in the 2000s, but remained popular with cyclists and the underground clubbing community, who kept the trend alive before Mr Demna Gvasalia’s rave culture-inspired collections for Balenciaga and VETEMENTS brought it to the attention of the TikTok generation in the late 2010s.

A style that’s a couple of years into its current trend cycle, but still very much active, you can expect to find wraparound shades from a wide range of designer brands today. Keep your eyes peeled for models from Acne Studios, LOEWE, Balenciaga and more.

04. Round-framed glasses

No, “round framed” doesn’t have to mean perfectly circular. In reality, it’s a much broader term that could describe anything from the vintage sunnies worn by Mr Cary Grant in North By Northwest to the almost goggle-like ones worn by Mr Jean Reno in Léon: The Professional. What we’re really talking about is a lens that’s fuller at the top than the D-shaped lens of a Wayfarer or teardrop-shaped lens of an aviator.

There’s a certain bookish charm to round frames; It’s a particularly popular style with vintage-inspired brands such as Oliver Peoples, whose Gregory Peck frames were designed after the spectacles worn by the titular actor when he played Atticus Finch in 1962’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Sister brands Mr Leight and Garrett Leight California Optical offer a great selection of round-framed sunglasses, too.

01. Acetate

Acetate, or cellulose acetate to give it its full name, is an organic resin derived from renewable plant sources such as wood or cotton. It’s a powder in its raw state, but it can be melted down and extruded – that means pushed through a nozzle or a metal die – to create acetate sheets, which can then be fashioned into frames. A versatile, resilient material, it’s also naturally transparent, which means it can be combined with pigments to create a near infinite range of colours.

02. Metal

A trademark of aviator-style sunglasses, metal frames tend to result in a sleeker and more elevated appearance than acetate. Stainless steel is the most commonly used metal, but titanium is popular, too, while precious metals, such as gold or platinum, are generally used as an accent. Solid gold frames are rare due to the difficulty of working with such a dense and soft metal, but you can still buy them – for an understandably high price – from a few high-end jewellery brands.

03. Tortoiseshell

Often seen on the frames of vintage-inspired sunglasses, tortoiseshell acetate has been specially dyed to replicate the distinctive brown, yellow and black markings on the shell of the hawksbill turtle. The real stuff – made of the shells of actual turtles – is now vanishingly rare. Hawksbill turtles were hunted almost to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries and the trade of their shells was effectively banned in the 1970s.

04. Buffalo horn

A material that was commonly used for frames before the invention of cellulose acetate, buffalo horn is the origin of the term “horn-rimmed glasses”. Still used today by a handful of custom eyewear brands, it’s a sturdy, lightweight, natural material composed entirely of keratin – the same stuff that makes up your hair and fingernails – and it’s known to age beautifully with time.

01. Coloured lenses

Featuring a coloured, translucent finish as opposed to a milky, opaque finish – picture the yellow aviators worn by Mr Johnny Depp in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas or the red round-framed sunglasses worn by Mr Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers – a pair of colourful tinted lenses make a great point of difference amid a sea of black and grey. But they’re not just a style statement, as different colours filter out different wavelengths of visible light. Blue lenses filter out shortwave light, which is known to affect our sleep cycle; yellow lenses improve contrast perception and help us to concentrate; and rose-tinted lenses make everything seem, well, rosy.

02. Polarised lenses

Polarised lenses have been treated with a special filter that reduces glare by blocking out light in everything but a certain plane. Think of the filter as a door and the light as a mattress: it needs to be perpendicular to the door in order to pass through. They’re a great choice for watersports or days at the beach, because they reduce the dazzling glare coming off the sea. But be warned: they can also block out the light from your smartphone. (Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.)

03. UV protection

The principal reason we wear sunglasses – and the reason why we don’t buy £5.00 sunglasses from petrol station forecourts – is the protection that they provide us against harmful UV rays. It’s important to note that this protection isn’t directly related to the tint of the sunglasses; it’s entirely possible for darker sunglasses to offer worse UV protection than lenses with just a light tint. If in doubt, look for claims of UV400 – the number refers to wavelengths up to 400 nanometers, which covers both UVA and UVB rays – and stick to brands that you can trust.

01. A case

Any good pair of sunglasses should come with a protective case. And if it doesn’t come included, buy one. While it might seem like yet another bulky item to carry around, it’s in your interest to do so. Sunglasses are fragile things, and unlike optical glasses, you won’t be wearing them the whole time. When they’re not on your face, they’re in your pocket. And when they’re in your pocket, they're liable to get crushed.

02. A cleaning cloth

Likewise, good sunglasses should also come with a microfibre cleaning cloth. These are designed to clean your lenses with minimal abrasion. This is important, because the coatings on lenses that block out UV or polarised light can be scratched away if you’re not careful.

03.A screwdriver set

The screws fastening the arms of your sunglasses may loosen and need tightening over time. But if you think the Phillips screwdriver from your starter toolkit will suffice, think again. You’ll need a precision screwdriver set instead – they’re widely available and a smart investment.