From Presidents to movie stars, rock stars to artists, fashion designers to runway models, there’s not a generation alive that can’t remember owning (or wanting to own) a pair of these iconic sunglasses.
Few sunglasses have occupied such a storied place in American culture and history as Ray Bans.
While Ray Bans now can be seen on the next generation of Hollywood style setters, the famed sunglasses had a much more practical and humble beginning.
The Army was looking for a sunglass to protect aviators from the damaging rays of the sun, but also a sunglass that would look elegant on the dashing airman of the day.
Founded in 1937 by Bausch & Lomb, the first Ray Ban sunglasses were created for the U.S. Army Air Corp.
On May 7, 1937 Bausch & Lomb officially took out the patent on the Ray Ban aviator sunglass.
The first sunglass to incorporate an anti-glare lens, the metal frame was extremely lightweight and made from gold-plated metal with two green lenses that filtered out UV rays.
The U.S. Army Air Corps pilots instantly took to the sunglasses, earning Ray-Bans the moniker “Aviator Glasses” — a term which now describes all sunglasses with designs that are similar to the original Ray-Ban.
The Ray-Ban aviator achieved broader popularity during WWII, when General Douglas MacArthur was photographed in Ray-Ban aviator glasses landing on the beach in the Philippines.
From their pragmatic beginnings offering airman protection from the sun, Ray-Bans quickly became part of American fashion and popular culture when, in 1952, Ray Ban broke from traditional metal frames and created hard plastic frame called “The Ray-Ban Wayfarer.”
Now considered a revolutionary moment in eyewear design, the Wayfarer quickly gained popularity among both the fringe and the well-heeled — crossing socio-economic and cultural borders — and appealing to a mass market that included debutantes and beatniks.
Ironically, the original Wayfarers were intended to be marketed to men … until women fell in love with the sleek, shiny design that seemed to flatter any shape of face.
Soon the sunglasses began to turn up on everyone from Presidents and fashionable women to folk musicians and East Village Hipsters. Wayfarers were got a PR boost in when Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly practically lived in her Wayfarers in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Throughout the 50s and 60s, Ray Ban Wayfarers were the sunglass of choice for everyone from Bob Dylan, to Andy Warhol, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Roy Orbison, John Lennon and countless average American teenagers who just wanted to look cool on the beach.
Ray-Bans popularity waned in the Seventies as the disco era ushered in more extravagent eyewear, and designers like Dior and Yves St. Laurent entered the eyewear market.
In the mid-70s, Ray-Ban introduced a line of “disco” inspired sunglasses in the mid-seventies, but it fell flat. However, a resurgence in popularity was just around the corner.
In 1982, Ray-Ban appeared to be on the cusp of a revival. Their sunglasses made a not-so-subtle appearance on John Belushi and Dan Akroyd in the The Blues Brothers movie. Despite wearing Ray Bans for nearly all of the movie (Belushi actually only removes them once — when Carrie Fisher has a rocket launcher aimed at him), sales were still a paltry 18,000 pairs in 1980.
That all changed in 1982 when Ray-Ban signed a $50,000 a year contract to place Ray-Bans in movies and TV shows. Between 1982 and 1987, Ray-Ban had placed their sunglasses in more than 60 movies and television shows.
The investment paid off when Ray-Ban received their first big return thanks to Tom Cruise donning the classic Wayfarer in the 1983 coming-of-age movie Risky Business.
Suddenly, Ray-Bans were cool again and the company could hardly keep its Wayfarers in stock.
In 1983, the company sold an amazing 360,000 pairs of the sunglasses. In the coming years, Ray-Bans would appear in a series of 80s hits, including Miami Vice, Moonlighting, and The Breakfast Club. Sales reached 1.5 million.
But Hollywood wasn’t the only place that Ray-Ban took hold.
In the Eighties, Ray-Bans and Ray-Ban Wayfarers could be seen on everyone from Madonna to Michael Jackson, Elvis Costello, Morrissey, The Ramones, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, members of U2, and other celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Vogue-Editor (and “The Devil Wears Prada” muse) Anna Wintour.
Ray-Ban was back with a vengence.
By the 1990s, Ray-Ban once again faced a slump as Grunge ditched the trends of the 80s and wrap-around sunglasses from manufacturers like Oakley became in-vogue. The company tried to kick-start sales by updating the frame’s styling, but again they fell flat.”
In 2007, Ray-Ban re-introduced the original Ray-Ban Wayfarer design, but expanded the color options beyond the traditional palette to include patterns like checks and camouflage and colors like navy, white, turquoise, red, and blue.
They also created a line of multi-colored Wayfarer frames that combined colors like gold on black, white on black and red on tortoise-shell.
The strategy worked, and once again, Ray-Ban and Ray-Ban Wayfarers seemed to stare you in the face every time you opened a fashion magazine or a copy of People.
After a 10 year hiatus, Ray-Ban was cool again and even the original Aviator-style, longtime associated with cops and pilots, began showing up on celebrities.
As the Ray-Band revival took hold, other designer eyewear manufacturers took notice and tried to rush out their versions of the classic aviator and Wayfarer.
While their efforts brought a clearly retro-flair to 2009 eyewear, the real thing that was started back in 1937 and epitomizes the classic sunglass style persists.
While styles come and go … Ray-Ban never stays gone for very long.