Not long ago, David, a single, 46-year-old real-estate agent in New York, put on his friend’s thick-framed Masunaga spectacles and looked in the mirror.
“It was like I was suddenly face to face with the man I’d always wanted to be,” he says as he reverently removes an identical pair from a case and carefully begins polishing the lenses with a small white cloth. “A more interesting, charismatic version of me.”
Despite how besotted he had been with the way he looked in his friend’s specs, something made David, who has 20/20 vision, pause before purchasing his own pair a week later. It wasn’t the $500 price tag, but the sense that he was violating social convention. “I knew [the glasses would] transform how I saw myself and how others saw me, but I wasn’t about to fake it,” he says. “I wasn’t about to become one of those guys.”
The men he’s referring to – those who wear glasses to look good rather than see well – are everywhere right now, as the old stigma attached to wearing “vanity frames” rapidly dissipates.
“When you have NBA stars wearing these oversized fashion frames, it’s hard to dispute that glasses are in vogue,” says Jonathan Evans, senior online editor of style and grooming at Esquire. Four-eyed since childhood, Evans used to view non-prescription spectacle wearers with derision but has recently softened his position.
“Don’t get me wrong – the lensless thing is definitely silly,” he says of the craze first popularized by Japanese fashionistas in the 1990s and more recently adopted off-court by basketball players such as Dwayne Wade and Russell Westbrook. “But I think that accessorizing with non-corrective lenses is okay given that men don’t have a lot of other options.”
You could even argue that the few accessory options men do have at their disposal have outlived their intended purposes. In-store alterations, cellphones and even buttons have made belts, watches and neckties more about fashion than function. And from an aesthetic standpoint, all three have a markedly less dramatic effect on a man’s appearance than glasses.
Certainly, men can’t rely on eyewear alone to sharpen their appearance, Evans says, but a black acetate or tortoiseshell frame in a classic shape can add gravitas to practically any smart outfit. Yet, as realtor David suggests, isn’t that gravitas undermined if the glasses are just for show?
“It’s not that people don’t need glasses,” says Dr. Josh Josephson of the eponymous Toronto eyewear chain. “If you prefer the way that you look in glasses, you need glasses. You just don’t happen to need them for corrective purposes.”
According to Josephson, a significant portion of his non-corrective-lens-wearing clientele has had refractive surgery and felt that something about their appearance was missing once they cast off their specs.
“People are putting clear lenses in their frames to restore the look that had become part of their personality,” he says, adding that eyewear novices without a prescription tend to go for bold, conspicuous frames that aren’t necessarily harmonious with their facial structure.
“People sometimes feel that they benefit from bold frames in a professional setting,” he explains. “Take a guy like [diminutive talent agent] Swifty Lazar. He wore big iconic frames that gave him a certain presence – glasses that said, ‘Don’t fuck with me.’”
Jordan Silver of Silver Lining Opticians in Manhattan agrees, noting that many of his customers are professionals who feel that glasses will help them make a statement at work.
The high-end boutique has carved out a niche by stocking a selection of big, bold frames, including vintage, internationally sourced deadstock along with its own line of specs named after periodic elements that sell for $325 (U.S.) each. Is it worth the investment?
“I think that if you’re only going to be wearing glasses [infrequently], it’d be hard to justify spending a ton of money on a pair of cool frames,” says Esquire’s Evans.
Hence the popularity of online eyewear retailer Warby Parker. The New York-based outfit will send up to five pairs of their stylish, inexpensive vintage-style frames to U.S. customers to try before they buy. Warby Parker has just started shipping purchased frames to Canadian customers, although shoppers here must make do with a virtual test drive by uploading a photo of their face to its website.
Of course, it’s not just retailers who stand to benefit from the growing affection for eyewear as fashion accessory. Ironically, opticians do, too: In the wake of his eyewear epiphany, David underwent an eye exam and was relieved to be told that his vision was actually slightly less than perfect. “That’s all that I needed to hear,” he says.