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The March issue of Vogue drew my attention to one fashion phenomenon that showed up on page after page of advertising and was featured in at least two of the magazine's articles.

"What is it," I found myself asking, "with Americans and their sunglasses?"

Some will tell us, "They're purely pragmatic. We need them. They keep the sun from our eyes." "Oh naïve one," I would reply. "Then why do the designers flaunt their logos on the lens or on the frames of the glasses? Why are models featured wearing them on catwalks indoors? Why does the latest ad from Dolce & Gabbana show us a group of twenty-somethings, all in sunglasses, at what appears to be a beach house bonfire at night?" Indeed, I have been to many a nightclub in Las Vegas, and what are the hottees wearing? Sunglasses.

Of course, many of the models are featured wearing sunglasses during the day outside, but the seemingly infinite variety of lenses and frames shows us that sunglasses are far more than merely functional.

When did it start, this American obsession with enigmatic eyewear? My bet is that the intrigue began in the 1960s with such iconic figures as Jackie, Audrey, and Peter.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy became the thirty-fifth president of the United States and brought his beautiful and fashionable wife to live with him in the White House. What a change the handsome Kennedys brought to Pennsylvania Avenue now used to the shriveled Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife Mamie. American women everywhere wanted to mimic the young Jacqueline who was featured on the cover of magazines from coast to coast. As she attended outdoor events or walked across an airstrip or, after her husband was assassinated and she married the Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, floated on a yacht in the Mediterranean, Jackie always wore her enormous sunglasses. Americans began to associate these shades with power, wealth, excitement, and the jet set lifestyle replete with skiing vacations in the Alps and sunbathing on the Riviera.

The same year that Jackie moved into the White House, 1961, Paramount Pictures released the film adaptation of Truman Capote's 1958 novel Breakfast at Tiffany's. Audrey Hepburn, cast as the film's leading lady Holly Golightly, was delicious in her simple gowns, broad brimmed hats, strands of pearls, diamond tiaras, and, just like Jackie, enormous sunglasses. Holly's sexual freedom and carefree attitude added those very associations to the connotations already accruing around that coveted fashion accessory.

By the end of the decade, 1969, the low budget, independent film Easy Rider further solidified sunglasses as symbols of the new morality. Riding east from Los Angeles across the country on his Harley-Davidson chopper, Peter Fonda, as Wyatt, always wears sunglasses in his search for the American of lost youthful ideals. Peter Fonda, in addition to being tall, tan, and handsome, embodies the anti-establishment lover of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

By the time Tom Cruise, as Joel Goodson, slides on his shades in Risky Business (1983), we know full well the symbolic import of that action. Enjoying the rewards of prostitution, both fiscally and otherwise, Joel rejects the obsequious pandering he is taught it takes to succeed in school, in business, and with women. Ironically, that wild rebellion guarantees his success in all three. Indeed, that film set off a marketer's dream as thousands of teenage and college aged young men bought the exact same Ray-ban frames that Tom wore.

If eyes are the windows to the soul, then sunglasses block entrance into that dark, private place. They speak to us simultaneously and sometimes even paradoxically of wild rebellion, cool indifference, wealth and power, glamour and freedom. As such, they represent many of the characteristics that Americans admire most. To put on sunglasses as an American is not simply to protect the eyes then, it is to reaffirm many of those values inherent to the American dream.

April 2002

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