The able-bodied human being remains able-bodied only under certain conditions. You might be unable to continue hearing after a gun is fired too close to your ear. You might be unable to continue walking after trauma to specific parts of your spine. In the second decade of the 20th century, human beings started flying very high into the sky. As the American Aviation Historical Society Journal records, one day in 1920, an American airman named Major R. W. “Shorty” Schroeder flew to an unprecedented 38,180 feet. His eyes froze.
Human eyeballs cannot function when they are frozen, and pilots are not allowed to fly planes when their eyeballs do not function. And the “Opthalmology” chapter in the book Fundamentals of Aerospace Medicine is very long. So, it is almost a matter of historical certainty that aviation and optical medicine would develop in tandem. It is surprising — or perhaps it is just a different and less obvious kind of historical certainty — that the two fields have collaborated to produce not just a product, but a style.
The credit for commissioning “pilot’s glasses” from lens manufacturers Bausch and Lomb is attributed to a Lieutenant John Macready of the Air Service, U.S. Army. He was continuing Schroeder’s work of trying to fly very high into the sky, flying craft driven upward by turbo superchargers. Macready requested that he be provided with glasses that protected his eyes from glare, having suffered from nausea during a trans-Atlantic blimp crossing.
The Bausch and Lomb “Anti-Glare” safety device was patented in 1937. The glasses’ frame was gold-plated, their lenses shaped to vaguely resemble old-style pilots’ goggles. These new glasses repelled ultraviolet and infrared rays, or you could say that the rays were “banned.” Bausch and Lomb trademarked them as Ray-Bans. This model eventually became so visually associated with aviators that the name of the safety device’s wearer became its own.
The style became available to the public as an expensive sporting-goods item. As several media scholars have noted, they probably became a part of the wider consumer consciousness after General Douglas MacArthur was photographed in a pair of the sunglasses when he landed in the Philippines in the 1940s.
The aviator style of sunglasses and eyeglasses has enjoyed a series of renaissances since its invention as a safety device. The MacArthur effect is connected to the 1950s aviator trend among men, which I would guess is down to the style’s association with the new military stakes of postwar American masculinity. The second aviator boom took place within late-1960s counterculture. Maybe that had something to do with activists reclaiming the symbols of 1950s American normativity.
This vogue morphed into a full culture object in the 1970s. Queen’s Freddie Mercury constantly wore aviator sunglasses. As eyeglasses, both in plastic and in metal, aviators took on a ’70s-ness, which almost demands they be surrounded by feathered haircuts. They bespeak a ’70s newscaster’s wide tie and gray suit. They imply Gloria Steinem. They grow almost organically out of the body of a tall thin blonde woman with long hair and a macramé shirt.
When aviators returned to fashion in the 1980s, it was in the form of sunglasses. As a 1987 Fortune article records, Ray-Ban signed a deal in 1982 with a California firm called Unique Product Placement. For $50,000, Ray-Bans would be placed on the noses of actors. Tom Cruise was a key nose in that deal’s consequences for culture. The thick-rimmed Wayfarers he wore in Risky Business (1984) caused that model’s sales to spike. And in 1986, Cruise did the same trick for aviators in Top Gun.
Post-Cruise, aviator sunglasses became a 21st-century “basic” choice for celebrities such as, say, Jennifer Aniston. As eyeglasses, however, they have taken a few different forms. In the 2010s, they connoted a hipster asshole of the Terry Richardson brand. This style is usually plastic-rimmed, perhaps in a color. Remember the shutter shades that Kanye wore in the “Stronger” video? Their origin lies in ’80s hip-hop culture of the Run-DMC school, an interesting vein of aviator history that, as we will see, flows into the latest Instagram-based spectacle trends.
As eyeglasses, aviators have come back in a big way. We know this because in March 2017, the New York Times ran a piece titled “Aviators Return.” In that article, Caroline Tell celebrated the death of “geek chic” frames, a style that had to die in order for metal to be born from the ashes of our faces. Tell cites the aviators of model Kendall Jenner and actress Tracee Ellis Ross, although I’d argue that Elaine Welteroth, erstwhile editor of Teen Vogue, has had the most influence among adults with money to spend.
But among teens, aviators are a social media look. Like crop tops and thick eyebrows and enormous top knots and beautiful asses, metal-framed glasses are a trend that belongs to the “IG baddie.” The look is inflected by what we once called “street style” as a bad metonym for black culture. Tiny sunglasses and perfectly round frames are also a part of this lens trend matrix, but the aviator is its breakout star.
Filters are almost certainly a big part of it. Snapchat has been the pioneer in offering different styles of glasses to virtually place over your face. An August 2017 article on Mud.com listed “Pilot with Flight Goggles” as the third best filter to use if you want to pretend that you are “living an alternate life.” Aviators also feature in the “cop” filter. Websites now exist that sell aviator frames as the “Snapchat filter sunglasses.”
In a strangely recursive move, Snapchat released a pair of actual real-life glasses in 2016. They weren’t aviators, but the Snap glasses suggest a kind of cultural cycle related to vision that touches on IRL trends. They did have a small camera on them.
When I open Instagram on my phone and choose the selfie camera in a story, there is a filter available to me that is signified in its thumbnail by the branches of trees. Press it, and my face is adorned by a pair of aviator glasses and the shadow of tropical leaves. Is this a Vietnam War filter? There’s another that is just a pair of aviator sunglasses. In the lenses you can see a reflection of a highway and a desert. I’m Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. When I choose this filter, the app tells me to tilt my head back, causing the aviators to transform into other styles of sunglasses.
It is odd that the New York Times trend piece on aviators doesn’t mention social media. But then the Times is for people who want to spend grown-up money on objects, not for teenagers who want to experiment with what their faces might look like under otherworldly conditions in their spare time. However, the phenomena must be related.
The causatory relationships between phenomena in the fashion world do not behave like other relationships. They occur almost at a subconscious level for consumers—that is, trends exist in our identity matrix at a point in the mind that is closer to a feeling than a thought. When I was a tween, in the early 2000s, I wanted nothing more than a pair of aviator sunglasses, but I didn’t know why or even think to wonder. A trend lives its life in the symbolic realm. It is more like the sound of a word than the meaning of a word. It is more like a photograph of a thing than the thing itself.
For fashion professionals, I am sure things are different. I’m sure stylists and designers have detailed and esoteric explanations on hand for the reason I love shoes with platform soles, but I do not. It’s like that scene in The Devil Wears Prada with the cerulean sweater. This is why thinking about the material history of trends can be both satisfying and disconcerting. Fashion is a mystery that the body lives inside.
In a cultural history of the lens, the aviator represents the purest example of style. Every object looks a certain way in the world, for people who can see, because light bounces off them and into our optic nerves. But most objects do not birth styles that take on a life independent from the circumstances that shape them. Perhaps the extraordinary fetishization of the aviator style of glasses is all down to World War II and the unfathomable importance of that victory to American superpower.
If that is the case, as I suspect it might be, then Gigi Hadid’s eyeglasses have symbolic DNA in common with dead Nazi soldiers. The spectral experiment that is the Snapchat glasses filter is connected to the brave pilots who pointed their planes at the nothingness in the sky and turbocharged toward it. The material concern of aeronautical safety is an ingredient in the most “immaterial” forms of contemporary identity — the self that we post to social media.
The lens is an object so functional and so close to us that we cannot see around it. But new developments in the aviator glasses trend extend that argument in very, very contemporary ways. The aviators that blossom on Snapchat and Instagram are not even real. They do not sit on the end of our noses—rather, they exist as elements in a mirror that we choose to hold up in front of our faces. They do not clarify our eyesight, but instead change the way we “look.” That breaks new ground in my idea of the “lens” as a crucial metaphor for subjectivity. Our phones return our gaze, and the lens becomes something different: multilayered, less clarifying than obscuring, functionally null, but shiningly new.