A menswear icon is a staple of the male wardrobe that has held this position over generations, but Hollywood can certainly be helpful in winning it this accolade. Perhaps no accessory has been reborn with more impact thanks to an appearance in a movie than Ray-Ban Aviators. In 1986’s Top Gun student fighter pilots played by Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer competed to be best in their class. Their clothes may have provided limited opportunities for imitation – they wore flying suits for much of the film – but their Aviator sunglasses sparked massive worldwide sales.
Aviators have appeared in other fi lms before and since: James Stewart wore a similar style in The Spirit of St Louis (1956), about Charles Lindbergh’s pioneering trans-Atlantic fl ight; Peter Fonda wore them in Easy Rider (1969); and they have made appearances in several later period pieces, among them 13 Days (2000), Almost Famous (2000) and Pearl Harbor (2001). But it was the machismo of Top Gun – a perfect vehicle for the brash spirit of the 1980s – that made them not only a classic, but also what is reputed to be the world’s bestselling style of sunglasses.
Fashion may have taken note of the style because of the movie, but the film’s costume designers did so for its authenticity. It was worn by the cast of Top Gun precisely because it was what fghter pilots wore, and still wear. The style was launched in 1929 after General MacCready of the United States military commissioned a manufacturer to design eye protection for United States Air Force pilots that would offer a clear field of vision, and reduce glare from the sun – which was causing headaches – and the effects of ultraviolet and infrared radiation on flyers’ eyes. The commission was effectively responsible for the
Ray-Ban company being established. In 1935 the military designated the style it helped to create as the Type D-1; the first time Aviators went on sale to the public was in 1936, when Ray-Ban was formed.
The original model had a plastic frame, so that no metal touched the faces of the ground crew working in subzero conditions (although it was later replaced by a gold-coloured metal one) and an antiglare lens in a distinctive green colour. This lens was a characteristic, oversized, side-on teardrop shape, much like that of the goggles already in service. Because the lenses came low over the cheeks to protect the entire eye socket, they were said to leave pilots with a Ray-Ban tan. Nevertheless, the style was embraced by naval flyers especially, and even came to be a mark of distinction. US army and air force pilots typically preferred a smaller, squarer style by American Optical, which was introduced in 1958; the glasses could be easily removed or put on while a helmet was worn. Given the intimate association between the aviator style and combat flying, it is ironic that fighter and bomber pilots rarely wore only sunglasses until well after the Second World War. Goggles, sometimes tinted, were worn until the introduction of helmets with drop-down visors during the 1950s, and the early sunglasses were designed to accommodate them. Indeed, the military specification often referred to sunglasses as a category of goggle. It was not until 1941 that D-1 goggles were offi cially replaced by what were at last
referred to as ‘Glasses, Flying, Sun, Rose Smoke, Type 2’.
‘Icons of Men’s Style’ by Josh Sims is out on Laurence King Publishing
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