Vintage Sunglasses as Modernist Sculpture
We talk about vintage eyewear on Thursdays…
For some reason I looked up Ray Ban Wayfarers in Wikipedia. I was confronted with a gigantic entry that begins with this sentence: “Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses have been manufactured by Ray-Ban since 1956, when their design was a revolutionary break from the metal eyewear of the past”.
The Wayfarer was actually a pretty pedestrian piece of design. Almost every manufacturer in the U.S. was making something more or less the same.
The coolest piece of eyewear design from the 1950s is being sported by Lightnin’ Hopkins here:
I sometimes call them “Roy Orbison Sunglasses” as a convenience. I have no idea what the original was called or who made it. My guess is it was French but I’ve seen versions made in the U.S., Italy and even Mexico. Many deadstock versions I’ve seen are unmarked which further muddies the waters. Foster Grant made a version for kids into the late 1960s. They called it the “Major Leaguer”.
This frame is a piece of modernist sculpture. It’s Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal, only it probably preceded this building by nearly a decade.
The fact that this shape and what it represented was such a radical counterpoint to Hopkins, his music and what they represented – yet fits his face so perfectly – makes the portrait weirdly compelling. The hard light of the camera’s flash, combined with the ghostly shadowplay behind him – better suited to a crime scene photo than a portrait – adds an element of eeriness.
As you may know, Buddy Holly also favored this shape and it was also a tremendous inspiration to me.
But we’ll talk about that later. Eyewear was as integral a part of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ persona as anyone I can think of – he was never photographed without sunglasses. Nobody ever seems to remember. Today let us salute him.