Eyewear in modern times has become a sort of fashion statement, an common accessory that brings with each pair a unique style. But at their core, glasses are meant to address a vision disability, not just add to your aesthetic. How then did eyeglasses transcend from their medical purpose and the stigma around disability to become an item of fashion?
Glasses were invented in the late 13th century in Italy, but for centuries they were seen as unfashionable and stigmatized with the associated disability. They were only for the elderly or physically weak. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that some of the negative connotations were lessened as popular figures such as Theodore Roosevelt or comedian Harold Lloyd were in the public eye with their glasses. But even then, glasses were still categorized as a “medical appliances” in the 1930s with the stipulation that they be minimally styled. Even in the 1970s as styling was more commonplace, the government maintained the medical standing of glasses. The switch from medical device to a style item can be pinpointed to around 1991, when design media declared that “eyeglasses have become stylish”. The increase in the public visibility of glasses on popular figures, the commonality of vision impairment, and the growing curiosity in the glasses designers all contributed to this shift in cultural perception
What’s interesting is that the design of eyeglasses doesn’t follow the typical pattern of minimal visibility of other medical devices, such as hearing aids or insulin pumps. These devices try to obscure their presence, while glasses boldly declare theirs. Even more remarkable is that invisible options like contacts exist. However, glasses have grown to provide individuality. Various shapes frame individual faces differently, color options allow wearers to pick and choose for their desires, and overall there is a uniqueness to each pair.
Glasses have become so commonplace in today’s world that we often take for granted just how impressively normalized a medical device for disability has become. Through design glasses have shed the stigma towards wearers and transcended their original purpose.