-“When the Americans came here in 1943, they brought things we never saw before, like Coca-Cola, bubblegum, and Ray-Ban sunglasses”. – Recollections of one of the local residents of the Parnamirim Air Base, in Brazil, used by Allies during WWII.
Necessity is the mother of invention, this is a very wise proverb that fits perfectly in our daily lives but perhaps there is no greater time of need than when countries are at war. So many conveniences we enjoy nowadays were primarily created for military purposes. GPS is a good example.
Among the things invented to facilitate the lives of military personnel that inevitably slipped into the civilian routine; one of them even became a fashion icon. I am talking about Ray-Ban sunglasses.
The iconic brand was born thanks to a necessity faced by military pilots right after WWI. Aircraft technology was advancing rapidly and as the pilots began to fly faster and higher, they started to complain about the brightness of the sun and the blue sky. They reported a series of symptoms attributed to it like headaches, dizziness, and temporary blindness. By the end of the 1920s, the US Army Air Corps Colonel John A. Macready was working closely with Bausch & Lomb, an American firm specializing in eye health products, to create sunglasses specifically designed for aviators.
The prototype was ready in 1936, made entirely of soft, crash-resistant plastic. The green lenses could block the glare without reducing visibility. Bausch & Lomb called it “Anti-Glare”.
The new sunglasses fulfilled the promise to ban the sun rays, it was also light and sturdy. It became an instant hit among aviators, military, and civilians alike.
The “Anti-Glare” was so good that the pilots began to wear them daily, not only during their missions. Bausch & Lomb saw there as an interesting opportunity and in 1937 the company released the sunglasses to the public. In the next year, it received a golden metallic frame, much more stylish than the plastic one, and B&L rechristened it Ray-Ban Aviator. The legend was born.
The success of the Aviator encouraged B&L to create more options, aimed at the adventurer customers.
Also in 1938, the Ray-Ban Shooter was released, featured with green or pale yellow Kalichrome lenses designed to sharpen details and minimize haze by filtering out blue light, making them ideal for misty conditions. The model’s signature feature was the so-called ‘cigarette-holder’ middle circle, designed to free the hands of the shooter… Oh, human ingenuity never ceases to amaze me!
During WWII, American pilots continue to rely on the Aviator, with the introduction of a gradient mirror lens with a special coating on the upper part for enhanced protection, but an uncoated lower lens for a clear view of the plane’s instrument panel. Some of the top brass of the American military also adopted the trustworthy Ray-Ban, like General Douglas MacArthur, seeing here carefully observing the landing of American troops on a beach in the Philippines, in January 1945.
From golfers to hunters, from Sunday drivers to fighter pilots, Ray-Ban became the standard of quality and style, making sunglasses part of our daily lives.
In 1952 the company put on the market the model that became the brand’s best-seller since day one, the Wayfarer.
Perhaps I am not the right person to talk about it, since I am a big fan of the model. The design is pure and sleek, when you hold it in your hands it looks almost too simple, too unpretentious, but when you put them on the magic just happens.
If I have to choose one object that could sum up all the charm and coolness of the 1950s/60s Americana, the Ray-Ban Wayfarer would be my choice, and the model hasn’t lost its charm even after all these years.
It is no secret that some of the gangsters of the 1940s/50s enjoyed dressing elegantly and here is a good example: The picture above shows Mobster Joe Gallo, who wore a pair of Wayfarer and pleaded the Fifth to all questions when he testified before the Senate Rackets Committee in 1958.
Bob Dylan was also a big fan of the Wayfarer.
A little help from Hollywood
The silver screen has helped drive Ray-Ban sunglasses’ popularity to the stratosphere. It became the brand of choice for many celebrities, either in front of the cameras or when they are enjoying some time off.
Audrey Hepburn consolidated the sunglasses as a stylish and fashionable accessory for the ladies when she wore a rounded Ray-Ban Wayfarer in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s
To show the world Ray-Ban could create a modern yet fashionable design, the company released in 1965 the Olympian. It was the chosen model for Peter Fonda in the 1969 cult movie Easy Rider.
Here, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are having a nice little chat with the legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker, on the set of The Blues Brothers, in 1980. Is there a single scene in which they are not wearing their Wayfarers?
That guy above, wearing a Ray-Ban Caravans, is Travis Bickle, the character played by Robert De Niro in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver. A memorable performance that gave him an oscar nomination in 1977 and helped to define his career.
One of the most recognizable Ray-Ban models, the Clubmaster, was created by another optical company, called Shuron, in 1947. It was intended to be a frame for prescription lenses and was quite successful in the 1950s. Ray-Ban brought the stile back in the 1980s as sunglasses. That is the model given to Tim Roth to play Mr. Orange in the 1992 mob drama Reservoir Dogs.
Into modern times
In 1999, the Eyewear Division of Bausch & Lomb, including Ray-Ban was acquired for 640 million dollars by Luxottica, the world’s biggest company in the eyewear industry, based in Milan, Italy.
In 2016 Ray-Ban became a sponsor of the Ferrari Formula One team. As a result of this partnership, there is a whole line of sunglasses proudly displaying the “prancing horse”.
Ray-Ban is constantly offering new designs and all of them are heavily based on vintage styles. The company is adamant about keeping the traditional models in production, for the happiness of traditional fans, like Dave Grohl, the frontman of Foo Fighters.
The company’s latest innovation is the Ray-Ban Smart Glasses, equipped with dual 5MP cameras, speakers, and an internet connection.
The classic will never die.
From the airfields of WWII to the red carpet of the Oscars, Ray-Ban sunglasses have been part of pop culture for more than 80 years. The recipe for this success is quite simple: quality, affordability, and an unmistakable classic style that seems it will never lose its appeal.
How can we talk about Ray-Ban and not talk about Top Gun? So let’s close this post with the good old Maverick. The time came to replace his jet fighter, but he would never replace his Aviator.