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The History of Ray-Ban Aviator Sunglasses
Image credit: Maddie San Martin

They Were Developed to Solve a Problem

Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses, often simply referred to as “Ray-Bans,” are a true American classic, and can be seen on everyone from your neighbor to your favorite celebrity. However, you might be surprised at the history behind them! The story starts with John Macready, an American pilot. During a flight in 1920, one of Macready’s fellow test pilots, Shorty Schroeder, broke the 33,000-ft barrier in his biplane. Schroeder was wearing fur-lined goggles, which were standard gear for pilots at the time, but the goggles were known for not performing well. Schroeder’s fogged up and he ripped them off mid-flight, causing his eyes to freeze over. As Macready helped pull Schroeder out of the plane, he realized that a solution was needed. Macready contacted Bausch & Lomb, an existing American company that specialized in eye health products, and worked with them to create the world’s first aviator sunglasses: Ray-Ban. The effort was helped along by additional reports from many US Air Force pilots, who explained that the blinding glare of the sun at high altitudes was affecting visibility, giving them headaches, and causing altitude sickness.

They Were Originally Made for Pilots

Ray-Ban sunglasses were created to address these problems. The sunglasses were officially conceived in the 1930s and developed under the name Ray-Ban because they were literally created to “ban rays” from the eyes of pilots. However, Ray-Ban sunglasses weren’t just for pilots. In 1937, they went on sale to the public. The earliest commercially available version of the now-iconic sunglasses featured green lenses for cutting out glare, a plastic frame, and the now-iconic teardrop shape, which was chosen to mimic pilot goggles. In 1938, the design was updated to feature a metal frame and the product was rebranded as the Ray-Ban Aviator. Due to their effective glare control, the sunglasses quickly gained popularity among outdoor enthusiasts. This led Ray-Ban to introduce new models tailored to these activities, including the Ray-Ban Shooter and the Ray-Ban Outdoorsman.

They Were Popularized by the Military

During World War II, American Air Force pilots continued to use Ray-Ban Aviators in flight. To make the sunglasses even more effective, a gradient mirror lens was introduced. It featured a special coating on the upper part for glare protection but had an uncoated lower lens to make it easier for pilots to read the plane’s instrument panel. While there are many well-known photographs of military personnel wearing Ray-Ban Aviators in the 1940s, none are more iconic than the shots of General Douglas MacArthur landing on a beach in the Philippines wearing them. Since civilian fashion trends frequently sought to replicate military style at the time, General MacArthur is credited with giving Ray-Ban Aviators a significant popularity boost.

Hollywood Made Them Iconic

In the subsequent years, Ray-Ban sunglasses became even more popular. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, attention was diverted from the Ray-Ban Aviator to the brand-new Ray-Ban Wayfarer model, which debuted in 1952. Notable celebrities who donned a pair included Bob Dylan, James Dean (who wore them in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause), and Audrey Hepburn (who wore a pair in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961). Because Hollywood had an ever-growing impact on what people wore in postwar society, the sunglasses became increasingly popular with the public. Ray-Ban further expanded their offerings, including styles made just for women. While some of these newer styles (particularly the Wayfarer) became iconic in their own right, Ray-Ban Aviators have remained extremely relevant since their debut in 1937. In fact, the Ray-Ban Aviator made quite the comeback in the 1970s and 1980s. In the ’70s, many rock stars began wearing Aviators – a trend that still continues today. In 1984, Michael Jackson attended the Grammys wearing a pair. And a few years later, Tom Cruise famously wore them as a fighter pilot in Top Gun (1986), causing a significant boost in Aviator sales. Today, over 75 years since they first debuted as the solution to pilots’ problems, Ray-Ban Aviators are still considered iconic and continue to exude a uniquely cool appeal.

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