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Book Review: Cult Eyewear: The World’s Enduring Classics by Neil Handley

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Glasses? A fashion statement, a fashion accessory? What idiot thought of that? My 11 or 12- year-old self would have asked that after a couple of days of wearing spectacles at school. They were far from “cool” or “fashionable”.

We (parents and self) had found frames that my adolescent personality liked. They were square-ish, but the cool part was the elastic band built into the end of the temple. They connected to each other via tabs etched into the plastic end cap. Great concept really, but only for us nerds.

So, what a joy it was when a few years later I was able to get contact lenses. At last, I was free of the stigma of prescription eyeglasses.

What desire then burned in my teenage heart? I needed shades, sunglasses. Yes, glazing those lenses, making them dark instead of clear, made them “cool”. Ever since I’ve tried to collect sunglasses.

But, honestly, they were never the glasses featured in Neil Handley’s big book of spectacles, Cult Eyewear: The World’s Enduring Classics. These are the high-end stuff, the designer glasses made for celebrities and other important (or self-important) types.

Here is a quote that I think summarizes this entire book. It is from Arnold Schmied, founder of Silhouette : “two rims, two side pieces, a few square millimetres of material – how can these limited elements repeatedly form the basis of new designs? And yet artists actually manage to produce new creations.”

Truly, that is an impressive feat of creativity. Cult Eyewear provides its reader with a written history of the major designers and manufacturers of glasses along with beautiful pictures of many of their frames. Don’t worry, the history part isn’t that long, maybe five pages or less.  He covers Ray-Ban, Persol, Christian Dior, Alain Mikli, and many more. 

In addition to telling the history of these designers and spectacle houses, there are some special features thrown into the book. Handley relates some information about John Lennon, for example, and how he really wore more of a PRO style frame – more of an oval shape – than the round and tinted style so often associated with him.

There’s a feature on Elvis Presley’s eccentric choices for custom-made shades. Also enjoyable is the feature on Harold Lloyd, an actor and producer in the early 1900s. He became famous at the time for a bespectacled character he created on film. He became so well known for this character that he said he could take his glasses off and be “free”, he could “wallow in glorious real-life anonymity.” He was like the opposite of Clark Kent.

This book assumes some knowledge of spectacle manufacture and of designers. Well, I say that because Handley refers often to the materials that many of the glasses are made of as if the reader will know what they are. This does not mean he talks down to the reader, he treats them as if they are part of this world and intimately acquainted with it. There is a glossary that defines these materials and the frame types so we can keep up.

I know I learned a great deal from this book and that is the best thing that can be said about any book. And it made me appreciate the one fairly nice pair of shades I have: Ray-Ban  RB3217 (above).

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