How sunglasses came to define American pop culture cool

They say eyes are the windows to the soul. But who needs eyes when you can be a fucking baller? Sunglasses have long been part and parcel with American cool, a device to as much keep you at a remove as to make sure you're seen. Sure, they’ve been international for almost a hundred years, worn by everyone from glamorous movie stars to your average man on the street. But in the heightened world of American pop culture, they’re the separation between us mere mortals and the icons we’d all love to be.

It’s a distinction that has its roots in the 1920’s, when the practical eye support of the then-fledgling sunglass blurred with a very Hollywood interpretation of a problem. See, famous people were starting to get photographed a lot. And with flash-bulb photography came a bombardment of bright lights to the eye, ensuring sunglasses became the hottest new accessory for keeping movie star eyeballs protected.

But it also had an unexpected side effect. With sunglasses still largely expensive, they became a wardrobe element keenly associated with the gods and goddesses of the big-screen. These weren’t just things used to protect you from the sun, they were now part of the celebrity uniform, armour for the untouchable, and a marked distinction between us and them.

While celebrity nailed the glamour quotient, it wasn’t until the 1950s that sunglasses started to become synonymous with a uniquely American strand of cool. 1953’s The Wild One was essentially a 90-minute shriek of “Lock up your daughters”, a tale of a flamboyant biker gang flocking to small-town California to raise hell, woo vulnerable young ladies, and rile up the law.

At the center is Marlon Brando’s Johnny Strabler, dressed in head-to-toe leather, eyes hidden behind a pair of black Aviators. It all looks a little 'S&M dungeon Halloween party' today, but The Wild One quickly launched a new form of cool, reckless youth — one imitated by many of the teen idols of the day, from James Dean to Elvis Presley.

Into the 1960s, icons like Jacqueline Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn tapped into the power of glamorous cool through their eyewear. Hepburn gazes longingly through the window of a fancy department store in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but while she might not be able to afford everything that’s inside, her Oliver Goldsmith frames put her shoulder-to-shoulder with Manhattan’s elite. These were sunglasses as aspiration, a glamorous accessory that might not get you through the door, but might at least make you look as if you could.

Sunglasses had power, a power then exploited by Stanley Kubrick during the making of 1962’s Lolita. Arguably the most famous sunglasses in modern popular culture, Lolita’s heart-shaped frames were a provocative blurring of innocence and danger; endlessly-parodied and recreated in fashion throughout the decades.

They also incapsulated the Lolita character into one single, striking image, blurring the lines between characterization and costume design; Kubrick recognizing how both can compliment one another rather than being separate entities. It’s a trick that would reverberate in filmmaking throughout the late 20th century, iconic characters on paper then enhanced by their killer shades. Among them Alabama Whitman and her blue frames in True Romance, Tyler Durden’s blocky red sunglasses in Fight Club, the yellow lenses of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the white-lined tops of Tony Montana’s frames — easily doubling for the mountains of coke hoovered up throughout Scarface.

But for sunglasses that raise the bar from iconic American cool to straight-up American eccentricity, look no further than the music industry. Funk pioneer Bootsy Collins effectively cornered the market in outlandish frames in the 1970s, making rhinestone-encrusted, star-decorated glasses his trademark. These are uniformly nuts, the sort of thing worthy of a Code 5150 if you were to wear them while picking up groceries. But on a star they’re a lifestyle, turning sartorial insanity into artistic prowess.

For a more subtle but equally nutty modern interpretation, look no further than Kanye West’s briefly iconic Shutter Shades. Neither that practical nor all that fashionable, they coincided with West’s most commercially successful period, appearing in the video for his mainstream magnum opus: Stronger.

Unlike Collins’ star shades, still part of his creative package nearly fifty years after he came to prominence, West’s Shutter Shades were a flash in the pan. Already seeming like a relic of a more sartorially embarrassing age, they’re the kind of sunglasses today handed out at tacky nightclubs as promotional material, or seen decorating the face of some Coachella goober with a selfie stick.

But their original mainstream breakthrough continues to speak to the power of sunglasses as American iconography, forever linked to pop culture touchstones through modern history.

It’s important to note, however, that 'sunglasses-as-cultural-statements’ are only ever effective as an accessory to inner cool. Whether you’re Alabama or Kanye, Hunter S. Thompson or Brando auditioning for the Village People, it only matters if you radiate your own form of coolness before you toss some unique shades on your face. Don’t consider them the cake, but more like the icing.