A Brief History of the Origins of Sunglasses

Whatever your fashion tastes, sunglasses are a beloved style icon. We’re showing our appreciation for sunglasses by looking at their history and origins.

A Brief History of the Origins of Sunglasses


From cat-eyes to aviators, colored lenses to shutter shades, sunglasses are fashion icons that have transcended fashion eras and aesthetics. However, because sunglasses are often seen as a 20th and 21st-century fashion, many assume they made their start within the last hundred years.

Surprisingly, sunglasses have been around for over a thousand years. Exploring a brief history of the origins of sunglasses will help us all better appreciate this fashion staple.

Sunglasses of Antiquity (37-1279AD)

Ancient Rome

The ancient Romans were known to prize emeralds, believing they had healing properties. For that reason, Roman jewelers were known to look through emeralds to help soothe their strained eyes. Some historians even report that Emperor Nero would watch Roman gladiator races through lenses made of emeralds.

The Song Dynasty

About a thousand years later, tinted lenses could be found in China on the faces of Song Dynasty judges. These smokey quartz lenses were meant to mask their expressions during interrogations and examinations.

The Inuit People

Around the same time, 5,000 miles away, the Inuit people of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland fought sun blindness with their own variation of sunglasses. They typically didn’t have lenses but were made by slicing eye-slits in a piece of driftwood, walrus bone, or caribou antler.

Medicinal Sunglasses (1752-1865)

In the mid-Georgian era, English Optician James Ayscough put forth the theory that glasses fitted with colored lenses could help vision impairments. This belief persisted as late as the Civil War when colored lenses were sued to help cataracts. Snipers would also sometimes use the lenses to help them find their target.

Foster Grant Beach Sunglasses (1929)

Sunglasses crossed over from medicinal use to popular and fashion use thanks to Sam Foster, founder of the Foster Grant company. In 1929, he began mass-producing and selling tinted glasses to beach-goers on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. This put sunglasses in the hands of everyone.

Aviator Glasses and Polarized Lenses (the 1930s)

Two of the more popular sunglass styles came about within two years of each other: Aviator glasses and Polarized lenses. Aviator glasses, as the name suggests, were designed for US Air Force pilots by Ray-Ban in the middle of the 1930s. This became especially important with the start of WWII. Soon after, civilians were able to buy them as well.

Polarized lenses were created a few years later by the Polaroid company before they began their foray into cameras. These lenses, which used the patented polaroid filter, gave wearers a darker but crisper view.

Hollywood and Beyond (1950s-Present)

The history of sunglasses gained a sense of elegance when the shades entered Hollywood. Early sunglasses such as Marilyn Monroe’s in How to Marry a Millionaire and Audrey Hepburn’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s put sunglasses on the map. Today, sunglasses have bridged the gap from a practical piece of eyewear to an outfit-elevating accessory beloved by all.

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