Why You Should Stop Calling Them Wayfarer’s

The “Wayfarer”. Many have heralded them as the panicle of sunglass design. They are estimated to be the most popular and profitable style of sunglasses ever made. The coolest shades a person can wear. Quintessential badassery. And yet, we do not call them by their proper name. Instead, we call them by the model name of a pair of sunglasses that has come to epitomize the style. It is very similar to how we call a Hot Tub a Jacuzzi, where Jacuzzi is actually the brand name, but the thing we are talking about, is in fact a hot tub. And, while the RayBan Wayfarer design is by far the most famous version of the style, it was not the first of its kind.

The Wayfarer was not a wholly original design when it finally hit the market in 1956. Rather, it was the evolution of a style that’s popularity was on the rise, a style with roots dating back to long before the release of the Ray-Ban Wayfarer. But, in all honesty, even the uniqueness of this specific design is questionable, as there is another contender with the same particular features that very well may have been released before it. Why then have we ended up calling near any pair of sunglasses that looks even remotely like it, a “Wayfarer”? And, if not “Wayfarer”, what should we be calling this style instead? Well, to find out the answers to these questions, let’s first look at the history of the Wayfarer itself.

But, before we get into this, I would like to point out that this blog 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 Clubmaster, the Avaitor and, in this case, the Wayfarer. If this sort of thing interests you, I highly recommend you checking out my other two articles: “Why You Should Stop Calling Them Clubmasters”, and “Ray-Ban did not Invent Aviator Sunglasses”. With that out of the way, let’s get into the history.

Let’s go back to the year 1952. It was at this time that American Optical designer Raymond Stegeman, now working for Bausch & Lomb, invented what would ultimately become the Ray-Ban Wayfarer. Looking at his initial concept, however, they appear quite different from what we know them as today. The Cat Eye style that was on trend for females during the early 1950’s clearly had some influence over Stegman’s design, some might say, a little too much so. To his credit, he did attempt to make them more masculine by giving them thicker temple arms, but it would seem that even Bausch & Lomb themselves couldn’t stomach releasing such a pair of sunglasses. So, they didn’t. Not until 1956, and not looking anything like what Stegeman had originally imagined. 

While the model enjoyed some popularity during the late 1950’s and 1960’s, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the Wayfarer became the icon that it is today. When the Blues Brothers were seen wearing their Wayfarer sunglasses, sales for the pair shot up. Capitalizing on this response, RayBan began a marketing frenzy, ensuring that the Wayfarer was seen being worn by as many celebrities as humanly possible. The instance that knocked the ball out of the park, however, was, of course, everyone’s favorite appearance in Risky Business, shooting the popularity of the sunglasses into the stuff of legends quicker than Tom cruise could glide across the floor in little more than his socks.

In the decades to come, any pair of sunglasses that even remotely resembled the now iconic design was simply referred to as “Wayfarer’s”, regardless of whether or not they were actually Ray-Ban’s take on the style. The style itself had become synonymous with the design. The Hot Tube was now known as the Jacuzzi. However, as I mentioned, the origin of the so-called “Wayfarer” style has its roots dating back to far before the 1956 release of the Ray-Ban Wayfarers themselves, with their iconic design being heavily derived from the styles of the time and, consequently, from what had come before. Thus, in order to determine the true source of this so-called “Wayfarer” style, as well as to give us some insight into what we should be calling it instead, we are going to have to go back a little bit further, back to the beginning of modern day sunglasses. 

In the 1940’s and 50’s, sunglasses were already all the rage thanks to the trend in the 1920’s and 30’s that saw many movie stars wearing shades to protect their identity as well as their eyes. But, of course, the true roots of sunglasses are found in their slightly less cool cousins: eyeglasses. In the 1920’s and 1930’s it was metal frames that dominated the marketplace, likely due to manufacturing advantages. There was a demand for other materials, however, leading to the exotic and I imagine often sad use of actual tortoise shells and horns for frames. Possibly it was the growth of a conscience, but more likely the improved design control and promise of increased profits, that lead to the introduction of plastic frames.

The first plastic frames were not as durable or robust as metal, however, so it took some time for them to catch up, but once they did, they slowly gained popularity. This type of frame became known as “Horn Rimmed” glasses, likely due to their resemblance to the ones made from actual horn. In the 20’s and 30’s, these Horn Rimmed glasses were mostly round like their metal counterparts, just thicker. And, while the Horn Rimmed style of eyeglasses transitioned well into sunglasses, It wasn’t until the 1940’s that things really started to “take shape”.

Before the 40’s, sunglasses were mostly worn for medical reasons, work or sport, and mostly by men, as, apparently, it was not very ladylike for a woman to hide her face in such a way. However, as societal norms changed, so too did the shape of sunglasses. With women now getting in on the action, sunglasses actually started becoming something worn for pleasure and fun by the general public. Likely because “Horn Rimmed” plastic frames could be easily manufactured in many shapes and sizes, this shift translated into a multitude of shapes, from flowers, to hearts, to just about anything that could be imagined.

By the 1950’s, however, such wild contours were going out of vogue, giving way to more chic, sophisticated designs. Now, the rudimentary shapes of the triangle, circle and square were being elongated, smoothed and crafted into more delicate constructions. It was in this minimalist example of the style that we can see the evolution of what would eventually be called the “Wayfarer” taking form. But, something was still missing. That edge, that spark, that dangerous quality had yet to be found. And, where it would ultimately be derived from was not to be immediately found in sunglasses of the time, but, rather, in their slightly less cool cousins: eyeglasses. 

Of the styles that were born out of this refinement, the Cat Eye was by far the most popular. Not as wild as the designs of the 1940’s, but still maintaining a note of excitement. The exact shape and curvature changed throughout the decade, but the inspiration that saw the frame flare to a tip at the intersection between the face and the temple arms became its distinguishing feature. And it was this particular feature that would differentiate the “Wayfarer” from being just another pair of Horn Rimmed sunglasses.

Likely due to its curves being reminiscent of the female formand its distinctly playful nature; Cat Eyes became a predominantly feminine style. However between the introduction of the innately more masculine rectangular Horn Rimmed frames now being worn by men and the dominance of the Cat Eye style worn by women, the evolution of the male Cat Eye began. It is, of course, difficult to say with complete certainty, but the ubiquitous presence of the female Cat Eye in the early 1950’s seems to have opened the door for men’s eyewear to become a little “friskier” as well.

It was around this time that Brow Line glasses become popular, especially with men. It was a style created by the company Shuron Ronsir in 1947, but it was during the design transitions of the 1950’s and the 1960’s that they became a common fixture on men’s faces. You will note that their shape, especially in these retro versions, mimic that of the Cat Eye design, but with a more masculine, rounded touch. It was quite possibly this acceptance of the Brow Line style that gave companies the courage to do something similar with the more masculine, rectangular Horn Rimmed frame.

Many companies had their own versions of what could most aptly be referred to as a male Horn Rimmed Cat-Eye style, from Polaroid, Persol, to Foster Grant (back then known as Fosta-Grantly), to FAOSA with their iconic Zafiro model (popularized most notably by Buddy Holly) and of course American Optical. It was in the late 1940’s that American Optical released their Calobar, but it wasn’t until the early 1950’s that the model would begin to take on the characteristic Cat Eye shape. Going by a few different names over the years, Calobar, Cosmetan, True Color, even Polaroid, and eventually Saratoga, the design was slowly evolving into what we now call the Wayfarer.

And, here it is, the American Optical 1950’s Cosmetan. Does it look familiar to you? It should. It is nearly identical to the original RayBan Wayfarer. Thus, the question that is on all of our minds at this point is: When was this version of the Cosmetan released? Was it before or after the 1956 introduction of the Wayfarer? The answer is, I don’t know. And, honestly, I’m not sure if anyone does. You see, this is where things get a little murky. And, unless one of the companies making sunglasses during the 1950’s is capable of coming up with some hard evidence proving they released a similar design before 1956, then we may never know the whole truth. Because, it is actually quite difficult to find date marked images of people wearing this style of sunglass before 1956. 

It is, however, quite easy to find many examples of this design at or around 1956 and throughout the 1960’s. As you can see, this seems to have become the definitive evolution of the Horn Rimmed Cat-Eye for men, what we now refer to as the “Wayfarer”. But, why is that? Why can’t we find many pictures of people wearing this specific design before 1956? Well, likely because it wasn’t very popular until then. You see, it takes time for a style to gain traction. This can be seen in the Zafiro, created in the late-1950’s but not truely popularized until the early 60’s. The same is true of the Wayfarer’s themselves. Most images of people wearing them date back the mid to late 1960’s, not often anywhere near 1956.

As I said, nothing short of date marked evidence will likely ever tell us who created the design first. However, while we might not know who created the first version of this particular design, we can at least assess Ray-Ban’s influence on its popularity,giving us at best some gauge of the originality of the Wayfarer’s themselves. Assuming that all designs of this style were released at or around the same time, we can ask the question: Was the popularity of the design due to the initial popularity of the Wayfarer? And, the answer to that is: Likely not. When looking at pictures of people wearing what we now call “Wayfarer” style sunglasses, time and time again, they were not actually wearing Ray-Ban Wayfarers. 

Yes, it is true that in some popular examples, prominent figures of the time were in fact wearing Ray-Ban Wayfarer’s. Yet, in the vast majority of instances, this was not the case. Upon closer inspection, people who were thought to be wearing Ray-Ban Wayfarers were simply wearing the popular Horn Rimmed Cat Eye style sunglasses of the time from the various other companies that offered them. One of the most prominent examples of this misinformed denotation of “Wayfarer” style is in its association with Rockabilly music. The Wayfarer is one of the hallmarks of Rockabilly style, assumed to have been sported by most of the greats from Buddy Holly, to Roy Oberon and even to Johnny Cash. But, the truth is, none of these men, nor the majority of their peers were ever captured wearing Ray-Ban Wayfarer’s.

Instead, they were wearing FAOSA Zafio’s or some other now unknown brand and model. But, the idea that they must have been wearing Wayfarer’s, due to their popularity when these images were made widely available via the internet, has, in part, lead to the notion that Ray-Ban pioneered the style. This association has become so ingrained in our cultural memory, even Juaquin Phoenix, when portraying Johnny Cash, in the movie “Walk The Line” appears to be wearing altered Ray-Ban Wayfarer’s, which one can clearly see do not quite fit the bill.

But, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the years, pictures of people like Bob Dylan, Muhammad Ali, James Dean, Audrey Hepburn and even Andy Warhol, wearing what was now being generally called the “Wayfarer” style, became an indication of the timelessness of the Wayfarers themselves. However, once again, none of these people were wearing Ray-Ban Wayfarers the vast majority of the time, if ever at all. They were simply wearing the style of the day: Horn Rimmed Cat-Eye Sunglasses.

Among these legends, however, one person, more than any other, mistakenly stands out as having worn the Ray-Ban Wayfarer. And it was this case of mistaken identity that made the Wayfarer, not just the stuff of legends, not just the thing to wear if you want a touch of that iconic coolness. No, now to don a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarer’s bestowed upon the wearer a regal quality unlike that of any other. That person I am referring to is of course John F. Kennedy Jr.

You can clearly see that President Kennedy is wearing what absolutely appears to be a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarer’s. But, once again upon closer inspection, we note the subtle differences. The biggest tell being that of the temple arms, which are much thinner and not nearly as wide as the Wayfarer’s. What he is actually wearing turns out to be none other than the American Optical Cosmetan, later to be known as the Saratoga.

Looking back, we can see that it was not likely the influence of the RayBan Wayfarer’s themselves that popularized the style in the late 50’s and throughout the 1960’s. Rather, it was simply the style of the time, with many brands and models, some long forgotten, each playing their own part in immortalizing what we now generically call the “Wayfarer”.  And, I don’t mean to suggest the idea that RayBan has actively sought out the corruption of history or the ownership of the design itself. But their own words on the topic send something of a mixed message:

“Ray-Ban Original Wayfarer Classics are the most recognizable style in the history of sunglasses. Since its initial design in 1952, Wayfarer Classics gained popularity among celebrities, musicians, artists and those with an impeccable fashion sense.”

While the style itself might be the most recognizable in the history of sunglasses, Ray-Ban too makes the mistake, or is actively perpetuating the idea, of referring to the Wayfarer and the style as one in the same. Either way, they seem to be perfectly fine with us calling a Hot-Tub a Jacuzzi. It’s also quite nice of them to mention the 1952 design and not the 1956 release. And, I wonder what celebrities, musicians and artists they just so happen to be referring to?

Ultimately, there is a fine line between creating a lie and preserving one with questionably selected truths and seemingly purposeful omissions. RayBan seems to be quite good at walking this line. You see, RayBan is one of those companies that has never really been that good at creating or innovating, but has mastered the art of taking existing designs and technologies, packaging them in a presentable way, releasing them to market before the competition, and marketing them to perfection. They are experts at this shit. That is why you think they invented Aviators. That is why you call them “Clubmasters” instead of Browline. And, that is why you call every pair of sunglasses that look anything like this…“Wayfarer’s”. And, that is something that I suggest we all stop doing.

So, what, instead, should we be calling them? Well, based on their design origins, I think they would most appropriately be described as Horn Rimmed Cat Eye sunglasses. After all, that’s what they are. Are they not?

As always, I do not allow commenting on my posts or YouTube videos and allow only limited commenting on my Instagram. If you would like to contact me, the best way is to DM me on Instagram. I find this lends towards more civil engagement as well as a more personal connection. I’d love to talk to anyone about this topic or any other, be it from on or off the blog.

Thank you for reading!

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