Fashion & Beauty

A Vision Quest

MY LITTLE BIRD recently spoke with Jessica Glasscock, author of Making a Spectacle: A Fashionable History of Glasses, (Black Dog and Leventhal, 2021) about the evolution of eyewear, from useful tool of medieval monks to 21st century must-have accessory.

MLB: You mention that the first eyeglasses started with a jewel—a clear beryl crystal, made for use by anyone whose career involved having to read and write. Were early glasses more like magnifying glasses?

JG: The first eyeglasses were essentially readers—either a single eyeglass or a pair riveted together that was handheld.  You don’t see concave lenses—for nearsightedness—until the 15th century.

Author Jessica Glasscock is a lecturer in fashion history at Parsons School of Design and worked as a researcher at NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute for more than a decade. / Photo by Nicholas Needham.

MLB: You say men were the earliest, most frequent users of glasses. What about women?

JG: Although mass-produced readers became available in the early 17th century, there’s not a lot of documentation of women wearing glasses, although women who were involved in textile production and doing fine lacework would have needed spectacles as much as men did for accounting.

MLB: Talk a little about those beautiful spyglasses/jealousy glasses that the likes of Madame Pompadour and Marie Antoinette wore.

JG: The spy glass (a single glass over one eye) and the miniature lorgnette, based on the technology of the telescope and adorned with intricate carvings and pastoral scenes, were the first eyeglasses as fashionable accessory for women. That they looked like jewelry was a big part of the appeal. A variation of the mini lorgnette, a jealousy glass, had one lens for seeing the ballet or theater stage, plus a magnified mirror positioned at an angle to observe what was going on behind the user.

MLB: Who sold eyeglasses?

JG: The earliest distributors were peddlers who carried around baskets of lenses with various strengths. You’d try them on until you got the right one. From the 18th century on, optometry was developing as a field and everything was getting lighter and more precise, while jewelers were making glasses beautiful. Cartier started making glasses at the end of the 19th century. When the question came up of who was going to sell eyeglasses—optometrists won the day. You couldn’t sell glasses until you had an optometrist on site.

MLB: This sentence from a 1920s WWD article was kind of shocking: “Eyeglasses are one of those things . . . that require infinitely greater skill to persuade people to buy than something like a new dress or new suit. Particularly is this so with women, many of whom, believing glasses disfiguring, would sooner hire a guide than wear ‘spectacles.”

JG:  Glasses for women were associated with aging, while good vision was the mark of health, which influenced many women to resist wearing glasses. Moreover, the 1920s was a youth quake—the era of the flapper—when nobody wanted to look old.

MLB: When did fashion crack the code on glasses; what precipitated that change?

JG:First came the emergence of sunglasses as a fashion item, spurred on by technical innovation—Edwin Land’s 1932 perfection of light-filtering plastic sheet known as Polaroid), which sunglass manufacturers used to make high-performance eyewear for the sports market—for flying planes, driving race cars, skiing. The fact that sunglasses became popular for Hollywood stars—it was a practical solution to the weather—led to their growth and distribution in the 1930s. They become fashionable because people wanted them. What cemented eyeglasses into the fashion firmament was the cat eye or Harlequin frame. In the 1930s, a window dresser named Altina Schinasi thought a display of optical frames was very unappealing and decided to take her idea for a feminine, cheekbone-uplifting Harlequin frame to Lugene, a high-end  optical store  By 1940, her frames had broken women’s resistance to optical frames and in the 1950s, Harlequin frames defined 1950s fashion eyewear. They were optically correct and covered by insurance to boot.

MLB: Can you explain what you mean when you refer to the “tension between luxury and accessibility that is all over the history of eyewear?”

JG: Eyewear is a special category of accessory because if you need vision correction, you have to wear glasses. There’s an uneasy alliance between people who design fashion eyewear and optometrists. In the 1970s British designer Mary Quant designed a line of  oversize glasses, which dominated high-fashion glasses at the time. Because of the extreme scale, though, some prescriptions couldn’t be filled properly. Quant had to design a second line, with more input from optometrists and less fashion over function. Today you mostly see these big frames as sunglasses, which don’t always require prescriptions.

MLB: What’s your take on Warby Parker frames?

JG: The founder of Warby Parker couldn’t believe how much he was paying for a piece of plastic. The company found a new solution, starting with frames with mid-century silhouettes that were becoming popular at the time. They were optometrically correct without a lot of drama.

MLB: Looking into your magic ball, what’s your vision of the future of eyewear?

JG: We’ve been working toward a place where everything exists at the same time: wire frames, round lenses, aviators, cat eyes. Innovation will come in the form of materials, which are becoming lighter and cheaper. What I see happening now is character eyewear. When you want to connect with a certain persona, say Gloria Steinem or Amelia Earhart, you reach for aviators. Feeling retro or eccentric, how about a cat eye? Big-time fashion editor, oversize sunglasses.

MLB: Finally, what inspired you to write a book about the history of eyeglasses?

JG: My editor asked me if I wanted to write this book—I had written about accessories before. Plus, I was interested in how something you need became something you want, how women aged in fashion and why they weren’t wearing glasses for so long.

MLB: In your book’s dedication, you apologize to your mother for the many times you lost your glasses in the second grade. You also said you thought you might have been angling for more pairs. Do you have several now—what are your favorites?

JG: I don’t have a big collection—a mirrored pair, a French pair, an Italian pair. Diana Vreeland would approve. I love luxury eyewear from Gucci, Chloe and Prada, but I’m also a big vintage shopper, so my choices are intentionally limited. Finding a frame that flatters you (if you can find someone who’s an expert who can advise you, that’s the holy grail) is the hardest part of shopping for eyeglasses.

4 thoughts on “A Vision Quest

  1. Nancy G says:

    This is fascinating. I wondered when “prescription” glasses were discovered, particularly since I’ve needed both far and reading glasses for ages. I’m a Ray Bans girl all the way for my sunglasses, since they have the aviator styles but small enough for my face (I sure get the problem with fitting prescriptions into too large glasses), but Peepers have great reading glasses, including Blu Light ones for being on a computer all day.

    Great interview. And the title sure sounds familiar!

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      I thought you’d like the title! Wonder where I got it from?

  2. cynthia tilson says:


    This was fascinating! Thank goodness glasses are all the fashion rage again, just as I’m entering that frustrating age in which I can see neither near or far clearly without them.

    As for Warby Parker, they won me over years ago when they refused to sell me frames too large for my face, that wouldn’t allow them to properly center my prescription within the lenses. No one before– even when purchasing glasses through the optometrist–had ever suggested the importance making glasses that fit my prescription to my face!

    Loved this piece–thank you!

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      Thank you, Cindy. WP definitely does a good job for a reasonable price.

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