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The Fascinating History of Sunglasses: From Inuit Origins to Fashion Statements and Promotional Products

26th February 2024 in Clothing & hats

Sunglasses, those ever-present symbols of cool, have a history as layered and rich as any fashion accessory that graces our modern lives. This journey from practical tool to fashion statement and promotional powerhouse, including the rise of custom sunglasses and branded shades, is a testament to human ingenuity and our ever-evolving relationship with style and functionality.


  1. The Inuit Origins

The narrative of sunglasses begins with the ingenious Inuit peoples, who crafted the world's earliest known sunglasses to combat the harsh glare of the Arctic sun. Utilizing materials like bone, wood, and leather, these early eyeguards featured slender slits to minimize sunlight exposure, safeguarding against snow blindness caused by UV reflection off the snow. More than mere fashion, these were essential tools for survival, designed out of necessity in a daunting environment.

Remarkable artifacts from the Inuit, such as the nigaugek or igguag, date back over two millennia. Made from various materials including bone, wood, or straw, these goggles with their narrow apertures effectively protected against the dangers of ultraviolet light exposure, a testament to early innovation in eyewear.


  1. China's Contribution

Fast forward to around 900 years ago in China, where smoky quartz crystals served not only as aids for vision but also played roles in ceremonies and therapeutic practices. By the 15th century, these crystals were being set into frames, creating Ai Tai, or "dark clouds over the sun," a precursor to modern sunglasses with both practical and symbolic uses, including their use by judges to mask their expressions during court proceedings.


  1. From Ancient Rome to the Renaissance

Throughout history, the primary aim of sunglasses remained constant: to protect eyes from excessive light. Emperor Nero of ancient Rome is said to have used polished gems for this purpose. By the 12th century, this concept had evolved into smoke-colored quartz lenses in China, worn by judges for a psychological edge. The Renaissance period saw the introduction of tinted spectacles in Venice, particularly among gondoliers, marking a pivotal moment in the journey of eyewear towards sun protection.


  1. The Enlightenment of Eyewear

The 18th century heralded a significant leap in the history of sunglasses with English optician James Ayscough's experimentation with tinted lenses. Initially aimed at correcting visual impairments, Ayscough's work with colored glass laid the foundations for today's sunglasses industry, extending the function of eyewear from mere protection to potential vision enhancement.


  1. Fashion's New Frontier

The early 20th century witnessed sunglasses morphing into a symbol of glamour, propelled by the burgeoning cinema industry and celebrity culture. The 1930s, in particular, saw sunglasses become accessible fashion items, thanks to technological advances and the influence of military design, notably the aviator sunglasses developed for pilots, which soon captured the public's imagination.

The era of mass-produced, affordable sunglasses began in earnest in 1929 with Foster Grant's introduction of celluloid sunglasses, a move that cemented sunglasses as a fixture of fashion.


  1. The Military Influence

World War II saw the strategic design of eyewear for pilots, leading to the creation of the iconic Ray-Ban Aviators by Bausch & Lomb. This period underscored the critical role of sunglasses in enhancing vision and reducing glare, setting the stage for their widespread adoption beyond military use.


  1. Technological Advancements: Polaroid and UV Protection

The 1930s also brought about the invention of polarized lenses, a significant breakthrough in reducing glare from reflective surfaces, thereby improving safety and comfort in various activities. By the 1970s, awareness of the dangers posed by ultraviolet light led to the adoption of UV protection standards for sunglasses across the globe, highlighting the importance of sunglasses in preserving eye health.


  1. The Era of Customization and Branding

The latter half of the 20th century saw sunglasses firmly entrenched as both a necessity against the sun's harmful rays and a key fashion accessory. It was during this time that the concept of custom sunglasses and branded shades took off. Designers and brands began to see sunglasses not just as functional items but as a means to showcase style, personality, and status. Custom shades offered consumers the chance to express their individuality through a variety of frame styles, colors, and lens tints.

Today, the market for sunglasses is as diverse as it is vast, with options ranging from high-end designer frames to affordable fashion pieces and even promotional products. Branded sunglasses have become a popular choice for companies looking to increase their visibility, offering custom sunglasses as promotional items at events or as part of marketing campaigns. This strategy leverages the universal appeal and practicality of sunglasses to keep brands in the public eye—quite literally.



From their humble beginnings as a necessary protection against the elements for the Inuit peoples to their status as a must-have fashion accessory and marketing tool, sunglasses have undergone a remarkable evolution. The rise of custom sunglasses and branded shades underscores their dual role as both functional items and expressions of personal and corporate identity. As fashion continues to evolve, so too will the design and use of sunglasses, ensuring their place in our cultural and stylistic landscapes for years to come.



Thompson, C. (2020, January). These Snow Goggles Demonstrate Thousands of Years of Indigenous Ingenuity. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from []


Science Museum Blog. (2019, May 7). 9 surprising moments in the history of sunglasses. Retrieved from []


Filson. (n.d.). History & Evolution of Glacier Goggles. Retrieved from []


Wikipedia. (n.d.). Sunglasses. Retrieved from []

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