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History, evolution and significance of the cat eye sunglasses

From the 20s to 2020s the evolution of the iconic style. By Arushi Sakhuja

A style worn by many that has transcended the passage of time, the cat eye sunglasses are an iconic style, to say the least. For decades, the sultry, feline-inspired style has been the go-to of screen legends and everyday women alike. From Audrey Hepburn to Hailey Bieber, the style is highly loved by all. While the trend peaked in the 1920s it saw a downfall and now, retro cat-eye frames are resurging in popularity.


Since its inception in the 1920’s, to the latest trend of embellished eyewear, cat eyes have a fan following spread across generations and demographics. Today these frames can be categorized as a timeless look. From its Upper West Side beginnings to famous interpretations as worn by screen legends like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. And more recently, brands such as Celine and Gucci have kept the cat-eye renaissance alive.


But the frame isn’t iconic just for its design and timeless style statement. Taking a deep dive into history, one realises that the historic creation brought together fashion and the society that leaned towards patriarchy. Invented by American filmmaker and designer Altina Schinasi Miranda in the late 1920s, the cat-eye was the first distinctively feminine eyewear style in history, and it revolutionised the masculine-driven eyewear industry.


The designer who completed 116 years in August this year began her design journey after passing an optician’s window on New York’s Fifth when she found herself underwhelmed by the standardised unisex frames on display. Hence instilling in her a desire to create a feminine style.


Upon completing the design Altina called it Harlequin, and only later was it renamed the cat-eye a style that resonates with us now. Taking inspiration from the Venice Masks, she was a pioneer in her field. For the first prototype of a more glamorous silhouette, the shape designs were cut away from the romantic and whimsical harlequin masks worn at ballroom dances. It is from this mask that the cat eye shape got its first name Harlequin. However, it was not without a fair share of struggles.


Although Schinasi’s designs were initially rejected by major manufacturers including Ray-Ban, she soon found a boutique optical shop on Madison Avenue that sold her designs to high-profile women. By the end of the 1930s, harlequin glasses had become so popular that Schinasi started her own company to distribute them. In 1939, she was given the American Design Award from Lord and Taylor for revolutionising the eyewear industry and transforming optical glasses into a fashion accessory, and the rest as they say was history.


The origin of the cat eye frame


During the post-war years, the popularity of the cat eye frame soared and eyewear companies started to truly cater to the market for feminine frames adding stylistic touches such as diamante, gold stars and elaborate flairs to the tips of the frames. 


Dior was instrumental in bringing the style under the spotlight in 1947, with Christian Dior‘s New Look – a signature style of the design house. A-line skirt with a nip at the waist, and to accentuate the outfit, the cat-eye shape paired well with Dior’s era-defining silhouette.  The trend which initially started with a rectangular lens thick frame, a slight uplift at the sides, and small details at the corners went on to become more narrow and pointed during the 1950s. This style gained popularity after Marilyn Monroe started wearing cat-eye glasses in her films.


The 1950s proved to be a significant year for cat-eye glasses but it was only in the 60s that this style gained popularity especially after Audrey Hepburn donned them in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Wearing a pair of Oliver Goldsmith Manhattan sunglasses, this style catapulted oversized cat-eye sunglasses to fame and iconic status. By now, a smaller cat-eye frame began to transform into a larger, oversized frame and commanded oomph. 


Sophisticated, feminine, romantic and seductive all in one this larger silhouette opened up the cat eye design to a whole new audience thanks to the addition of tinted lenses. As a result, cat-eye glasses appeared in every shape and form — often bedazzled with crystals and other embellishments for a standout effect. After the surge in popularity of the 60s, in the 70s the cat-eye trend saw a downfall. The style was overshadowed by funky large square and circular.


The Renaissance


Sixty years later, a designer collaboration proved the cat-eye look hadn’t lost any of its lustre. The blockbuster success of Adam Selman x Le Specs’ The Last Lolita, was unprecedented and the retro cat-eye trend could be seen everywhere and on everyone. This time the frame is more geometric and considerably smaller than what we’ve seen in previous years. With its iconic narrow cat-eye silhouette and flat profile, it has been worn by Gigi and Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Rihanna and more, thus sparking a cat-eye sunglasses revival and putting the style firmly back in the spotlight. From the catwalk to the streets and pop culture, the trend has seen a revival today.

In contrast to the past, cat eye frames of today have a more subtle, chic and elegant approach and are available in many variations from thicker dark or coloured frames to thinner, more playful ones to flatter any type of face shape. It was in 2021, that the Spring Summer runway was filled with modern incarnations of the cat-eye shape from all the big fashion houses. Today, the small narrow frames have got more geometric, oversized frames too have cat eyes and clear frames can’t be missed out. Every season’s offerings showcase a stronger hold on the design staple – think vintage, retro, Audrey-inspired styles and more.


Coming to fashion weeks, from Paris to Copenhagen to New York City and London, street style is as obsessed with flirty cat-eye sunglasses as it is with sporty frames. This year’s most popular versions abandon the slight swoop of Audrey Hepburn’s Breakfast at Tiffany shades for a sharper silhouette. Celine has taken on the classic 1950s iteration while Gucci launched its Forever Hollywood collection featuring black teardrop cat eyes sparkling with crystals. Leave it to a classic label like Tory Burch to ever-so-slightly upgrade a frame with a shorter shape and new colours.



Although this particular frame has been traditionally considered a feminine fashion accessory, in recent days it is becoming more and more popular among men as well. As of today, fashion is more gender-fluid.


Unisex, playful and chic can best describe the revival of the trend, and we are on board!

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