The Aviator is an iconic sunglasses style pioneered by Bausch & Lomb in the 1930s, with large, teardrop-shaped lenses designed to block as much light as possible from the human eye. Today, Ray-Ban makes the authentic Aviator, but many other brands now produce aviator-style glasses as well.
The first aviator sunglasses were made for pilots in 1936. At that time, flight capabilities were advancing rapidly, but pilots' gear was stalling—their goggles weren’t up to the job. So Bausch & Lomb developed sunglasses that wouldn't fog up like goggles, offered a more comfortable and stylish fit, and featured lenses that were dark or mirrored to block more light. Like the original goggles, these new sunglasses had large, teardrop-shaped lenses that offered maximum coverage around each eye. Originally called “Anti-Glares,” they were branded “Ray-Ban” upon their release since they sought to ‘banish’ the sun’s harsh ‘rays.’
General Douglas MacArthur first popularized aviators in 1944 when he landed on the beach in the Philippines wearing a pair of teardrop shades. MacArthur's photo appeared in nearly every major publication at the time, giving aviator sunglasses an unprecedented amount of free press. The image became the go-to 'wartime' look in Hollywood. After the war, the military-style sunglasses gained popularity among private and commercial pilots, police officers, and sportsmen, thanks to their utility, performance, and style.
The thin, wire-framed sunglasses evolved through the years as new makers began to put their own spin on the look. Randolph Engineering took over the military contract in the 1980s, and countless designer brands began to release their own aviators. Thick plastic frames and shield-style aviators emerged, as did tinted lenses and various frame finishes. The 1970s brought feminine styling to the rugged military look, in softer colors, and with rhinestones. This approach introduced a unisex appeal to the large, ‘tough’ frames.
Aviators have been a mainstay in celebrity fashion for more than 50 years. Since they first appeared, aviators have never really gone out of style.
But beginning in the 1950s, Ray-Ban paid to place aviator sunglasses in movies, giving rise to continued popularity over the decades. Military and police films fanned the flames, while celebrities favored wearing aviators on stage and in public. Through the decades, new designers and celebrities riffed on the aviator style, swapping metal frames for plastic or dispensing with the double or single bridge. Elvis wore a flashy version of the oversized frames in the ’70s, and Michael Jackson rocketed thick shield aviators into popularity during the ’80s.
Robert De Niro donned an updated square version of aviators in Taxi Driver, which gave the style a boost. And Ray-Ban Aviator sales leaped an incredible 40% after Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer wore mirrored aviator sunglasses in Top Gun.
Hollywood has continued to feature aviators on-screen year after year. In the eighties, Cobra intimidated in a pair of Outdoorsman Aviators; in the nineties, Johnny Depp's Raoul Duke wore Ray-Ban Shooter Aviators in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and in the first decade of the new millennium, Bradley Cooper's character counted on classic Ray-Ban Aviators to shield his eyes from the brutal daylight in The Hangover.
Meanwhile, this iconic style seems to be enjoying yet another surge in popularity. Maui Jim, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, and Gucci are among the countless designer labels that have released their own versions of aviator-style sunglasses. They’re a chic, high-fashion staple on the runway and red carpet, yet retain their rugged image. Tom Cruise wears a pair of Randolph Engineering aviators in the 2017 crime film American Made, and fashionistas everywhere grab their aviators before heading out on the town. After 80 years, the style's popularity shows no sign of slowing.
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