Pick your fantasy—the self-possessed pilot with hat cocked back, Douglas MacArthur earnestly striding up a Philippine beach, Marlon Brando looking menacing on a motorcycle, a strutting rock star, Steve McQueen practicing his thousand-yard stare—aviator sunglasses are the enduring ocular accessories that telegraph American machismo. And, just like General MacArthur, they have returned, this time in a stylish range of choices.
The persistence of aviator glasses since their debut in the 1930s, owes much to two things: function and flair, says James J. Spina, editor in chief of 20/20, a trade magazine for the optical industry. "Everything goes in cycles, but aviator glasses are typically so well made and have such a classic shape that they always come back. Fleeting fashion can't keep a good trend down."
Like so much of men's style, the look was born of utility. The government went shopping for sunglasses for its flyboys and awarded contracts to both Ray-Ban and American Optical. Their versions had the advantage of a shape that offered maximum eye coverage and drooped to the checks, which Spina says keeps glare from entering the eyes in much the same way that the paint that footballers smear on their cheeks keeps reflected light from obscuring their vision. The metal frames were durable but thin, promoting better peripheral vision at the temples. A high double brow also kept the frame out of the pilot's vision while absorbing stress and diverting sweat.
Once other GIs got a load of the aviator look, they adapted it and, just like modern Hummer vehicles, the sunglasses found a demand in peacetime America. Some of this year's iterations (pictured from bottom to top) include the classic aviators from Ray-Ban (www.ray-ban.com) and variations on the theme from Morgenthal-Frederics (www.morgenthal-fredericsny.com), Ermenegildo Zegna (www.zegna.com), Initium (www.initiumeyewear.com) and Serengeti (www. serengeti-eyewear.com).
We think you'll agree they look good in all their various incarnations, except maybe when you're staring down a state trooper with a mirrored pair and a ticket book.