It's undeniable--aviators are cool. Any action hero or swoon-worthy movie star you can think of wears them. They've been a part of American iconography since the early 20th century. Aviators may not have been the first sunglasses, but they were the first to have a distinctive--and functional--style. They're the frames that made sunglasses cool. So where did they come from, and what's the right pair for you?
We'll take a look at the history of these famous frames, the many kinds of aviators on the market today, how to pick a pair that suits you, and some styling tips.
The very first popular sunglasses style, 'aviators' were developed by Bausch & Lomb in 1936 to protect the eyes of military pilots--hence the name aviator--and replace the more cumbersome flying goggles. Their distinctive shape made them as functional as they are fashionable, but let's start with aviator sunglasses' origin story.
A Military Solution
World War I saw the first use of planes in combat and reconnaissance missions. For the best protection from enemy anti-aircraft defenses, pilots flew above cloud cover when possible. Pilots often returned from battle with strained eyes and headaches due to the intense sunlight at high altitudes. The flying goggles in use at the time fogged up from the frigid temperatures above the clouds. The Army Air Corps sought to rectify this issue by partnering with Bausch & Lomb to develop sun-blocking glasses for their pilots.
Originally designed for utility rather than fashion, the aviator shape optimizes sun protection and visibility. Bausch & Lomb's research group discovered that large, teardrop lenses that follow the line of the cheekbone and offer total coverage for the eye socket blocked the most light. Lenses were dark and mirrored to minimize reflections from clouds. The lens-style wasn't yet called the 'aviator,' rather, Bausch & Lomb released their aeronautical solution under the name "Ray Ban." These sunglasses were revolutionary for fighter and reconnaissance pilots. After the war, they were approved as a standard-issue item for all U.S. military pilots.
In the late '30s, Ray Ban sunglasses became commercially available for luxury sportsmen, marketed toward hunters and golfers. They were a symbol of prestige, but were not yet widely available. Al Capone was photographed wearing a pair. Among men of means, the sunglasses became a mark of style and athleticism. Already, aviators were gaining a reputation as cool.
It wasn't until World War II that aviators gained their fixed association with the military--and their name. The sunglasses became standard issue for pilots, and were requested by generals and officers as well. The glasses' first celebrity endorsement came from General Douglas MacArthur, who was photographed in his standard issue pilot's sunglasses when the U.S. recaptured the Philippines in 1944. The photo became famous--and so did the sunglasses.
After the war, pilots brought their sunglasses home and continued to wear them for athletic and outdoor activities. In civilian life, aviators were associated with heroism, bravery, and patriotism.
After the war, the film industry turned en masse to war films, and the leading men--often pilots or officers--wore aviators. The shades, already with a steady following among military men and the elite, became associated more firmly with bravery, masculinity, and sex appeal. Commercial production increased, and aviators became more widely available and less costly for the average consumer.
Aviators became the accessory for movie stars and celebrities in the 50s and 60s. Marlon Brando wore them, on set and off. Elvis made them his signature, as did Gloria Steinem. Starlets began reaching for the iconic frames as well, and in the '70s, tinted lenses were commercialized and pink aviator sunglasses became available for women.
The aviator's place as sunglasses royalty was solidified in 1986 with the release of Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer in jumpsuits and aviators. The rule-breaking, death-defying Maverick ensured the aviator style's association with bad boys and cool dudes. They have been a top-selling frame ever since.
Types of Aviators
Today, many variations exist on the classic aviator. Colored lenses, rectangular frames, and polarized versions have become popular. In general, all aviators have these features in common:
- Lenses 2-3 times larger than the eye socket
- Thin frames
- A double or triple bridge
- Temples that hook behind the ears
- Large convex lenses that completely shield the eye
- Adjustable nose pads
- Teardrop shape that follows the contour of the cheekbone
Traditionally, aviator frames were metal, but some today can be found in plastic or acetate for a more rigid frame. The frame shape is either the typical rounded lenses or lenses that become more rectangular at the larger end of the teardrop. Large, oversized aviator frames have become trendy for women. Outdoor enthusiasts and sportsmen reach for polarized aviator sunglasses to cut glare. Lenses are available in a variety of colors, the most common being black, gray, dark green, dark blue, or mirrored. Fashion colors like pink, red, purple, or aqua make for a fun statement pair.
Who Can Wear Aviators?
Aviators are a classic sunglasses style that work well on most face shapes. Classic teardrop aviators are a great choice for oval, square, and heart-shaped faces. Oblong faces can pull off oversized frames like these oversized black aviators, while rounder faces should look for more rectangular sunglasses like the Harvey square aviator sunglasses to balance out their features. Diamond shaped faces look better with narrower frames that stay within the cheeks, so stay away from oversized aviators.
Aside from frame shape, take into account your skin tone and style. Warmer tones look great with gold hardware, while cool skin tones look bright and healthy next to silver. Do you like the classic look of sleek metal and dark lenses, or does a lens in a fun color sound more you?
Are Aviator Sunglasses Unisex?
Though aviators were originally designed for military men, the versatile frame looks great on both guys and girls. Oversized frames with lighter lenses have been a very popular choice for women recently, while the classic dark lenses in metallic frames are a tried and true hit with men. Some styles may be better suited to men or women, respectively. We offer aviator suggestions for women that are on the narrower and rounder end of the spectrum and come in fun and feminine colors. Likewise, our men’s aviator suggestions are wider and more angular to complement a masculine jawline and come in sporty colors. Some styles are featured on both our men’s and women’s pages.
Just keep in mind the sizing of your frames while shopping for your perfect pair of aviators. Women may need to look for a narrower lens width, which fits smaller faces best. Our chic Ariel frame is a perfect choice for women with narrower faces.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, men with wider faces may need to shop for a larger than average frame. Look for a lens length of 60mm or more, like the classic Maverick. For more help finding the perfect frame to fit your face, check out this useful sizing guide.
Are Aviators Good For Driving?
Aviators make for a great pair of driving glasses, particularly for road trips and long stints in the car. The aviator frame was specifically designed to block the most light and offer the most protection for your eyes of any lens shape. They still offer that built-in protection, now with the added option of polarized or mirrored lenses. Polarization and a mirror coating are both lens innovations designed to further reduce glare, each with a slightly different function. Which is the right choice for your lifestyle?
Polarized lenses are excellent at reducing glare from light reflected off hard surfaces, especially flat bodies of water. Polarization is a great feature for boaters and drivers alike. On the roadway, polarized lenses reduce glare from flat surfaces like car hoods and the pavement. A special filter in the lens blocks the intense, directional light that occurs when natural sunlight is reflected.
While polarization is helpful in an outdoor environment, it can reduce visibility of some digital screens, like the displays at ATMs and gas station pumps, or even your cell phone.
Mirrored lenses have a reflective coating on the exterior that makes the lenses look like small, convex mirrors and reduces the amount of light that passes through the lenses 10-60%. You can see through this coating, although it typically gives a brown or gray tint to your vision. Mirrored lenses offer excellent UV protection, so they’re ideal for high altitudes and prolonged exposure to glare in environments like water and snow.
Mirrored lenses act as a one-way mirror, meaning you can see out, but others can’t see your eyes. If you’re looking to add a little mystery to your style, or if you spend your free time on the water or in the snow, check out the stylish Ace aviators with mirrored lenses.
For the best glare protection in all situations, you can opt for a pair of aviators with mirrored lenses and a polarization filter, like the color-loving Chandler sunglasses.
How to Style Aviators
So you’ve picked your perfect pair of aviators--what now? How do you wear them? What do they look best with? Good news, aviators are a classic sunglass shape that look great with most styles. Some basic guidelines for looking your best in your new aviators:
- Keep it casual. Aviators are a classic, sporty look and work well with classic, sporty styles. A sleek pair of black aviator sunglasses is an easy way to dress up a t shirt and jeans. A colored pair adds a little punk to a sundress. Oversized frames make a sweater and leggings a little more cool.
- Minimize accessories, jewelry, and pattern. Don't overdo it with lots of accessories. Match the frame of your aviators to your watch or a classic piece of jewelry for a put-together style, but stay away from flashy jewelry. Remember, aviators are a bold statement on their own. Keep the rest of your outfit simple and well-proportioned, and you can't go wrong. Solid colors typically work better than lots of pattern and color.
- Workplace etiquette. A word to the wise--aviators don't mix as well with more formal looks. This lens style was designed with active pursuits in mind, and looks best with more active, casual styles. If you pair your aviators with a suit, keep it very simple. Opt for a charcoal or navy suit with a classic white button down for a 60s vibe á la Mad Men. For louder suits, stick with a wayfarer or clubmaster frame. Outside of the boardroom, a pair of aviators can take you anywhere.
- Embrace the great outdoors. Aviators look right at home in nature. Pair them with hiking boots, a flannel shirt, and a canvas jacket for the timeless appeal of the American explorer. Built to be durable, aviators are a great choice for hiking, camping, and kayaking. Even if you're just taking your dog for a walk around the neighborhood, you'll look great doing it.
- Hook 'em. When you're indoors, try hooking your aviators on your collar or a pocket. They'll look cooler than if you wore them on your head, and that way, you avoid getting the flexible nose pads stuck in your hair.
- Stay cool. In order to achieve that cool confidence associated with aviator sunglasses, don't look like you're trying too hard. Consider an outfit that you feel your best in--one that's comfortable and reflective of your personality. Select an aviator style that works with that look, and you'll feel like a movie star in no time.
Looking for more inspiration? Follow @wearme_pro on Instagram, or check out our site! Have your own great outfit idea for showing off your aviators? Tag us on social and be sure to use #wearmepro for a chance to be featured!