I think it is well known that Ray-Ban did not create the Brow Line style. Rather, the company Shuron did. The style itself was an extremely popular one in the 1950’s, but predominantly in the form of eyeglasses, not sunglasses, at least not until the 1980’s. But, it wasn’t until their resurgence in the mid to late 2000’s that the style finally reached the iconic status we know them as today. It is likely due to the popularity of the Ray-Ban Clubmasters in the 1980’s that has led to the extremely obnoxious use of the word “Clubmaster” to describe any pair of Brow Line eyewear.
This fanaticism has led many to believe that Ray-Ban created the style, but as I pointed out, that is not the case. Even more absurd, however, is that, somehow, the idea has spread that theRay-Ban Clubmasters were the first pair of Brow Line sunglasses ever made; again, this is also not true. However, it is a claim that is much more difficult to dispel. Thus, before this assertion gets out of hand, I decided to make this blog post with the hope that, by shedding some light on the history surrounding the Brow Line, we can rectify such misconceptions and start referring to the style by its proper name.
But, before we get into this, I would like to point out that this post is but a single installment in a trinity of posts that dispels the common misunderstandings associated with Ray-Ban’s most iconic styles of sunglasses, those being the Wayfarer, the Aviator and, in this case, the Clubmaster. If this sort of thing interests you, I highly recommend you checking out my other two articles on the subject: “Why You Should Stop Calling Them Wayfarers”, and “Ray-Ban did not Invent Aviator Sunglasses”. With that out of the way, let’s get into the retelling of our story.
The distorted view of history goes something like this. Brow Line style eyeglasses were created by the company Shuron back in 1947 under the model name Ronsir. After the creation of the Ronsir, many other companies made their own versions of Brow Line eyeglasses, Ray-Ban included. However, for the next 30 years nobody thought to turn the popular style into sunglasses. Until, of course, Bruce Willis was seen wearing a pair of “tinted” Shuron Ronsir’s, giving Ray-Ban the idea for the Clubmaster, the world’s first Brow Line style sunglasses! At least that seems to be the current story. But, that story is not ture.
The truth is, the RayBan Clubmasters were not the first pair of Brow Line style sunglasses ever created and, as we will see, were espeically not the first pair ever worn. This makes us beg the question: Where did this story come from then? Well, to be honest, this perception likely stems from the fact that the history associated with Brow Line sunglasses, and sunglasses in general, is rather difficult to pin down. There exist large gaps of information throughout the decades, with the smoking guns needed to prove a company as the inventor of any given design often lost or long forgotten.
But, the most direct origin of this inaccurate retelling of history is most likely our old friend Wikipedia and the game of “Telephone” it is playing. The same game we play with it every time we write an article or make a video without checking its references. The “Bruce Willis” story can be traced back to an article in 20/20 magazine written by Preston Fassel, a person who just so happens to be an absolute expert regarding all things eyewear. Therefore, I have no problem accepting the influence Willis had on the popularity of the style in the 1980’s. It is within Wikipedia’s interpretation of Preston’s article that we see the first incarnation of the distortion of history.
In Preston’s article he states that, due to this “Moonlighting” effect:
“Browline Sunglasses became the third most seen style of sunwear in the 1980’s, behind Ray-Ban’s Wayfarer and Aviator styles.”
That sentence is reinterpreted by the Wikipedia author of the history of Brow Line Eyeglasses as:
“The Clubmaster went on to become the third bestselling sunglasses style of the 1980’s, behind the Wayfarer and the Aviator”.
So, we can see that our little game of Telephone has already started to add up, with the words “Brow Line” being replaced by the word “Clubmaster”. But, as if that were not enough, to add further insult to injury, that sentence was once again retold to all of us through the cupped hands of the Gentleman’s Gazette as:
“Immediately after seeing them on Moonlighting, Ray-Ban launched the first Browline sunglasses, which they called the Clubmaster”.
Wow, so, this is how the stuff of legends are born. Now, even if Preston was referring specifically to the Clubmaster as “the third most seen style of sunwear in the 1980’s” that does not warrant the jump from “most popular” to “creator of”, that we see here. Long story short: words matter. And the way that we arrange them makes all the difference in the world. So, how can we arrange some words in such a way as to right this wrong? Well, let’s give that a shot, shall we?
The year is 1947 and a man by the name of Jack Rohrbach wants to create a pair of eyeglasses that are customizable for each individual. To accomplish this task, he comes up with the idea of the Brow Line. It’s actually quite genius when you think about it. The metal on the bridge and around the lens means that people can special order, essentially, any size eyeglasses they want, creating a bridge width and a lens height that suits their needs. Jacks dream becomes a reality as the Shuron Ronsir. It turns out; the idea was a good one. The style became enormously popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s. So much so, that, by 1960, Brow Lines accounted for half of all eyeglasses worn in America! An accomplishment that has yet to be surpassed by any other style.
Wanting to get in on the action, numerous other brands created their own versions, from American Optical to Persol, to Victory Optical, ArtCraft Optical and even Ray-Ban with what was then called the “Ray-Ban Brow Line”. Unfortunately, the style eventually lost its way between the 1960’s and 1970’s due to fluctuating American sentiments. The popularity of the Brow Line style eyeglasses in the 50’s and early 60’s meant that those growing up during the cultural revolutions of the late 60’s shunned the style, as it represented the very thing they were trying to emancipate themselves from. It wasn’t until the late 1970’s and 1980’s that the style returned to fashion, but this time as sunglasses.
Now, we know the story of Bruce Willis lighting up the small screen with his trend setting pair of tinted Shuron Ronsir’s. But, was this really the catalyst for the first pair of Brow Line sunglasses ever? Is it true that dedicated Brow Line sunglasses back in the 1950’s and 1960’s just didn’t exist? I mean, if people were wearing tinted version of the optical frames, there was clearly a demand for them. In fact, one of the most popular and iconic wearers of the style, Malcom X, wore a pair of Brow Line shades himself. Now, given that the Brow Line eyeglasses he wore are generally considered to be the American Optical Sirmont, these are likely “tinted” versions of the same model.
So, the question is: who did the tinting? Was it Malcom X or was it American Optical? Well, it’s hard to say. Based on pictures of people wearing tinted Brow Lines, one might assume that companies were offering sunglass models. However, most google searches of popular models during their heyday come up with predominantly eyeglasses as the result, suggesting that the tinting was either an option provided by the manufacturer or a service provided by the optical store the person bought the glasses from.
Thus, the question remains: were there any companies, in these early years, producing dedicated Brow Line sunglasses? The answer is yes, yes there were. It was the 1960’s and a not so well known German company named Marwitz produced a model called the Optima. Ever heard of them? Probably not. However, this model is actually quite an icon for those who collect vintage sunglasses, particularly this metal frame version with plastic accents. But, they did take the more characteristic approach as well. And, while the Marwitz Optima’s are the best example of a dedicated model of sunglasses in the traditional Brow Line style, they are not the only ones.
Here we have the Aurora by OAI eyewear, dating back to either the 1950’s or 1960’s based on this advertisement. Now, these are not as classically styled, that’s for certain, but a Brown Line pair of sunglasses none the less. In fact, around the same time RayBan released the Clubmaster, they also released the Wayfarer Max, what essentially are Brow Line Wayfarer’s, or what can be more generally described as, Mono-Brow Line, Cat Eye, Horn Rimmed sunglasses, which, of course, don’t look all that dissimilar from the black pair of Aurora’s we see here, released nearly 20 years before. And, Just in case anyone was wondering, this uni-brow version of the Brow Line style also seems to have been first created by Shuron, in the form of their Stag model.
So, we can, in fact, find at least one or two dedicated models of Brow Line sunglasses created decades before the 1980’s. And, while it doesn’t seem like Brow Line sunglasses had a ubiquitous presence at or near their inception, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that there were more options available than what I was able to find here.
Essentially, that puts an end to that story. The Ray-Ban Clubmasters were not the first pair of Brow Line Sunglasses ever created. Simple as that. But, it’s not always about being first, right? There is some credit to be given to the one who popularizes a style, as the success of any product is dependent on people actually buying it. But, how much of a role did the Ray-Ban Clubmaster actually play in the solidification of the Brow Line style as an icon? Honestly, not as much as one might think.
To figure out the impact of the Ray-Ban Clubmasters on the popularity of the Brow Line style, let’s go back to the beginning. In the 1950’s and 1960’s the style was popularized primarily by Shuron with their Ronsir model, as well as by other companies’ models such as the American Optical Sirmont, Victory Optical’sDouglas for men and Dian for women, Persol’s Cellor, and the Art-Craft Optical Clubman (yes, I said “Clubman”). Shuron did so well during this time that in 1971, they celebrated their 16M sale of the Ronsirs. Ray-ban had their Brow Line offering during this era as well, but when we look back at pictures of prominent figures wearing Brow Lines eywear, the vast majority are known to be other models and the remaining do not appear to be Ray-Ban’s contribution to the style.
Fast forward to the 1980’s and 1990’s and there is no doubt that the Clubmasters were one of, if not, the most popular pair of Brow Line sunglasses sold during these decades. But, they were hardly the only ones, and they might not have even been the first to be released. Shuron, Persol, American Optical, Victory and Art-Craft were also making Brow Line Sunglasses during this period of time, with the famous “tinted” Ronsir’s presumably being what got the ball rolling in the first place. Sure, Ferris Buller definitely brought the Clubmasters attention to the masses, but many other popular films at that time saw the protagonist wearing options from other brands. Thus, much of Ray-Ban’s success was likely due to its marketing might, and its uncanny ability to dominate the sales of an on trend style, regardless of when they showed up to the party. But, as the Brow Line once again started to fade in popularity, it wasn’t until the mid 2000’s that it returned, and that return had little to do with Ray-Ban.
It was in their use in TV Shows and movies like Hero’s, Mad Men, The Good Shepherd, Skyfall, CSI, American Horror Story and Hannibal that the Brow Line came back into the hearts and minds of the public, who was eagerly awaiting a way to express their individuality with a unique and vintage flare. It was this resurgence and reacceptance as eyeglasses that paved the way for the Brow Line’s popularity to become solidified assunglasses. But, none of the examples above are products of Ray-Ban. Yet, while Ray-Ban had little to do with this revolution, they were at the ready to satisfy the demand of the now dangerous, geek-chic persona associated with the style, a persona most sufficiently embodied in its sunglass variation.
And, that brings us to where we are today. As with their other two false pillars of iconic eyewear, Ray-Ban has been able to lead in sales of Brow Line sunglasses due in part to their impeccable marketing prowess, but also by crafting their tried and true story of originality. Just have a look at their description of the Clubmasters on their website. They refer to them as “classics” inspired by the 50’s, but go on to say that the:
“unmistakable design of the Clubmaster Classic is worn by cultural intellectuals, those who lead the changed tomorrow”.
Fucking genius! In just one sentence alone they simultaneously refer to the intellectuals of the past who first made the style popular in the 50’s and 60’s, and cover their own ass by structuring the sentiment in the here and now. But, just like with the Wayfarer and the Aviator, the damage is done. The connection to the past and to a legacy that is not quite as illustrious as they would make it seem has been stitched. And, yet it has always been us who ensure the hem of their misaligned weave gets sown shut.
Any google search of any of the three pillars of Ray-Ban’s success will result in article after article of someone asserting them as the first, the originals, the classic, the unmistakable icons of that design. But, just as with their other claims to fame, the Clubmasters were not the originators of the design, nor did they have as much to do with the popularity of the style throughout its history as the mythos surrounding them would have us believe. Heck, they weren’t even that original by name, as they are a near borrowing of the 1950’s ArtCraft Optical “Clubman”. Yet still, the mythos remains. And, it is a mythology that, honestly, we ourselves have created. Yes, Ray-Ban is more than happy to play off of it, subtlety, carefully. But can we blame them for that? Maybe, but they never cross the line. They never stoop to flat out lies. But, then again, they don’t have to. We appear fully capable of distorting the truth all on our own.
And, every time we refer to a pair of Brow Line glasses or sunglasses as Clubmasters, we add another thread to the weave of this mythos. Some may say that the story has gone on so long already, that it is too late to ever hope to unravel it and start anew. But, I think that if we have seen anything from looking at the history, it is that this is, in fact, a recent development, and there remain plenty of frayed edges upon which we can begin to weave a new tale. Because every time we restrain from using the “C” word, we do double duty. We both untangle the pattern of the existing folklore and we also begin to weave a story of our own. And, by doing so, we pay respect to the true origins of the style. That is why you should stop calling them Clubmasters . And, that is why you should start calling them Brow Line.
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Thank you for reading!