2018’s Biggest Trend Started in the 1890s

Tiny sunglasses came from the 90s...the 1890s, that is.

by Alex Ronan
Nov 28 2018, 9:54pm

Since Balenciaga’s runway show heralded the return of tiny sunglasses in 2016, shades have been shrinking with each passing month. Tom Valenza, a second-generation optometrist, is thrilled. Orders for his online eyewear store, Historic Eyewear Company, have always come from a smattering of different directions, including civil war reenactors, mall Santas, the Hamilton casting director, Old West aficionados, and people with bad vision who hate adjustable nose pads. “Keeping History In Sight” is his slogan and, along with his wife, he makes glasses based on antique pairs he’s been collecting for decades, including tinted framed sunglasses that wouldn’t look out of place at Coachella or on a catwalk. He’s now hoping he might get more celebrity and fashion-influenced customers.

“Not that I follow this stuff, but I did see this picture of Kim Kardashian and she had on a very small pair,” Valenza told me. “We sell a pair that’s pretty similar”—the Large Oval frames, available for $209.95 with tinted lenses.

For media outlets chronicling the tiny sunglasses of A-listers walking from lobbied buildings into waiting SUVs and eyewear companies spitting out small frames, the historical origin of said glasses has been placed squarely in the 1990s, from which there's been a resurgence of Matrix-inspired style. Turns out, we might be a century off.

“If you're talking about colored lenses, you can go back centuries,” said Alan McBrayer, a former financier who has spent most of his time post-retirement researching historic eyewear as the former president of the Ocular Heritage Society. “But as far as wearing them as a fashion statement, that really didn't start until around 1885 or so, becoming increasingly popular in the ’90s and more so through the early twentieth century.” McBrayer explained that what were later deemed sunglasses were first called scenery spectacles, as in, frames that would improve views in bright outdoor light. They came in arresting colors like turquoise and emerald green. Advertisements recommended scenery spectacles, and later sunglasses, for outdoor leisure activities like boating, “autoing,” and visiting the beach.

“I think minimizing the profile was a way to minimize their presence at a time when sunglasses were quite new,” said Adam Irish, the owner of Old As Adam, an antique and vintage haberdashery store in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “There was much more emphasis on utility versus fashion in eyewear at the time.” Ironically, today’s tiny frames are viewed as hardly functional, and purely fashion. Though Irish describes himself as “living under a rock,” he too has heard that small sunglasses were trending, information that came from a Ralph Lauren buyer he works with.

The biggest (and strangest) reason frames were so small has to do with the size of their human wearers. “At the time of the American Civil War, the average man was about five foot six and a 135 pounds,” Valenza told me. “For better and worse, we’re a lot bigger now.” Valenza retired from his optometry practice and started Historic Eyewear in 2010, after noticing that reenactors often had to resort to the wrong style glasses, probably because they couldn’t really fit antique specimens on their faces. “It's enough to keep me keep me busy a couple of days a week and then allow me enough free time where I can be lazy,” he said. The company has sold about 5,000 pairs in the past eight years, including sunglasses.

“For better and worse, we’re a lot bigger now.”

“I don’t think they can get any smaller,” Barneys New York Fashion Director Marina Larroude told GARAGE in April about the recent rise of tiny sunglasses. In a sense, she’s right. Most frames Historic Eyewear offers are a bit larger than the original antiques they’re based on. Plus, as Valenza explained, today’s machines aren’t equipped to cut lenses as tiny as antique ones, so lenses in historically accurate small sizes would need to be hand cut.

With micro-frames dotting many a famous face, tiny sunglasses emerged as one of 2018’s most enduring trends. But recent celeb sightings suggest that the pendulum is swinging back toward normal-sized and even jumbo sunglasses. As the latest tiny sunglasses era comes to a close, at least we have an answer to the question that’s been plaguing us all: can they really get any smaller? The answer is a resounding yes—yes they can, yes they have, and yes, maybe one day they will again.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this story misidentified the last name of the optometrist who owns Historic Eyewear Company. It is Tom Valenza, not Tom Whelan.

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