Aviator sunglasses may be fashionable, statement-making eyewear in 2017, but this popular shape has been on the scene since 1936. The teardrop-shaped sunglasses were originally developed for use by US Air Force pilots. Since then, they have made countless appearances in movies, in celebrity wardrobes, and on the runway. The classic ‘pilot-style’ aviator frames seem to land on the ‘top trends’ lists more often than not. When did aviator sunglasses become so popular?

Aviator Sunglasses in History

Bausch & Lomb developed the original aviator-style sunglasses as an alternative to flight goggles that couldn’t perform as the job required. Flight capabilities were advancing rapidly while the pilots’ gear stalled. The sunglasses Bausch & Lomb created wouldn’t fog up like goggles, offered a comfortable, more stylish fit, and the large shape and dark or mirrored lenses blocked more light to better protect pilots’ eyes. Originally called ‘Anti-Glares,’ they were branded ‘Ray-Ban’ upon their release since they sought to ‘ban’ the harsh ‘rays’ from the sun.

General Douglas MacArthur, 1944.

Ray-Ban aviators became standard military issue during World War II and became famous after photos surfaced showing General Douglas MacArthur wearing his.

The image became the go-to ‘wartime’ look in Hollywood. After the war, the military style became popular among both private and commercial pilots, police officers, and sportsmen due to their utility and performance.

The thin, wire-framed sunglasses evolved through the years as makers began to put their own spin on the style. Randolph Engineering took over the military contract in the 1980s, and countless designer brands began to release their own aviators. Thick plastic frames and shield-style aviators began to appear, as did tinted lenses and various frame finishes. The 1970s brought feminine styling to the rugged military look using softer colors and rhinestones. This fresh approach gave the large, tough frames a unisex appeal.

Aviator Sunglasses in Pop Culture

The aviator style’s rose in popularity as it appeared in more and more films throughout the decades. Beginning in the 1950s, Ray-Ban paid to place aviator sunglasses in movies and the trend stuck. Military and police films drove the popularity of the style, while celebrities favored the look on stage and in public. Elvis wore a flashy version of the oversized frames in the 70s, and Michael Jackson rocketed thick shield aviators into popularity during the 80s.

Robert De Niro donned an updated square version of aviators in Taxi Driver, which gave the style a boost. Sales leapt a shocking 40% after Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer wore aviator sunglasses in  Top Gun.

Hollywood continued to feature aviators on screen year after year. Cobra intimidated in a pair of outdoorsman aviators, Johnny Depp’s Raoul Duke showed off Ray-Ban shooter aviators in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Bradley Cooper’s character counted on classic Ray-Ban aviators to shield his eyes from the brutal daylight in The Hangover.

This iconic style seems to be in the middle of yet another resurgence of popularity. Maui Jim, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, and Gucci are among the countless designer labels that have released their own aviator sunglasses. It’s a chic, high-fashion staple on both the runway and red carpet, yet retains its rugged, tough image. While Tom Cruise wears a pair of Randolph Engineering aviators in the recent crime film American Made, fashionistas and frenzied dressers grab their aviator sunnies before heading out on the town. After 80 years , the style’s popularity shows no sign of slowing down. With a decades-long run, maybe the question should be, were aviator sunglasses ever not popular?

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