BONO wears them to protect his photo-sensitive eyes and burnish his superstar credentials. Jack Nicholson doesn’t feel like himself without them.
As for the rest of us, we wear them to stop squinting in the sun and because they make us look and feel good.
There are many reasons to wear sunglasses but one holds sway above all others – they are intricately connected to the concept of cool. They have become the standard uniform of rock stars and celebrities and by wearing them, even the most ordinary of us feel that little bit cooler.
Vanessa Brown is intrigued by why this is. A senior lecturer in art and design at Nottingham University, she is the author of Cool Shades, a new book that examines the history and meaning of sunglasses.
Her interest started years ago when she popped out for milk while decorating her flat. “I was wearing decorating clothes and my hair was a mess but I absent-mindedly put my sunglasses on,” she remembers. “I wondered why I’d bothered as it wasn’t especially sunny. Then I caught a glimpse of myself and realised I looked better with sunglasses. In fact, I even looked ‘quite cool’. My curiosity was sparked by this moment when sunglasses seemed to have power to transform my assessment of my own appearance. What sunglasses do to the way we experience the world and the way we appear to others became a lasting fascination for me.”
Sunglasses first became popular in the 1920s when sunbathing and having a tan became fashionable in America. But it wasn’t until 1938 that they made the transition to cool. “I found the first proper fashion photo [of sunglasses] in Harpers Bazaar that year,” says Brown. “By that time, they were a craze and by mid-century, most people in Britain and the US had at least one pair.”
The obvious practical benefits of sunglasses don’t entirely explain our fascination with shades. They don’t explain why some people wear sunglasses indoors and at night, why reality TV star Nicole Richie owns more than 200 pairs, or why the average Irish woman owns four. Our appetite for sunglasses must stem from something more than the simple desire to shade our eyes from the sun.
Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh
Brown has many theories. “Sunglasses have the potential to add glamour, mystique and cool to the face and do this in fascinating ways,” she says. “One is the way they add instant bone structure, symmetry and an apparent enlarging of the eyes.”
Symmetry is well established as an evolutionary signal for attractiveness and Anthony Little, a psychologist at the University of Stirling whose work focuses on facial attractiveness, agrees with Brown’s assessment.
“Symmetry is preferred by animals from insects, fish and birds to humans,” he says. “Sunglasses are in themselves symmetrical so they could make faces more attractive.”
However, there is more to it than this. “You have all the ways in which sunglasses hide what you are doing with your eyes and what you might be thinking,” says Brown.
Our eyes are vital to communication and avoiding eye contact can create all sorts of impressions, from wanting to maintain privacy and keeping people at bay to making us seem inscrutable and mysterious.
Little has his own views on this. “People like to work to see something rather than have something obvious presented to them,” he says. “It’s more difficult to detect emotions when someone is wearing sunglasses; understanding the person behind the glasses can seem rewarding. People tend to get more excited and aroused by the unknown than the known.”
Perhaps a desire to cultivate this sense of mystique is why US Vogue editor Anna Wintour is rarely seen without her shades? It could also be that she wants to seem aloof and unbothered by the mayhem of the fashion world around her. But seeming otherworldly has been known to backfire on others.
“Wearing sunglasses can be controversial for anyone who needs to appear sincere, spiritual or serious,” says Brown. “When Prince William was photographed in wraparound shades, journalists said it made him appear too flash for a prince of the House of Windsor. Likewise, during the Jubilee 2000 campaign to end third world debt, when Bono presented the Pope with sunglasses and he politely put them on, the image was cut from the TV coverage.”
This could explain why we rarely see politicians wearing sunglasses.
They want to appear open and sincere; they don’t want to look like they are hiding anything from their public.
Cork-based consultant psychologist Dr Gillian Moore-Groarke thinks it’s all about eye contact. “Sunglasses can hide emotions as they allow people to avoid direct eye contact,” she says. “You can use them as a defence if you don’t want people to see what you really feel. Jerry Ryan’s wife Morah wearing sunglasses at his funeral was a classic example of someone using sunglasses to maintain privacy and keep people at bay. People like politicians never want to do this and make sure not to wear sunglasses.”
There are other associations with sunglasses, too. The sparkle of reflected light off the glass could be seen to represent flashbulbs, studio lights, celebrity and glamour. By wearing them, we too could bring some of that sparkle to our lives.
“Sunglasses have a positive association with prestigious, attractive people,” says Little. “We know that pairing someone with an attractive partner increases their attractiveness and perhaps wearing sunglasses is enough to lead to similar associations with glamour and attraction.”
Even the rich and famous rely on the power of sunglasses. Back in 1997, Jack Nicholson, who is rarely seen without his tinted glasses, said: “With sunglasses on, I’m Jack Nicholson. Without them, I’m fat and 60.”
Brown thinks sunglasses are popular for these reasons and more. “They play with truth and lies, vulnerability and invincibility, showing and hiding, attraction and deflection, glamour and subculture,” she says. “There’s so much to them and it all depends on who is wearing them, when and where.”
Eyes are windows to our souls
Lady GagaOUR eyes are windows to our souls, our choice of sunglasses takes on significant meaning.
They transform our faces and have the power to make us appear cool, mys- terious and attractive or detached, untrustworthy and strange.
Realising this makes this summer’s trend for weird eyewear seem very peculiar.
No longer are the fashion-led crowds choosing sunglasses based on how cool they look. This season, it’s all about crazy shapes, colours and as much diamante, rhinestones and mad designs as possible.
And it’s not just a festival-related novelty.
It’s all over the catwalks too.
So what do your sunglasses say about you?
Ray Ban is the best sell- ing eyewear brand and its Wayfarers the best-selling style.
From Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Kate Moss and Ma donna today, its cat’s eye shape flatters most faces.
It’s a classic style.
Big sunglasses such as those worn by Nicole Richie dominate the face and reflect a lot of light. You can hide behind them while benefiting from the glamour of seeming to be immersed in light.
Or you can use them to create a distance between you and the world around you – coolness in the emotionally detached sense of the word.
If you opt for offbeat styles, you could be more of a Lady Gaga type. She chooses glasses that underline her avant-garde identity and playful personality.
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