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Early in the 20th century, as test pilots began flying higher than Mount Everest, they had to defend themselves against temperatures as low as minus-80 degrees Fahrenheit. To survive the frigid blast, aviators wore leather hoods, and they insulated their eyes with fur-lined goggles. To lift those goggles for even an instant was to risk death. In 1920, when Shorty Schroeder dared to take a biplane above 33,000 feet, his goggles fogged and he had no choice but to pull them off. Moments later, his vision blurred, and his eyes were soon frozen over.
Schroeder managed to land the plane that day, and his friend John Macready helped pull him out of the cockpit. A month later, still haunted by the memory of his friend’s swollen eyelids, Macready climbed into the same plane to beat Schroeder’s altitude record. Like Schroeder, Macready depended on goggles that had been designed to seal his eyes from the cold and protect his sight. But the early goggles were not dark enough, and “the bright sunlight in the upper atmosphere hurt his eyes,” said his daughter, Sally Macready Wallace.
And so Macready began working with Bausch & Lomb to design goggles especially suited to protect against the dazzle in the stratosphere. “My dad gave Bausch & Lomb the original shape, tint and fit” of aviator lenses, Wallace said.
By the late 1930s, advertisements for Bausch & Lomb’s Ray Ban sunglasses promised “real scientific glare protection” for fishermen and golfers. Not yet called aviators, the glasses nonetheless captured the essence of aviator goggles, with their teardrop shape and frames as delicate as a biplane’s struts. Sold as sporting equipment, they cost several dollars at a time when sunglasses could be had for 25 cents. During World War II, aviators became standard gear for military men, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
By the 1970s, frames had bloomed into color; a “ladies” version of the glasses came in pink, with rhinestones and spangles. It seemed there was an aviator for everyone. The frames added a flourish to some of the most iconic faces of the 20th century — from Elvis to Gloria Steinem to the Unabomber.
In the 1980s, Tucker Viemeister helped design aviators with sepia lenses under the brand name Serengeti; glasses like these ushered in the light-hued shades still in style today. But Viemeister said that he’s a fan of black lenses like those worn by the early test pilots, who needed protection against the glare of the stratosphere. “Sunglasses are about projecting coolness,” he said. “When you can’t see someone’s eyes, they seem cooler.”
THE VISION THING
Susan Yelavich, director of the M.A. design studies program at Parsons, is fascinated with the history of everyday objects.
You once wrote that the first use of dark glasses had nothing to do with the sun — judges in ancient China wore them when they presided in court. Yes, it was about hiding their eyes. Judges weren’t supposed to give away their emotions.
What do aviator shades mean to you? I associate them with the Greatest Generation. My father was a Navy pilot in W.W. II, and I dressed in costume as a Navy pilot for Halloween when I was 10. I marched up and down this big hill in Cedar Grove, N.J., trying to negotiate the suburban neighborhood at night with dark aviators on. I had those glasses for years. They were my father.