For decades, celebrities and trendsetters alike have chosen the Wayfarer sunglass frame to create a look of effortless cool. From the creation of the iconic frame in the 50s to its peak in the 80s, the Wayfarer has a history.
The frames are an iconic style, often mimicked by others. The style is not in danger of going away any time soon, although its popularity is well off its 1980s peak. If you’re considering Wayfarers as your next sunglasses, look into the cultural history of this classic, always-cool pair of shades.
The Birth of the Wayfarer
The origins of Wayfarer sunglasses begin with Ray-Ban, a brand and company founded by Bausch & Lomb in 1937. The first style of Ray-Ban was the aviator. Bausch & Lomb designed the iconic metal-framed aviator glasses for pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Pilots needed sunglasses to protect their eyes from the sun and to reduce glare. The now-classic shape and size of the aviator covered the eyes well but still featured frames comfortable enough to wear. From the aviator, it was a short jump to the design of the Wayfarer in 1952.
Ray-Ban also made the Wayfarer for pilots, but they used new technology to get the same glare-reducing effect. Using molded plastic for frames was revolutionary at the time. Ray-Ban was one of the earliest companies to make this leap from wire to plastic frames that manufacturers could make more cheaply. The plastic frames were also more durable and easy to replace.
Wayfarers in the 50s and 60s
Soon after introducing the Wayfarer, the design took off and became incredibly popular with all kinds of people. Something about the black plastic and the frame shape initially attracted the rebellious types, especially celebrities. James Dean, Bob Dylan, and Andy Warhol preferred the frames and showcased them as anti-establishment. Soon, Wayfarers became synonymous with subcultures everywhere.
Simultaneously, more mainstream and upper-class people also wore the Wayfarers, including President Kennedy, Marylin Monroe, and the always-suave Cary Grant. This crossover between iconic rebels and upper-class individuals indicated the important mass appeal of the Wayfarer frame shape and style.
The Wayfarer became a legendary design of mid-century America with broad appeal across all demographics. By the 1970s, however, the style began to decline in popularity. Smaller, rounder, and wire-framed variations—think John Lennon’s classic pair—became popular. The popularity of Wayfarers decreased so much that Ray-Ban nearly discontinued the frames for good.
Wayfarers in the 1980s
Thankfully for fashion lovers everywhere, the Ray-Ban Wayfarer had a huge 1980s comeback. The return was so significant that the style is now a classic symbol of the decade, perhaps more strongly associated with the 80s than the mid-century period. The resurgence of Wayfarers can be attributed to product placement. Ray-Ban made a deal with a company that strategically placed the glasses in at least 60 movies and TV shows a year, beginning in 1982.
Wayfarers made now-iconic appearances in Risky Business, Blues Brothers, Miami Vice, Moonlighting, and many other shows and movies of the 80s. At the same time, musicians, from the mainstream to the fringe, embraced Wayfarers. Michael Jackson, Debbie Harry, and Corey Hart wore them in videos and on the red carpet.
Wayfarers in the 90s and Beyond
The 80s proved to be the peak of popularity for the Wayfarers, surpassing even their 1950s and 1960s run. As the 90s and 2000s came around, trends in sunglasses frames went more petite and more prominent, with both diminutive styles and dinner-plate-sized glasses becoming fabulous looks. Fortunately, the Wayfarer’s popularity did not drop as low as in the 1970s. Following the decline in the 1990s, Ray-Ban introduced many more variations of the Wayfarer, including smaller sizes, slightly different shapes, and different colors and patterns. A resurgence in nostalgic 80s style also helped Wayfarers make a 2000-teens comeback.
Celebrities, as always, help iconic styles return to popularity. Those who still favor the Wayfarer include Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Justin Bieber, James Franco, and many more. These and ordinary style makers keep the classic Wayfarer in constant rotation, regardless of shifting trends.
The Wayfarer is Here to Stay
Few sunglass styles, or any piece of fashion for that matter, are as classic or iconic as the Wayfarer. The style had its ups and downs, but it is likely here to stay. Today, there are even more options to choose from in the Wayfarer design family. There is truly something for everyone and every occasion.