Reader Kathy wrote me this question about 1940s sunglasses:
I’m desperately looking for a vintage pair, or good replica pair of women’s sunglasses for a WWII reenactment. Can you steer me in the right direction?
I thought my collection of 1940s fashion books would easily provide direction on authentic 1940s sunglasses, but none of them even mentioned eyeglasses or sunglasses! Why the lack of information? Part of the reason was that sunglasses were just coming into vogue as a fashion accessory at the end of the 1940s.
To talk about sunglasses before WWII was to mention them only in the context of work, sports, or eye protection for the blind. In this context, the sunglasses were very dark and rather difficult to see through. They were mostly worn by men because for a woman to wear them was to hide her face- something a lady would never do.
Instead of sunglasses, most women wore wide brim hats to shield themselves from the sunlight. Hollywood starlets were some of the first to adopt tinted sunglasses into fashionable wear in the 1930s, but the trend didn’t pick up among regular folk until the mid-1940s. With the invention of new colored plastics and lightly tinted lenses during the war, post-wartime eyewear became more diverse.
Previously, the only options for eyeglasses were a round shape in wire or tortoiseshell. Rimless glasses were common in the 1930s, but unusual for sunglasses. Early 1940s sunglasses maintained the trends of the ’30s.
For most of the 1940s, round circle sunglasses with thick plastic frames were the trendy fashionable look. Light frames heavily contrasted with dark lenses, giving them a “bug eye” look. Yikes! They certainly are strange to look at today.
White frames with dark lenses were especially chic. Other colors blended a bit more but were still very vibrant. It was popular to wear your brightly colored sunglasses when at the beach. They were sold cheaply at most beachside five and dime stores.
New plastic frames were a big hit with women. Suddenly, 1940s sunglasses were fun to wear! Red, blue, white, black, green, and even yellow were not uncommon.
Tinted lenses added more diversity to the options. Lenses in red, green, amethyst, blue-ish, green-yellow, or grey-black were matched with frames to complement skin and hair colors. In some cases, colored lenses were thought to correct a certain mood or medical illness. There was little scientific evidence for this, however certain colors did help reduce, for example, too much blue in the sky.
Aviator glasses were often a Smokey green-grey that reduced glare. Ironically, rose-colored glasses made everything grey and more depressing.
In the 1940s, the shape of lenses started to include a deep triangle shape, similar to an aviator style, where the top was wider than the bottom of the lens. Aviator glasses are an icon of the 1940s for men’s sunglass fashion, and for women the shape was similar. They often came with wire frames, just like men’s, but could also have a plastic frame browband. These gave them a sporty look. So high fashion!
In 1947, Business Week picked up on the current sunglasses fashion with this remark: “Dark glasses were once the badge of the blind man. Hollywood turned them into a fad; today they are a definite style item in avid demand by young and old. Along with plastic frames came an avalanche of weird shapes and tins. To be really smart, a girl must have not only the type and shade to suit her face-shape and coloring; she requires a different pair for sports, every day, and even- in some extremes of the dark glasses fad- for evening wear. Sometimes there are individual frame designs for special costumes.”
Special order sunglasses could be painted to match a particular outfit. Some went as far as to encase the dress fabric in clear plastic- the ultimate matching frame! These, of course, were only for the wealthy to attain.
The change in frame shape continued into the late 1940s with a style that was to become an icon of the 1950s. The harlequin shape was a rectangle lens with a thick frame. They gave a certain personality to the wearer—a mark of the NEW LOOK, a new woman. They evolved with a slight uplift at the outside corners.
More stretching and combining with the sports aviator style and a new iconic sunglass were born: the cat eye. Small details were added to the corners, such as little gold stars that were advertised to ladies with grey hair. The gold brightened up her face, they said. The 1940s cat eye was not yet as narrow and pointed as they became in the 1950s. Rather, the 1940s cat eye (which wasn’t yet called this) were still full sized lenses to provide ample sun blocking.
One final fad in the 1940s were mirrored lenses. They started with men’s aviator glasses which the military issued to them. Women’s sunglasses adopted them as well, and they were especially popular with teens. On a practical note, they blocked out 30% more rays than tinted lenses. On a fashion level, they obscured onlookers from seeing into her eyes. These became very useful for Hollywood stars hiding from fans and the media.
Prior to the 1940s, glasses were practical but not fashionable. The standard choice for the past few decades was either thick round horn rim glasses or rimless lenses with gold fittings. The shapes were all generally round with a tapered bottom edge. Some styles for women featured upper or lower octagon edges. Lenses were thick and heavy and not very comfortable to wear for long duration. Most women preferred to only wear them for reading.
Into the 1940s, white gold-filled thin frame glasses continued to be the lightest style for women. There was a bit more variety in lens shapes: round, drop (narrow bottom), octagon, and round top hexagon. They came in rimmed or rimless styles with pearl nose pads and deep metal ear hooks.
The shell frame round eye glasses were also worn in the early 1940s. They were more durable than the thin write frame or rimless varieties.
Plastic frames became more affordable, although not very dainty, replacing the shell-frame eye glasses altogether in the 1940s. “Flesh” colored, almost clear frames were the most popular, followed by white gold metal in the same thickness plastic frames offered.
It wasn’t until after WWII that someone had the novel idea that glasses should follow fashion trends. Plastic could be made in many colors and new shapes. Should a woman choose a dark frame or light frame to match her hair? It was a choice she could make with the variety now available.
1940s glasses took on the shapes that sunglasses were offered in. Eyeglasses were usually lighter than sunglasses with less frame until the late 1940s, when the popular “Harlequin” or “cat eye” put everyone in fashionable glasses all day long.
A larger effort by the eyeglass industry to market these new fashionable glasses increased the use. Read more about 1950s glasses and 50s sunglasses.
Men’s 1940s Glasses
Men’s 1940s glasses were not too different than women’s glasses. Frames were either heavy plastic or very light metal in almost round shapes. Plastic frames usually had a heavier top bar and nose piece with lighter bottom edges. Colors were tortoiseshell, black plastic, or clear plastic such as the ones worn by Groucho Marx.
Rimless glasses were also common. Glasses were either meant to stand out or not be noticeable. Most professionals wore rimless or thin metal glasses with clear frames.
Men’s 1940s Sunglasses
1940s Glasses and Sunglasses Today
Kathy’s original question was about where to buy 1940s sunglasses, either vintage or new. A Google search brings up a lot of options for vintage pairs sold on Etsy and eBay, as well as some retro style sunglasses from multiple online retailers. The trick to picking an appropriate pair is using the above history to find the correct style you want. For the early ’40s and WWII reenactment, a simple wire frame round lens sunglass with smokey grey tint is ideal. For a middle-class woman not working during this time, a more fashionable pair in plastic lenses would be a nice choice. For the later years you could wear Aviator shapes, Harlequins, or early cat-eye shapes. For a beach-side pinup look, definitely wear something silly and colorful!
Deciding between vintage and new is your choice. I love vintage eyewear for the authenticity, but the lenses are often damaged beyond repair. You can, or course, take them to an optical shop to have new lenses put in. Some shops won’t work on vintage frames, others make you sign a release saying if they break during installation then they are not responsible. With a new pair, you are guaranteed to get a working pair at the end, but you have the added bonus of applying a scratch resistant finish (highly recommended).
Here are some good places to find 1940s glasses and sunglasses both vintage and new:
Warby Parker– New prescription eyeglasses and sunglasses. Aviator, plastic frame, round or cat eye shapes. Try on at home. Most are $95 to $150 including prescription lenses. Women’s and men’s styles.
Dead Men’s Spex (UK) – They often have vintage 1940s spectacles, eye glass frames, and sunglasses.
Sunglass Warehouse – They have a few retro styles that are very ’40s. Cheap prices- buy a few!
Glasses.com – Designer brand sunglasses and eyeglasses. Prescription available.
Unique Vintage – Fun colorful sunglasses for the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.
Where else can you find new 1940s style sunglasses? All of these online stores too: