When Four-Eyed Women Became Fashionable

Cristen Conger

A screenshot from a 1950s eyewear fashion film.
A screenshot from a 1950s eyewear fashion film.

Starring at my laptop screen from behind a sizeable pair of thick, black glasses, I'm thanking my lucky stars that I wasn't a four-eyed lady living in the early 20th century. Back then, it was considered a travesty to be a woman in need of ocular assistance. Many folks are familiar with Dorothy Parker's 1926 "News Item" that "men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses," but the reality behind that clever rhyme was even more severe than attracting fewer dates.

In studying up for this week's Stuff Mom Never Told You episode on women and eyeglasses, I ran across Kerry Segrave's "Vision Aids in America: A Social History of Eyewear and Sight Correction" that documents just how loathed women in glasses were not so long ago.

Consider, for instance, the doctor who, in 1900, flatly declared that "Glasses are very disfiguring to women and girls." That doctor is probably now rolling over in his grave, as some 21st-century women wear fake glasses just to look cool.

Then, there's actress Peggy Wood's fascinating 1932 essay in American Magazine in which she traces her troubled history with wearing glasses and how heartbroken her mother was when she found out about her daughter's flawed vision. Although Wood asserts that "a woman with glasses does not look as beautiful as possible," she also notes that the broadening eyewear options for women at the time was making it less of a social suicide to be seen with glasses on in public. Around then, glasses were being repositioned as a fashion accessory for near- and farsighted women:

"The business of fashioning an extra pair of eyes to harmonize with one's looks has become a fine art; we four-eyed women have made it so. Nowadays you can have one pair of glasses to go with your evening gown, the kind that blends inconspicuously with the contour of your face; another pair for sports wear, with ear hooks that keep them from jumping away from you; a third and tougher pair for everyday business or housework."

A decade later, The New York Times confirmed that things were indeed getting better for visually challenged women, when it reported in 1942 that "girls who wear glasses no long pretend that they don't." Fantastic news, as it must've been might challenging to fake not needing glasses in that pre-contact lens era.

As glasses fashion films from the 1950s also demonstrate, women's eyewear soon after took on a new, chic dimension. "Today, women can wear glasses proudly, thanks to the color and subtlety of modern design," the narrator in the short below explains. "Apart from protecting and assisting eyesight, opticians are not content to make frames that blend. Their aim to beautify some of the 11 million women who wear glasses."

Some charm schools like the Lucy Clayton school even began offering courses in accessorizing with glasses. "A lesson in the art of 'specmanship', demonstrating this new art of wearing glasses as a fashion accessory in the same way as, say, jewelry."

Due in part to the wider range of eyewear styles available to women (because as any glasses wearer knows, finding the right frame for one's face shape can be a challenge even today), the positive effect of seeing Hollywood starlets sporting glasses and their rebranding as a hip fashion accessory like the Warby Parkers of yore, the 1950s marked a major turn for the social acceptability of women's eyewear. In 1953, journalist Lenore Hailparn wrote, "There was once a time, and it was not so very long ago at that, when a member of the female sex considered it a minor tragedy if a visit to the oculist led to the recommendation of glasses."