Aviator sunglasses are an iconic style, giving an air of retro-American cool to men and women of all ages. From their military inception in the 1930s to their booming counterculture popularity in the ’60s and ’70s to their scene-stealing appearances throughout Top Gun, the large, mirrored glasses have proven timelessly fresh over the decades, and continue on as a popular style today.
Curious as to how these frames moved from the faces of WWII fighter pilots to the shelves of nearly every sunglass retailer around the world? We map the style’s trajectory throughout the decades and point out defining moments that helped these glasses take off as a staple of the modern wardrobe.
1930s and ’40s — Pre-WWII and post-WWII
In the 1930’s, sunglasses were barely on the radar. Tinted glasses had appeared here and there throughout history, but their uses were generally medical or special-case, and they certainly were not popular amongst the masses. But the advent of aviation and its use in military procedures changed everything. Bausch & Lomb invented large, dark, mirror-lensed “field glasses” — the earliest aviators — to help military pilots deal with the eye strain and glare incurred during high-altitude flights.
The style exploded to national consciousness when images of General Douglas MacArthur’s endeavors in the Philippines circulated on the national news circuit. The General cut an iconic and imposing figure with his hat, sunglasses, and corncob pipe, and the public began calling the glasses “aviators,” in reference to their use among pilots in the forces. When the boys came home, so did their sunglasses, and popular movie stars of the day started incorporating them into their looks to convey a tough, self-sufficient, and mysterious image (James Dean, we’re looking at you). Commercial manufacturers responded and the style exploded into the mainstream.
1960s and ’70s — Counterculture Cool
As large factions of the youth rebelled against the Vietnam War draft, and the war in general, they adopted a distinct style that confronted the disciplined, clean-cut style associated with conservative military values. Hair got longer, beards and mustaches abounded, clothes got looser, less tailored, and more bohemian, and the hippie subculture grew increasingly visible among members of the Baby Boomer generation. And while nearly every sartorial choice seemed to directly confront the military aesthetic of the status quo, there was one item the two opposing forces seemed to share an affinity for aviator sunglasses.
Unlike previous generations, the “cool kids” of the era wore their aviators in a decidedly subversive manner. Hunter S. Thompson’s were tinted a psychedelic yellow, Peter Fonda’s were warped and elongated in Easy Rider, and Gloria Steinem’s confronted the style’s “macho” aesthetic as she rose to prominence as a leader of the feminist movement — not to mention the Vietnam vets who incorporated theirs into their civilian wardrobe after service. Aviators were not only steely and strong as in previous generations, but they were also a statement of resistance.
1980s — Top Gun
As the Vietnam War ended and protest rock transitioned into disco beats and synthesizers, aviators faded a bit into the background. But it wouldn’t be long before they made a comeback in a very big way. Enter Top Gun, the 1986 film that put Tom Cruise on the map, and brought us the embodiment of the term “maverick.” Aviators played a huge role in defining the aesthetics of the film, appearing throughout the trials, tribulations, and epic beach volleyball games of Maverick, Goose, Iceman, and the rest of the gang. The style of the film was highly influential, and aviators exploded onto the next generation’s sartorial scene in a very big way and remain just as popular today.
Whether protecting the eyes of those who protect and serve us, challenging cultural norms, portraying authenticity and self-sufficiency, or simply looking really cool, aviator sunglasses evoke timeless confidence, competence, and independence amongst all who wear them. Eagle Eyes takes the practicality and aesthetic value of the style one step further, incorporating NASA-optic blue light blocking technology into every pair. Not only are our aviators stylish and comfortable, but they also are polarized, block harmful blue light and UV light and increase clarity and precision to protect your vision in every glance. Check out our full suite of aviator sunglasses styles to start unleashing your inner maverick.