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A Brief History of Aviators

As a society, we regard the Christmas season as the most wonderful time of the year. We feel that springtime – the three or so weeks a year of perfect temperatures and sunny days we get in Philadelphia –  is a very strong runner-up. After a long winter (in a pandemic, no less), we are ready for this sun. We should all protect our eyes stylishly, so we’ll give a brief history of aviators. We’ll also discuss how to wear them.

What Are Aviator Sunglasses?

mens aviator glasses framesAviator sunglasses – or simply “aviators” – are teardrop-shaped eyewear frames. They sometimes sport a brow bar and often have thin, metal arms that surround the temples (unlike Wayfarers, which would have very thick arms). Some feature, clean, minimalist designs, while others utilize bold colors and heavy embellishments as a fashion statement.

The aviator style is ubiquitous. It’s hard to find an eyewear brand that doesn’t carry aviators. High-end brands like Persol make them, and you can probably find a pair at your local drug store. They’re incredibly versatile.

How They Came About

general macarthur in aviator sunglasses
Gen. Douglas MacArthur in his signature aviators.

Like so many things we wear, aviator sunglasses have a military background. In 1935, a company called American Optical produced the first-ever aviators. These were a replacement for the flying goggles that pilots complained about being cumbersome. The eyewear’s official title was “U.S. Army Air Corps D-1 Sunglasses.”

About half a decade later, this model was replaced by the more comfortable AN6531. These were produced by the millions for soldiers and sailors, and were done so to a joint standard shared by the Army and the Navy (“AN” stood for “Army/Navy”). It had a teardrop-shaped lens that helped pilots who needed to keep the bright blue and white of the sky out of their eyes while looking down at their control panels.

The first style – Type 1 – featured green-tinted lenses that transmitted 50% of incoming visible daylight. Unfortunately, this proved insufficient to protect pilots’ eyes. Type 2 featured a rose smoke lens and was manufactured en masse by many companies, namely Bausch & Lomb. Aesthetic details varied from manufacturer to manufacturer.

This shape has become a hallmark of the classic aviator style we wear today.

How To Wear Aviators

man with sunglasses lighting cigarAviators are undisputedly in the pantheon of permanently stylish eyewear. They’re incredibly versatile and make a perfect match for anything from a custom suit down to nothing but a bathing suit, and everything in between.

Are aviators your style? If we were to rate aviators on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being sartorially conservative, 10 being totally fashion forward), we’d give them a 6. On the conservative side, the style is decades old and thus a classic. Being a military-inspired design, they speak to strength and vitality. This was right in line with much of 1950’s American men’s style – after all, we’d just won the war that saved the world from Nazism.

man in green custom mock neck shirtOn the other hand, aviator lenses are large relative to other sunglass styles. This makes them more attention-grabbing, hence our “just north of style-neutral” rating.

Selecting sunglasses can be challenging – anything worn on the face will get much more attention than anything worn elsewhere, so you should exercise particular care when selecting eyewear. We suggest you take a look at our guide to selecting eyewear for your personality when you have a few minutes.

Sunglasses vs. Eyeglasses

Aviators are unique from other frames in that we feel there’s a different vibe when you wear them as sunglasses versus wearing them as eyeglasses.

office space manager halloween costume
Aviator eyeglasses conjure up less-than-ideal images.

For sunglasses, you can’t really beat a pair of aviators for all the reasons we listed above. As eyeglasses, though, we suggest you tread cautiously. Aviator eyeglasses were a workaday look in the 1970’s and 1980’s, it’s true. But, sometimes it’s best to let trends pass and never come back. Without a reflective lens, aviators lose a lot of their “cool” factor and look like they belong to a guy with a mullet.


Now that spring has sprung, what does your wardrobe look like, aviators and otherwise? If there are holes, we can help. Give us a call at 215-310-0219 or email info@henrydavidsen.com to get started.

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