January 11, 2014

Eyeglass design over time: Open and transparent vs. narrow and opaque (pictures)

Looking over my aunt's 1963 high school yearbook, it struck me how similar the popular styles of eyeglasses are during the Millennial and mid-century periods.

It never hit me before because eyeglasses aren't one of those things that springs to mind when you think of "the look of the '80s." Even after poking around some pictures for reminders, they still don't click, the way you hear an iconic song you haven't heard in forever.

That's because eyeglasses from the '70s and '80s try not to be noticeable. Folks were more afraid of looking nerdy when the primary goal was being cool (part of being people-oriented). Now and during the '50s and early '60s, they enjoyed making a fashion statement out of something geeky (part of being thing-oriented).

Let's take a closer look at what specific features tend to go together during a given zeitgeist, and how that changes over time. There's a good variety of pictures and item measurements at this vintage eyeglass store on Etsy. Then there's this rich collection of old pictures of famous people wearing glasses.

Here's a representative sample of glasses for women, and then men, from the '50s and early '60s (click to enlarge):

Their most defining feature is the tiny height of the rims. Since the width is about the same for any two pairs, the smaller height gives these ones a narrow, almost squinty look. I get the feeling of being looked at suspiciously, as though I'm trying to get into a building and there's someone scrutinizing me through a slit in the door, asking me for the passwoid.

The frames are also fairly thick, particularly the temples (the arm parts). The colors are usually quite dark, though there's the odd beige or light grey pair. And the surface tends to be opaque and reflective. Thickness, darkness, and opaqueness all give them a more solid material presence -- more clearly a gadget that's been grafted onto your face.

Fans of these styles call them "architectural," but to me they seem more mask-like, especially combined with the narrow openings. And they're celebrating the thing-ness of glasses, rather than trying to make them blend organically with the human face.

People in cocooning periods are suspicious of each other on an interpersonal level (institutional trust is distinct, and related to the inequality cycle), and are more thing-oriented. The popular glasses above are just what you'd expect to have been popular during the mid-century.

Turning now to the '80s (glasses from the '70s look similar, but the traits are more pronounced further on):

Glasses were HUGE back then. Typically the height is at least 2", and I found some that were 2 3/8". The ones from the '50s and early '60s were generally at or under 1 1/2", and I found some that were as narrow as 1 1/8". So, glasses became about twice as wide open. It exaggerates the wide-eyed look of someone who already knows you, trusts you, and is devoting their full attention to you.

The frames are also thinner, only somewhat for women's glasses but more so for men's -- the temples that look like 2x4's whacking you upside the head are long gone. The colors are also lighter, either lighter shades of dark colors or new brighter colors like yellow, orange, and red (although they're not very saturated or loud). And the material looks less material -- translucent plastic for thicker frames, and wispy wires for metal frames.

Those features all work toward making the glasses blend quietly into the background rather than stand out or get in the way of the person's face.

The stereotype of '80s design and fashion is that everything was loud and attention-seeking, but here's a clear counter-example. Outgoing people-people don't want to be loud about something so unavoidably nerdy.

With the return toward cocooning as the mainstream form of social behavior, the set of features that was popular over 50 years ago has returned, sometimes quoting the original but usually not paying attention to history. Like-minded groups of people will independently develop similar cultures (in those domains where they are like-minded). Homosexuals are particularly drawn to the nerdy look, since as Peter Pans they don't care at all about being cool.

Finally, to help us remember a rather indistinct style (nothing wrong with that in this case), here are some real-life pictures of people from the late '70s through the early '90s, taken from the Bespectacled Birthday blog.

Christopher Reeve was meant to recall the nerdy Fifties office worker, yet they didn't give him narrow black glasses. That would have made Clark Kent look less trusting and keeping others at arm's length. The way-wide-open contemporary glasses give the character a more open and vulnerable look. It makes him easier to sympathize with, and it heightens the contrast with his more confident and in-charge alter ego.

Carl Sagan, perhaps the closest thing there was to the Nerd Laureate in the '80s, doesn't look very nerdy at all. Unlike the '60s and the 21st century, intellectuals didn't feel like they had something to prove by desperately sporting thick, conspicuous Intellectual Glasses. The wide openings place the rims away from the eyes, where they might distract you, and the rims and temples are so thin that you don't notice them. The large eye spaces also look more understanding than indiscriminately judgmental, always a worry for intellectuals.

That's Charlize Theron as a teenager. The temples are kind of thick, and the color is on the dark side, so they stand out a little bit. But because they're so wide open, they still look inviting rather than distancing. She looks like she'd be eager to talk to boys, not bothered by their presence. Isn't it strange how mature teenagers looked then, compared to 20-somethings today?

The one on the right is Heather Locklear, a rare example of a woman wearing super-thin frames. Not much of a fashion statement, although she has some golden and purple color to liven them up. It's probably the expression she's making for whatever TV show this is from, but she doesn't look as inviting as Charlize Theron. Still, she doesn't look stuck-up or high-maintenance. No-nonsense, maybe, but not catty or bitchy. Those women are long gone too, not just their glasses.

You often hear the '70s and '80s aviator style glasses on men being referred to as serial killer glasses, pedophile glasses, and so on. Here's subway vigilante Bernie Goetz and cat person Stephen King doing their best to prove stereotypes. I don't think the glasses themselves make them look weird. I think the association people make between these glasses and serial killers and pedophiles is that they were both a lot more common back then and are much rarer now.

Perhaps their creeped-out reaction is caused by the disconnect between the traits suggested by the glasses and the individuals wearing them. To me the squinty mask-like glasses look more voyeuristic.

Add eyeglasses to the list of things that used to be unpretentious but are now required to be conspicuous design objects. Time to buy a new old pair.


  1. I mentioned eyeglasses in one of your posts!

    Also, the scientist woman in RoboCop.

  2. I searched and didn't find the one you're talking about. What did you say?

    "the scientist woman in RoboCop."

    Paul Verhoeven knows how to make things just exaggerated enough to work as black humor, but not so much that it's a pile-on. She had huge shoulder pads too.

  3. http://31.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_me3ujjiMDl1qzzzrno1_500.jpg

  4. My Mom had this 1970s sewing book which she got at a yard sale for $1.00. I was looking at the models, and you notice that their jewelry looks different. Women used to wear chokers, even for pearl necklaces, or very long chains, or both at the same time.

    Anyway, the eyeglasses also look different. Big glasses with very thin metal frames. Starting in the 1990s, "lawyer" glasses became popular. The ones you talk about, which are seem to be an inch high with thick frames.

  5. Maddie Ferguson's glasses seem really noticeable to me http://jodyporter.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/maddy-ferguson-twin-peaks.png

    I wonder if that's because they're the writers trying to send a signal out about the character, like Kent's seem noticeable.

    By contrast Jobs' glasses, which seem iconic modern, seem very thin framed and inconspicuous.

    The narrow shape seems like a much better 90s-10s versus 80s distinction.

  6. Maddy's frames are also pretty thin compared to the height and width. They don't form a relatively thick band running around the perimeter. (Area enclosed by outer perimeter, minus area enclosed by inner perimeter, divided by the outer area again, is large.)

    The color is on the light side, like a light russet. And they're more translucent than reflective. They hit you at first, but they're not the kind that you keep noticing, unlike the thicker, darker, and more reflective kinds.

    Sarah Palin is also known for rimless glasses, but like Jobs' they're very tight around her eyes, narrow in height.

    Like I said, the narrowness is the main difference, but the other things do tend to go along with it, just not every last case.

  7. I think one of the causes of cocooning , in addition to falling crime, is higher levels of immigration.

    increased immigration started in the 70s and continued to increase to present time.
    1940- 8.8% of Americans foreign born
    1950- 6.9% of Americans
    1960- 5.4% of Americans
    1970- 4.7% of Americans
    1980- 6.2% of Americans
    1990- 7.9% of Americans
    2000- 11% of Americans
    2010- 13% of Americans

    the rapid increase in the immigrant population since 1970 has resulted in more cocooning, less trust and less crime. This trend will continue for many more years, as 100% of our population growth since 1990 is due to immigration and their children.

  8. "the rapid increase in the immigrant population since 1970 has resulted in more cocooning, less trust and less crime. This trend will continue for many more years, as 100% of our population growth since 1990 is due to immigration and their children."

    Not so sure, as the 70s and 80s were outgoing, high-crime eras. Immigration correlates with inequality, which does not parallel the crime rate.


  9. Immigration shouldn't affect "cocooning" as such. Realistically people will be outgoing or not, but self segregate when they are (all the guilt tripping over this amounting to just about nothing).

    But high levels of migration plus high levels of sociability might mean an "outgoing" population who nevertheless are only outgoing with their co-ethnics. Maybe ethnic gangs and gang warfare and so on, depending on if the ethnicties are competing for the same niche (e.g. Irish and Italians might, Blacks and Whites probably not since they're so much more different).

  10. "But high levels of migration plus high levels of sociability might mean an "outgoing" population who nevertheless are only outgoing with their co-ethnics. Maybe ethnic gangs and gang warfare and so on, depending on if the ethnicties are competing for the same niche (e.g. Irish and Italians might, Blacks and Whites probably not since they're so much more different)."

    That's true. There was ethnic violence in the 80s, when the immigration and crime rates were both high.


  11. off-topic, but Time has a new quize about personality differences between liberals and conservatives(they claim conservatives are more dog people):

    We created this survey by drawing on several sources. Research by Sam Gosling, at the University of Texas, has found that liberals generally score higher than conservatives on the trait of “openness to experience.” They are more likely to seek out new experiences (such as fusion cuisine), choose to watch documentaries, or enjoy art museums. They have less conventional notions of what is proper in a romantic relationship, so solo pornography consumption is OK. Conservatives are more likely to stick with what is familiar, what is tried and true. Hence, they are more likely to use a PC than a Mac and are more likely to stick with that PC’s default browser, Internet Explorer. Conservatives score higher than liberals on the trait of conscientiousness. They are more organized (neat desks), punctual, and self-controlled (rather than emphasizing self-expression).

    We also drew on several surveys from YourMorals.org for data about how values correspond to politics. Conservatives, for example, tend to value respect for authority and group loyalty more than liberals do. Conservatives, therefore, typically show less ambivalence about American history and have a stronger preference for dogs, who are more loyal and obedient than cats. Liberals are more universalist than nationalist; they tend to support the United Nations more, and to wish that the boundaries between countries and the divisions between nations would fade away (as in John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”)

    Read more: Personality Quiz: Can TIME Guess Your Politics? | TIME.com http://science.time.com/2014/01/09/can-time-predict-your-politics/#ixzz2qQlFql3q"


  12. Notice: nothing about disgust / purity / taboo / sacred on the list. Cat people value pets that aren't freakish, warped, or disgusting, and that feeling is a lot stronger than the dog person's desire for loyalty.

    Since the purity / etc. dimension is the one that most distinguishes libs and cons, we don't learn anything new about pet prefs from this poll.

    It'd be more transparent to show what the correlation matrix is. That would tell us how strongly related being a dog person is with each of the separate other things, and whether positively or negatively. (After including more questions about not warping the natural state of creatures, feeling disgusted more easily, etc.)

  13. So either TGGP over-simplified these crucial points when relaying the idea to Haidt ("Dog people -- liberal or conservative? What do the data say?"), or Haidt ducked the question.

  14. Actually, when you take the quiz, one of the questions is "do you have a problem with your partner looking at pornography?". at the end, its shown that liberals are more likely to say they don't care that much.


  15. But upon reading your comment again, you're right that the poll doesn't mention that dogs are messier.


  16. The pornography question doesn't read as one about disgust or corruption.

  17. Personality seems to cause large parts of variation in Haidt's Moral Foundations, leading to the connection between politics, morality and personality http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2044-8295.2011.02016.x/abstract.

    It's simple to see why this is the case, e.g. a high Conscientiousness, low Imagination/Openness person (Conservative) will have a relatively easy time suppressing his desires to perform disgusting or disloyal actions (and will also lack the imagination to question whether his community's standards on disgust or loyalty are really right), so will prize loyalty and purity.

    It also helps explain why Conservative politics privilege self controlled and organized people over people like junkies or homosexuals who lapse in self control (no empathy with failure of the will), which disgust itself doesn't entirely do and why they lack the imagination to spot the ways they get scammed and exploited by rich, corporate/imperialist elites.

    And why Jon Stewart style Liberal politics lack empathy with unimaginative and uncurious people (e.g. mocking redneck stereotypes who are less intellectually curious than their level of intelligence explains), are powerless to deal with the educational inflation bubble and explains Liberal hypocrisy and champagne socialism (where their theory doesn't line up with their actual regulation of their behavior and don't lead to better behavior).

    Probably also might explain the difference between "dog people Conservatives" who agnostic pegs as fairly thoughtless and unfeeling organised strivers and the considered Conservatives agnostic pegs as "cat people" who have a more emotional and thoughtful approach and have come to a "nostalgic" connection to the past through that route.

  18. The 80s immigration level was still low, although growing, compared to the the 40s and 50s.

    In 1990 , when crime was peaking, immigration was just starting to escalate. In 1990 less than 8% of Americans were immigrants verse almost 9% in 1950.
    by 2000 foreign born Americans had grown almost 40% from 1990 levels, to over 11%. Today over 13% of Americans are foreign born.

    In the 80s the number of Immigrants only grew 26%, even though amnesty was granted to many in 1986.

    So the low crime rate correlates with the higher number of foreign born Americans. No surprise, as Blacks continue to have the highest crime rate, while Immigrants tend to have lower crime rates than the native born. The massive immigration from 1990 to 2000 has helped reduce our crime rate, while diluting the % of black Americans.


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