Sunglass styles may come and go, but true classics stand the test of time. Vintage sunglasses from past eras maintain devoted followings decade after decade thanks to their nostalgic retro charm and timeless cool factor. While many vintage sunglasses qualify as antique collector’s items today, a number of iconic styles continue to be manufactured and sold right alongside current fashion trends.
Defining Vintage Eyewear
What time period qualifies sunglass styles as properly “vintage”? Generally, vintage sunglasses describe styles first introduced between the 1930s and 1980s. This covers art deco influenced designs of the 1930s, the bold mid-century looks of the 1950s and 60s, and the outsized eyewear of the 1970s and 80s.
Authentic vintage sunglasses from these periods are now collectible antiques. However, many vintage styles are still produced today under iconic brand names like Ray-Ban and Persol. Contemporary reissues remain faithful to those mid-century originals. For eyewear retailers, stocking a selection of retro vintage sunglasses continues satisfying consumer demand for nostalgic style.
Mid-Century Classics: The Aviator
The aviator archetype originated back in the mid-1930s with models designed specifically for military pilots. Characteristic teardrop shaped lenses framed in lightweight metal spoke of flight and adventure. Brands like Ray-Ban and American Optical made aviators standard issue for U.S. air forces during WWII, cementing their functional street cred.
Post-war, aviators became counterculture symbols of rebellion through association with rock stars and Hollywood outsiders. The release of movies like Top Gun again glamorized their adventurous roots. Aviators remain in vogue today with updated takes featuring colored and mirrored lenses. Vintage metal aviators also fetch high prices among collectors.
The Creation of an Icon: Ray-Ban Wayfarers
No discussion of vintage sunglasses is complete without mentioning the iconic Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses of the 1950s. According to the good folk over at Olympic Eyewear, wayfarers exemplified the dramatic angles and bold styling of mid-century modern design.
They exploded in popularity in the 1960s with help from cultural figures like Audrey Hepburn and Bob Dylan wearing them on screen and on stage. Their unconventional trapezoidal frames stood apart from the metal rounds and aviators of the day.
Wayfarers receded with the rise of the 1970s disco era and oversized frames. But a 1980s revival saw the Blues Brothers and Tom Cruise sporting wayfarers in movies. Their revival continues today as a cornerstone of both Ray-Ban and vintage cool.
Shift to Plastics in the ‘60s and ‘70s
Sunglass manufacturing and style trends shifted as plastics rose in use through the 1960s and 70s. Funky transparent, opaque, and metallic plastic frames took center stage over metal.
Round John Lennon style lenses encased in translucent nylon and circular wire rims epitomized 1960s psychedelic style. Oversized squares and rounds in loud colors and patterns followed in the 1970s disco era. Elton John was rarely spotted without some outrageous colorful plastic frames.
Outsized Glamor in the Reagan ‘80s
No sunglass retrospective is complete without the massive frames of the 1980s. Influenced by style icons like Michael Jackson and Brooke Shields, the 1980s ushered in a decade of glamor and excess.
The oversized angular frames and gradient lenses demonstrated wealth and status. Brands like Vuarnet and Cazal gained fame outfitting pop stars in loud, borderline absurd sunglasses. While not the most subtle, 1980s frames make sought-after vintage collector pieces today. Contemporary designers still incorporate touches of 1980s exaggeration into modern sunglass collections.
The cyclical nature of fashion ensures vintage styles will continue circling back around. But constant classics like wayfarer and aviator models remain perennial crowd favorites thanks to their time-tested, ageless appeal.