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12Sunglasses are a must-have fashion item in modern society.

In today’s world, and especially on a holiday island like Samui, sunglasses have become an essential accessory. Not only do they offer invaluable eye-protection from the potentially damaging sun’s rays, but they also create an image of social standing and a symbol of status, fashion and wealth.

Different styles have not just become iconic in their own right; they’ve also created social icons by their wearing of them. But sunglasses are not a modern phenomenon. In fact, they have quite a history behind them and they have developed considerably over the years. 

It’s believed that the Roman emperor Nero liked to watch gladiator fights through emeralds. And flat panes of smoky quartz which protected the eyes from glare were used in China in the 12th century, or possibly even earlier. Documents suggest that judges in Chinese courts wore such crystals to conceal their facial expressions whilst questioning witnesses.

Tinted lenses in spectacles, as we recognize them today, were first experimented with by James Ayscough, around 1752. These were not sunglasses but more correctional aids as Ayscough believed that blue or green tinted glass could correct some vision impairments. Protection from the sun’s rays was not a primary concern for him. 

For those of you reading this through your trendy amber and brown tinted glasses, which are extremely popular today, should be aware that such lenses were originally prescribed to sufferers of syphilis in the early 20th century, as sensitivity to light was a symptom. So, if you’re having problems attracting the opposite sex, despite your stylish new sunglasses, then maybe they’ve read this article too. 

It was in the early 1900s when the use of sunglasses became more widespread, and the iconic images and social standing originates from this time as sunglasses were extremely popular amongst the pioneering stars of silent movies.

This was not an attempt to disguise themselves from fans, as many believed, but more because they often had red eyes from the powerful arc lamps that were needed due to the extremely slow speed film used. But this stereotypical image remained long after improvements in film quality had removed such lighting problems.

In 1929, mass-produced affordable sunglasses were introduced to the US by Sam Foster and he began selling them under the name Foster Grant from a Woolworth store. And seven years later, in 1936, filtered polarized sunglasses became available with the ‘Polaroid’ filter, patented by Edwin H. Land.

Sunglasses are a functional addition to your fashion wardrobe as they can improve visual comfort and clarity by protecting the eyes from glare. Polarized sunglasses can reduce glare reflected off shiny surfaces, such as water, which makes them particularly popular with fishermen and sailors.

Sunglasses now tend to offer your eyes increased protection against excessive exposure to light in both its visible and invisible forms. Whereas, in prehistoric times, glasses were designed with narrow slits to protect against the sun’s rays by reducing exposure, rather than intensity.

Most now protect from ultraviolet radiation (UV) which can cause short-term and long-term ocular problems, such as photokeratitis, snow blindness, cataracts and various forms of eye cancer.

Medical experts advise on the importance of wearing sunglasses to protect the eyes from UV and each country has its own standards of protection.

You can’t judge the amount of protection by looking at them. Dark lenses don’t automatically filter out more harmful UV radiation and blue light than light lenses. In fact, inadequate dark lenses can cause more harm than not wearing protection at all, because they encourage the pupil to open wider and therefore allow in more unfiltered radiation. 

In the same way as corrective spectacles, sunglasses also have to meet special requirements when worn for sports. Shatterproof and impact-resistant lenses; a strap or other secure fixing, and nose cushions are all commonly included.

For use with water sports, sunglasses often have increased buoyancy to stop them from sinking when they come off, and they can also have a vent to eliminate fogging.

But, other than for sports and protection and comfort in sunny weather, many people wear them purely as a fashion statement, especially the expensive designer versions available. Like all fashion-related items, different shapes, sizes and colours can come in and out of fashion at different times.

For instance; ‘Aviators’ are a sunglass design with teardrop-shaped lenses and a thin metal frame. The design was first introduced in 1936 by the Ray-Ban company for issue to US military pilots. Aviator-style sunglasses gained popularity in the late 1960s, were in vogue again in the 1980s (thanks to the Tom Cruise film ‘Top Gun’) and they remain fashionable today.

‘Mirror shades’ are sunglasses with a mirrored surface and are an alternative to polarization for UV protection, improving contrast when depth perception is important. The mirrored lens reflects glare to protect the eyes but improves the ability to see contrasts. Different coloured mirrored lenses can expand the range of fashion styles.

Oversized sunglasses have had a resurgence in popularity thanks to designer labels, such as Chanel, Dior, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana, adopting this style. There are many variations, with the ‘Jackie O’s’ and Dior white sunglasses being the most easily recognisable.

Jackie O’s are very large women’s sunglasses which imitate those worn by style icon Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the 1960s. The glasses are still popular and many celebrities wear them to hide from the paparazzi.

‘Tea shades’ are a type of psychedelic art, wire-rim sunglasses that are synonymous with the 1960s. They were often worn for purely aesthetic reasons, with rock stars such as Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, John Lennon, Jerry Garcia, Liam Gallagher and of course Ozzy Osbourne, all wearing them at (and on) one stage or another.

The original tea shade design had medium-sized, round lenses, supported by a thin wire frame. When tea shades became popular in the late 1960s, they often had coloured or mirrored lenses and were sometimes oversized. Although not the most popular design today, they were worn by Seraph in the ‘Matrix’ films and, more recently, Mary-Kate Olsen and pop singer Lady Gaga have been seen wearing them.

The Wayfarer" Ray-Ban ‘Wayfarer’ style is probably the most well known style of sunglasses, which were introduced in 1952. The trapezoidal lenses are wider at the top than the bottom and were famously worn by James Dean. The original plastic frames were black and this design remains very popular today.

So, whether you call them shades, glares, sun-specs, sunnies or sunglasses, the chances are that you own at least one pair. And on Samui, the choices are endless and opticians selling all the well-known designer brands at discount prices are on almost every street, so now’s the time to get that second set and stay cool.


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