Shades of the ‘60s: Sunglasses in All Sizes and Shapes for the Chic

Times Staff Writer

Jack Nicholson wears sunglasses at sunless Laker games. Rock ‘n’ rollers wear sunglasses out dancing after dark. More characters in TV shows and films are wearing sunglasses these days--indoors and out of context.

And at showings of winter clothes in Europe and New York, models swathed to the teeth in cashmeres, tweeds and fur parkas had their eyes dressed up for summer. They wore sunglasses with their winter clothes, for no apparent reason.

These and other inklings of a new sunglasses mania lead many prophets of chic to think that dark goggles may be bigger fashion this year than at any time since the 1960s.


And those who know about that era may recall that everybody in the ‘60s seemed to keep their shades in place. Winter and summer. Indoors and out. Day and night. Even while dancing and at the movies.

Jackie Kennedy was Queen of the Shades in those years. Whether launching ships, shopping or playing touch football in the compound, her eyes were often shielded from the sun (and from the cameras) by her ever-present goggles. Glasses became part of her style and then part of a national craze.

Sixties nostalgia is in this year. And sunglasses may just be a part of it.

Or, if you agree with Mrs. Kennedy’s former White House designer, Oleg Cassini, that “fashion is the best way to read about life,” then perhaps there is more of a message here. Perhaps people have had their fill of wide-eyed candor and are once again ready to hide behind dark, impact-proof plastic.

For whatever reason, the sunglasses business right now is booming. And it doesn’t seem to be just a summer kind of thing. Manufacturers say they detect a change in the kind of business they’re booking. As Michelle Lamy, an L.A. clothing and eye-wear designer, puts it: “Sunglasses always do well for summer in small boutiques and optical shops. But when the major department stores jump in and heavily order expensive glasses, which they’re now doing, we feel a more major trend is in the wind. Sunglasses are again becoming an important fashion accessory.”

But what shap e sunglasses? With prices ranging from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars for optically fine lenses and frames made in Italy or France, consumers are starting to search for styles that are fashion-right. In the ‘60s you were “safe” if you wore the Jackie Kennedy look. In the ‘80s, things are not that simple. In fact, battle lines are already being drawn: Big versus little. Vertical versus horizontal. Classic versus modern. Antique glasses versus new ones.

Margo Willits, an owner of the L. A. Eyeworks shop, one of Melrose Avenue’s trendiest optical boutiques, is not on the fence about size: “Oversize frames are out, as far as we’re concerned,” Willits says. “They obscure a person’s face. It’s like wearing a windshield.”

She and her partners believe in smaller frames that “fit in with the face” and enhance the features. Many of her firm’s designs are reminiscent of glasses from the 1930s through the ‘50s. Some glasses sold in the shop are genuine antiques.

And “the very newest look from Europe is horizontal and asymmetrical,” Willits says, pointing to a narrow slash of glasses that fit the dictionary description of a trapezium. The glasses are indeed horizontal and asymmetrical, and even slightly Martian. They are by Alain Mikli, the Frenchman whose glasses were worn at many of the recent European fashion shows.

OK, so little is in. But so is big. Even Willits admits that “large-size glasses are coming from people like Yves Saint Laurent, Ted Lapidus, Laura Biagiotti,” all of whom are fashion names to contend with.

And Carlo Alberto of Alta Moda, the exclusive U.S. distributor of Gucci eye wear, says bigger is definitely better among yuppies and older elegants.

“About five years ago, Europeans tried to impose small sizes on the American market,” Alberto says. “But the look didn’t take. The only successful small frame was, and is, the Ray-Ban Wayfarer, which mostly appeals to the young.”

Alberto says the square, clunky Wayfarer is a 1950s pop-culture phenomenon.

“It’s a reminder of Buddy Holly and James Dean,” he says. “John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd wore Wayfarers in ‘The Blues Brothers,’ and the glasses were Jack Nicholson’s trademark in ‘Terms of Endearment.’ The rage really exploded when Tom Cruise wore them in ‘Risky Business’ in 1983.

“But today, most Americans want the larger look. Walk down Rodeo Drive or Madison Avenue, and you’ll see bigger glasses on all the Beautiful People.”

Rick Chanin, buyer for Champs sporting-goods stores and for the new Boot Camp shoe and accessory shop in Beverly Center, says selection today has little to do with size.

“It’s exciting--it’s individual.”

Chanin’s Boot Camp Beverly Center shop is stocked with sunglasses displayed as carefully as other accessories, such as watches.

In his sporting-goods stores, however, he says he carries purely “functional glasses. Vuarnets, for instance, are made for skiing, with fantastic glare resistance.”

But some yuppies buy the sports look even if they spend seven days a week at the office. It’s a matter of taste, Chanin says. And maybe a matter of what they’ve seen on TV and in the movies.

After Arnold Schwarzenegger wore wraparound Gargoyle glasses in “The Terminator” and Clint Eastwood wore them in “Sudden Impact,” there was a noticeable surge in Gargoyle business.