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History, Evolution & Significance of the Cat Eye Sunglasses

From the 20s to 2020s, this iconic style has continued to wow.

Barbie, the pink-hued, highest grossing movie of 2023, set the stage in the very first introduction scene, when – in the past – a larger-than-life Barbie doll appears to lift little girls out of their expected, domesticated misery. And she is wearing white cat-eye sunglasses. Befitting the history of this iconic sunglass silhouette, when the movie moves to current times, the dejected, snubbed Ken sports the cat-eye sunglass as well!

Barbie movie cat eye sunglasses

A style that has transcended the passage of time, the cat eye sunglasses has been worn by many. 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 1920s, 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.

Marilyn Monroe cat eye sunglasses
Marilyn Monroe was one of the celebrities credited with making cat-eye glasses popular.

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 a 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 a masculine-driven eyewear industry.

The designer began her design journey after passing an optician’s window on New York’s Fifth Avenue 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, Ms. Miranda called it Harlequin, and only later was it renamed the cat-eye – a style that resonates with us now. For the first prototype of this glamorous silhouette, Ms. Miranda took inspiration from the Venice masks, and the romantic and whimsical harlequin masks worn at ballroom dances. And 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.

The trend, which initially started with a rectangle lens thick frame, a slight uplift at the sides, and small details at the corners, went onto to become more narrow and pointed during the 1950s

Princess Grace of Monaco
Princess Grace of Monaco sporting the cat-eye sunglasses.

Although Ms. Miranda’s designs were initially rejected by major manufactures 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 Ms. Miranda started her own company to distribute them. In 1939, she was given the American Design Award by Lord and Taylor for revolutionising the eyewear industry and transforming optical glasses into a fashion accessory, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The rising popularity of cat eye frame

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

Audrey Hepburn cat eye sunglasses
Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

The 1950s proved a significant year for the 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. By now, smaller cat-eye frames began to transform into a larger, oversized frame (again) 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. Cat-eye glasses appeared in every shape and form — often bedazzled with crystals and other embellishments for 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 frames.

The renaissance

Sixty years later, a designer collaboration proved that 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.

Gigi Hadid sunglass style
Gigi Hadid flaunting the Adam Selman X Le Specs cat-eye sunglasses.

With the 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 sunglass revival, 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.

Rihanna Cat eye sunglasses
Rihanna made waves with her Valentino cat-eye sunglasses, attached with false long eye lashes, at MET Gala 2023.

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.

In fact, now Louis Vuitton menswear designer, and singer, Pharell Williams sported a Tiffany & Co. custom made diamond-encrusted cat-eye sunglass in 2022, that, quite amazingly, was similar to a pair of 17th century Mughal emerald and diamond cat eye sunglass that was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 2021!

Pharrell Williams cat eye glasses
These diamond and emerald encrusted cat-eye sunglasses by Tiffany & Co. found their place on singer and designer Pharrell Williams.

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. Last 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.

Gucci sunglasses
A look from Gucci’s Love Parade collection presented in 2021.

Leave it to a classic label like Tory Burch to ever-so-slightly upgrade a frame with a shorter shape and new colours. Loewe, on the other hand, offers inflated cat-eye sunglasses which look chic and fun at the same time.

Loewe sunglasses
Loewe’s iconic inflated cat-eye sunglasses are finding favour with many today.

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!