The evolution of spectacles

With more than half the Australian population (55%) having one or more long-term eye conditions, many have turned to wearing prescription glasses to improve their vision.

According to Optometry Australia’s 2020 Vision Index, two-thirds of Australians surveyed wear prescription glasses; however, only 37 per cent wear them all the time. Reasons cited for not wearing glasses regularly include not needing refractive correction full-time; not liking the way they look on the face; and the inconvenience of having to carry them around.

Glasses have come a long way over the past 100 years or so. What started as a purely functional vision improvement apparatus has now evolved into a key fashion accessory used to express individual style; with frame shape, rim colour and UV protection levels now major factors in influencing someone’s purchase. With Australians prepared to spend an average amount of $243 on prescription glasses, it’s no wonder the look and feel of frames is an important part in the decision-making process.

To appreciate just how far prescription glasses have come, we’ve taken a look at the evolution of the humble spectacle since it was first invented.

Who invented the spectacle? When was it first introduced?

No one knows exactly who invented the first pair of spectacles. It’s believed the Romans were the first to discover the ability to use glass globes of water as magnifying glasses to read small text. From there, Venetian glass blowers in the 13th century created the first version of handheld magnifying glasses by putting solid glass into a single frame with a handle made of wood or animal horn. Historians report the first wearable “hands-free” eyeglasses came into being during the 1700s with the addition of the nose bridge and ear handles or “temples”.

What were some of the biggest developments and innovations to spectacles since their inception?

Benjamin Franklin invented the bifocal lens, which allowed someone with both near and far-sighted affectation to use one pair of glasses instead of two. Also during this time, “scissor spectacles” became prominent, allowing those who didn’t need to wear glasses full-time to fold the arms of their glasses and put them in their pocket, thanks to the newly incorporated hinges. Soon after, the industrial revolution enabled mass production of lenses and frames making it easier and more affordable for the lower classes to obtain glasses and enjoy better eyesight.

Since then, the last 100 years has seen an evolution toward making glasses fashionable and stylish, not just functional.

The evolution of eyeglasses over the past 100 years


French “pinch-nose” glasses that stayed on without earpieces were very popular during this era. Circular lenses were also on trend featuring earpieces that curved securely behind the ears.

Pinch nose or 'pince-nez' glasses


The biggest change to spectacles in the 30s was the repositioning of the bridge from the centre of the frame to the top.


This decade saw the introduction of the “browline” trend which distinguished the thicker top of the frame from the thinner lower half, following the shape of the eyebrow. This style became so popular that by the end of the decade, it made up 50 per cent of all spectacle sales.

The 1940s browline trend


Arguably the most iconic style ever created, the “Cat Eye” made its debut in the 50s, with movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe popularising the look.

Marilyn Monroe popularised the 'cat eye' look in glasses


Eyeglasses cemented themselves as an important fashion accessory, with the 60s giving rise to square-shaped and jewel-encrusted frames.


Over-sized glasses took centre stage (round and square), with many movie stars donning this look on and off the screen. Ombre frames (usually made of plastic) also became all the rage. The late Jackie Onassis epitomised this look.

A Pierre Cardin eyewear ad from 1977


The over-sized trend continued into the 80s. While plastic frames were still popular, metal frames were on the rise, along with bolder styles experimenting with funky shapes, colours and materials.

A snapshot of 1980s glasses frames


The 90s was all about toning down glasses for a more minimalist look – small and simple wire frames complimented the fashion of this decade.


Plastic square and rectangle frames made a comeback (with a more contemporary edge), and invisible frames were on trend – a modern twist on the browline style of the 40s.


Transparent frames are one of today’s trends, an evolution of the invisible frames from the decade before. Pop culture celebrities like Gigi Hadid and Hailey Bieber have popularised this look off the runway.

If you’re needing assistance with choosing the right prescription glasses for you, visit your local optometrist for expert advice and to discuss the best option for your needs and personal style.

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