When did the Space Age begin? In terms of astronomy, you can nail it down to 1957, when the Russians hurled a 183-pound polished sphere about the size of a beach ball away from Earth and into its orbit. Sputnik 1, the earth’s first artificial satellite, sparked a race to the cosmos between the United States and its Cold War adversary. NASA was established a year later, and in 1969 the US secured the crowning achievement by putting the first man on the moon. This period was a boon for technology and pushing the limits of humanity. But if you look at design, you’ll see America’s obsession with space predates these remarkable achievements.
Despite fears of the cold war, which you can see in the Atomic Age design, Space Age design conveyed a sense of optimism for the future throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. Tailfins imagined for rocket ships found their way onto cars like the Cadillac Eldorado and Chevy Bel Air. Googie architecture—which incorporates acute angles, cantilevers, tailfins, boomerangs, and other cut out designs—became ubiquitous in restaurants, coffee shops, motels, and gas stations, as well as their accompanying signage. Picture the iconic Las Vegas sign. That’s Googie.
Established in 1936, Ray-Ban had made its name by designing sunglasses specifically for the Army. A US Army colonel named John A. Macready was concerned about pilots’ goggles fogging up and failing to filter out the bright hues of white and blue in the skies. He worked with Bausch & Lomb, the original parent company of Ray Ban, to create glasses that would reduce glare and resist the forces of impact. They went on sale to the general public in 1938, a product perfect for an era marred by war and in which patriotism and deference to authority were paramount.
In 1952, designer Raymond Stegeman shifted the companies eyes to the future with the Wayfarer. They were the first sunglasses to be made of plastic, and its lines were a reference to the iconic Cadillac tailfins. Another point of reference was the Eames Chair, another classic design born of the era. According to design critic Stephen Bayley, the “distinctive trapezoidal frame spoke a non-verbal language that hinted at unstable dangerousness, but one nicely tempered by the sturdy arms which, according to the advertising, gave the frames a ‘masculine look.””
“They had never seen anything like that before. So it became this sort of style association as well as the functional element,” says Anjali Shirke, Ray-Ban’s brand director in North America. “I think Ray-Ban has made that transition from jumping from military function to pop culture fashion.”
The sleek frames screamed rebellion, a fitting accessory for James Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause. JFK, the youngest president ever elected, became well known for a strikingly similar silhouette, as did Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The erroneous attribution to Ray-Ban was a boon for the company, as they’d become the most popular shades of the era. Pioneers including Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, and Muhammad Ali all donning the real thing.
The ‘70s marked a downturn for the style, but Ray-Ban set out to revive its signature shades with the power of product placement. In 1982, the company inked a $50,000-per-year deal with Unique Product Placement to get Wayfarers in movies and in television. A year later, they were on the face of Tom Cruise in Risky Business. While doing an admission interview for Princeton during the middle of a party, Cruise’s character pulled out a pair of Wayfarers before delivering the line, “Sometimes you’ve got to say what the fuck,” before suavely lighting up a cigarette. A friend asks him how it’s going, and he stands up with a big dumb smile, proudly announcing, “Looks like University of Illinois.”
This was when Robert Verdi, the TV personality and style expert known for wearing sunglasses on top of his head, first took notice.
“I think when I was in high school, Tom Cruise wore them in Risky Business, and I think that was the first foray where I really thought about how cool they were, because I think for all guys, regardless of sexual proclivity, Tom at the time was so cool and everyone wanted a little piece of him. This was a very affordable piece that you could bring in your life.”
To learn more about the Ray-Ban Wayfarer’s status as the original clout goggles, listen to the rest of Why It’s Cool.