When did the space age begin? In terms of astronomy, you can go all the way back to 1957, when the Russians launched a polished 183-pound sphere the size of a beach ball away from Earth and into its orbit. Sputnik 1, Earth’s first artificial satellite, has sparked a race to the cosmos between the United States and its Cold War adversary. NASA was created a year later, and in 1969 the United States won the crowning glory by sending the first man to the moon. This period was a boon for technology and pushed the limits of humanity. But if you look at the design, you’ll see that America’s obsession with space predates these remarkable achievements.
Despite Cold War fears, which you can see in Atomic Age design, Space Age design conveyed a sense of optimism for the future throughout the 1950s and 60s. imagined for rockets ended up on cars like the Cadillac Eldorado and the Chevy Bel Air. Googie architecture — which incorporates sharp angles, cantilevers, drifts, boomerangs, and other cut-out patterns — has become ubiquitous in restaurants, cafes, motels, and gas stations, as well as in the accompanying signage. Imagine the iconic Las Vegas sign. It’s Googie.
Founded in 1936, Ray-Ban made a name for itself designing sunglasses specifically for the military. A US Army colonel named John A. Macready was concerned that pilots’ goggles were fogging up and failing to filter out the vivid hues of white and blue in the sky. He worked with Bausch & Lomb, the original parent company of Ray Ban, to create eyewear that would reduce glare and resist impact forces. They went on sale to the general public in 1938, a perfect product for a time marked by war and in which patriotism and respect for authority were paramount.
In 1952, designer Raymond Stegeman turned the company’s eyes to the future with the Wayfarer. It was the first sunglasses to be made from plastic, and its lines referenced Cadillac’s signature rear fins. Another point of reference was the Eames chair, another classic design born of the time. According to design critic Stephen Bayley, “the distinctive trapezoidal frame spoke a non-verbal language that hinted at an unsteady dangerousness, but tempered well by the sturdy arms that the advertisement claimed gave the frames a ‘masculine look’.”
“They had never seen anything like this before. So it became that kind of style pairing as well as the functional element,” says Anjali Shirke, Ray-Ban brand director in North America. think Ray-Ban made that transition from military function to pop culture fashion.”
The sleek frames cried rebellion, a fitting prop for James Dean’s character in rebel without a cause. JFK, the youngest president ever elected, became famous for his strikingly similar figure, as did Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The misattribution to Ray-Ban was a boon for the company, as they had become the most popular shades of the time. Pioneers like Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan and Muhammad Ali are all donning the real thing.
The ’70s marked a decline for the style, but Ray-Ban set out to revive its iconic hues through the power of product placement. In 1982, the company signed a $50,000-a-year deal with Unique Product Placement to get Wayfarers in movies and on TV. A year later, they were on the face of Tom Cruise in Risky Business. While doing an admissions interview for Princeton in the middle of a party, Cruise’s character pulled out a pair of Wayfarers before delivering the line, “Sometimes you have to say what it is,” before saying gently light a cigarette. A friend asks him how it’s going, and he stands up with a big dumb smile, announcing proudly, “Looks like the University of Illinois.”
That’s when Robert Verdi, the television personality and style expert known for wearing sunglasses on his head, first noticed it.
“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 their sexual propensity, Tom at the time was so cool and everyone wanted a bit of him. It was a very affordable piece that you could bring into your life.
For more on the Ray-Ban Wayfarer’s status as the original goggles, listen to the rest of Why It’s Cool.