douglas macarthur history aviator sunglasses

The History of Aviator Sunglasses

When you think of the aviator style sunglass, what comes to mind? For many of us we probably think of Tom Cruise in Top Gun, or more recently, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. Aviator sunglasses have certainly become a staple eyewear for many of Hollywood’s elite on the silver screen, but the aviator itself actually has quite the interesting military background. Let’s look back at the history of aviators to see how this style of sunglasses became one of the most iconic ever.

An aviator-type safety eyewear can be traced back to as early as the Victorian era for cyclists. But it wasn’t until 1935 when the US military designed and contracted the U.S. Army Air Corps D-1 sunglasses made by American Optical that the frame really began to take shape. Through the 1930s, the style would become a luxury for those of wealth. More affluent sportsmen, fishermen, and hunters would use the style to protect their vision while sporting. But the aviator title that we know and love today wouldn’t become a household name until World War II when renowned General Douglas MacArthur wore the frames as he landed on a beach in the Philippines.

This historic moment was caught on camera and widely distributed among the American press at a time when photojournalism was just beginning to transform the way Americans got their news. The aviator frame at this time was intended for practicality due to its advanced properties: a teardrop shape lens, plastic nose pads, prominent brow bar and a flexible cable temple. (Fun fact: The “teardrop” shape was ideal for Air Force pilots who had to constantly look down at their instrument panel while in flight.) Despite being designed for utility, MacArthur wearing the sunglasses on the beach became a defining image of the Second World War. And since everything military was in fashion around this time, it didn’t take long for the aviator to become popular among civilians.

While the company Bausch & Lomb had already worked with the US Army Air in the past and had released an aviator style that went on sale to the public in 1937, the “aviator” name still hadn’t been coined. But by the end of World War II, the military had pretty much solidified the aviator in the public eye.

Even though Bausch & Lomb was one of the contractors making frames and lenses for the US Army Air Corps, they used the name Ray-Ban to market the aviators to civilians (which Ray-Ban remained under until 1999). Meanwhile, Hollywood picked up on the style and ran with it. Starting with Marlon Brando’s 1951 film The Wild One and all the way to 1986 when what came out? That’s right, Tom Cruise’s smash hit Top Gun.

Fast forward to today and you’ll see no shortage of public figures and Hollywood celebrities sporting the aviator. Its classic design has proved itself to be a fixture in American military history and pop culture. And with its iconic history and unmistakable style, there’s no doubt that the aviator is one of the most iconic sunglasses to date and that it will only continue to influence fashion trends in the future.