Ray-Ban may be hard at work devising a new version of Google Glass, but the eyewear brand is known best for its classic style of sunglasses that first shook up the design world more than 50 years ago.
Though vastly different in style, Ray-Ban’s most distinctive models–the Aviator and the Wayfarer–are both iconic designs that have been replicated by countless other sunglass makers. The popularity of these models has varied slightly over the years as fashion trends have changed, but the design elements have more than stood the test of time.
Nearly 80 years ago, the designers behind Ray-Ban’s Aviator sunglasses had one simple goal: create a pair of sunglasses for pilots that would reduce headaches and nausea from the sun’s glare, without obscuring vision. After some minor adjustments to the first “Anti-Glare” model, introduced in 1936, the shades went on sale to the public as Aviators in 1937 and have been a massively popular consumer product ever since.
Believe it or not, before Ray-Ban introduced the Wayfarer model in 1952, almost all sunglasses had metal frames. Ray-Ban helped pave the way for countless sunglass makers by using acetate (plastic) frames, which they complemented with the distinctive look of trapezoidal lenses and shiny rivets on the front and sides. “Much like bent plywood furniture of the same era, it introduced and popularized a new process and a radically new style,” says Pepin Gelardi, a partner at New York-based product design company Tomorrow Lab. “But the Wayfarer wasn’t just one of the first plastic frames, it also captured this aggressive, almost unsteady characteristic that made them as cool as the American cars built at that time. It became an archetype.”
While the timeless design of the Aviator and Wayfarer models never went out of style, that didn’t keep Ray-Ban from innovating and reimagining sunglasses. In addition to rolling out dozens of new models over the years, the brand introduced photocromic lenses in 1974 that darken depending on light, and folding frames for easier storage in 1989.
One of the reasons Ray-Ban has managed to stay top of mind with consumers has to do with Hollywood culture. Cult films such as Rebel Without a Cause, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Blues Brothers have helped popularize Ray-Ban’s Wayfarer’s, while movies including Top Gun and Taxi Driver have done the same for Aviators.