Tavi Gevinson, 15-year-old fashion blogger, recently launched her online magazine, Rookie. Making the press rounds, she looked typically cool with her Cleopatra eye makeup and thrift-store shifts, but something was different: no eyeglasses. Asked where her trademark round rims had gone, she said, “I was tired of them.”
Somehow, Gevinson’s naked face is jarring. With the statement glasses removed, she still looks great, but her youth is newly emphasized, which makes her place of influence in the fashion world even stranger. Turns out she really is a kid at the cocktail party, not just a short version of Edith Head.
I flashbacked to when my friend T. got laser surgery and put away his signature rimless glasses. Suddenly, he looked less like a Danish architect and more like a steak-fed frat boy. Plus, his eyes seemed to have been replaced by a set belonging to a baby squirrel; lenses had clearly been amplifying his eyeball size, like Mr. Magoo, but in a good way. Glasses-less, he looked entirely unfamiliar.
But it’s time to get used to the discomfiting transformations of the glasses people, as glasses may have had their day. Cheaper contacts and laser surgery have already vanquished many frames. And last year, scientists at King’s College in London identified a gene that causes myopia. One researcher speculated that, in a decade, shortsightedness could be cured with eye drops.
“This is a moment of transition,” says Mel Rapp, of Toronto’s boutique Rapp Optical. Rapp has been wandering the world for two years shooting an unfinished documentary investigating the “culture of eyewear.” The meaning of glasses, he discovered, is culturally entrenched. In Germany, designers told him customers want “functionality.” In France, the priority is “glamour.” In Rapp’s elegant downtown store, staffers confront daily the deep psychological grooves carved by vision problems. Recently a woman came in wearing the same Rapp glasses she’d had for years: “She was very attractive, 35 years of age, strong prescription and a difficult fit – tiny bridge. She had an upsweep, and was wearing cat frames in a two-tone dark tortoise, with a stripe of honey yellow – beautiful,” Rapp says. After a lifetime of eye patches and painful eye doctor’s appointments, she had come to love glasses as bold as the rest of her wardrobe: “Glasses were the key to her visual identity.” On his list “How To Become a Fashion Eccentric,” Slate fashion columnistSimon Doonan puts glasses at No. 1.
Fashion aside, glasses mean that you are obviously smart. A British study found that wearing glasses to a job interview leaves a stronger impression of professionalism and intelligence than going bare. A celebrity in glasses isn’t just nearsighted, but anti-glam, and eager to declare his or her unexplored depths (see: Justin Timberlake, Anne Hathaway.)
Glasses are the cornerstone of the enduring geek-chic trend. The coder blinking in the light of his computer screen now has glasses in common with Rachel Zoe’s former assistant, Brad Goreski, in his vintage frames and bow ties. Of course hipsters embrace the anti-sophistication of old black glasses, the uglier the better, rejecting what The Man calls “beautiful.” Thick black glasses are a glance backward that means: “I’m no slave to passing fashion; my grandfather wore these in the army!” Hipster glasses place the wearer on a continuum of cool with Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen and Tina Fey.
But those with lifelong eye problems know that embracing glasses in adulthood is a way of undoing years of childhood mockery. Despite the sexy librarian fantasy, pop culture shorthand for “ugly girl” is a pair of glasses, hence Jan Brady’s freak-out upon receiving the news that she needed a pair: “Not glasses! They’ll make me look absolutely positively goofy!” A girl with glasses is into books, not boys, which is a fatal high-school strategy, according to many sitcoms.
While girls in glasses get labelled unkissable pre-makeover nerds, fictional guys in glasses are usually a variation of Piggy in Lord of the Flies. If I may quote from memory, the kicker of my Coles Notes-influenced Grade 9 essay: “Piggy had glasses because he was smart and the only one who could see the truth. So they killed him.”
Mel Rapp believes we are entering the digital eyewear age, where frames will include miniature telecommunication devices and lenses will act as computer screens. “The cyborg exists. The future is now,” he says.
But what I like about glasses is the lack of mechanization: no logging in, no recharging. My hand is the on-off button. What interactivity they provide is human and real-time. Glasses admit to the body’s frailty. They’re a sign that decay can’t always be stemmed and our physical selves can’t always be reoriented in the direction we demand. Instead, we can invent objects that make the most of the body on offer, with only gentle alteration. Glasses are an old technology that is still revolutionary, functional and glamorous, and entirely personal.