Cotswold voice: Through a glass, darkly
PUBLISHED: 17:27 09 May 2014 | UPDATED: 12:57 15 May 2014
Adam Edwards thinks sunglasses are the biggest con of the 21st century - three figures for a bit of plastic with a designer name that makes you see less well
Bug eyes emerge in May, although this year they arrived early. It was the first week of April when they appeared in the Cotswolds. The spring sunshine brought out them out.
I am, of course, talking about dark glasses.
I know it is an absurd prejudice but I don’t approve of the wearing of sunglasses in the country. It probably stems from my early 20s when I was invited to go stalking in Scotland and did so wearing a pair of Ray-Bans. After I came down from the hill my hostess said crushingly, “Proper country people don’t wear sunglasses”. It was, she continued, as crass as taking an umbrella when going fishing (I assumed she meant fly-fishing as all coarse fishermen squat under a multi-coloured shade) or wearing black at the village fete (the vicar excepted).
Forty years later sunglasses have become as important an accessory to modern country life as the iPhone. This month at the Badminton Horse Trials, for example, riders, fence judges, rural estate agents and horsey women will all be wearing them. There will even be a stand devoted to selling the things.
I cannot understand why this should be so. The light in England is not harsh and sporting dark glasses deprives the wearer of the soft subtle shades that are unique to our countryside. The eyewear rarely makes people more attractive (“Men don’t make passes at women who wear glasses,” wrote the New York wit Dorothy Parker) and furthermore they are possibly the biggest con trick of the 21st century. How can anybody be daft enough to pay three figures for a bit of plastic with a designer name that makes you see less well?
Sunglasses are a modern and very Western phenomenon (50 years ago the only Africans who wore them were dictators). It was only in the second half of the 20th century that they became ubiquitous. It is claimed, as is often the case by those who have no idea about history, that the Chinese invented them and did so in order that their judges could conceal their eye expressions in court. What is true is that in the 19th and early 20th century those with syphilis wore them because sensitivity to light was one of the symptoms of the disease and the pioneering stars of silent movies subsequently adopted them because the powerful arc lights, which were needed due to the extremely slow speed film, gave the actors permanently sore eyes. It was not until 1929 that inexpensive mass-produced shades were introduced to America. They were sold on the Atlantic City boardwalk and were considered a gimmick.
At first, the only British to adopt the glasses, usually of the horn-rimmed variety and known as ‘sun cheaters’, were those looking after our hotter colonies even though the natives never wore such accessories. Ever since it has been acceptable for modern Britons to wear shades abroad, a trend endorsed by all members of the Royal Family including the Queen, who is pictured wearing them on the Tristan da Cunha 60p stamp. They were also acceptable for Brits when skiing, on the beach and in the early 80s when the Sloane Rangers turned them into Alice Bands. But it was never ‘done’ to put them on in the country unless you wanted to be accused of being in show business.
It was not until the late 80s that they began creeping into our hills and dales just as they had crept into London nightclubs a few years earlier. Perhaps it was the influence of the 1980 cult film The Blues Brothers that started the fashion for wearing the eyewear when it was not necessary. That was the movie in which Elwood Blues said, “It’s a hundred and six miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses”.
Whatever the reason for sporting them, by the time we got to this century looking like a bluebottle on stilts was thought of as cool. It is now taken for granted that sunglasses are as much part of rustic wear as wellies.
A few years, after I was invited shooting in Scotland, Cool – the Complete Handbook was published. On the front was a montage of those it deemed to be the coolest figures in history. It featured Richard III, Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Van Gogh, Clark Gable, Clint Eastwood and many, many more dudes. Each of them was pictured wearing Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses in a salute to the hippest of hip accessories. But the coolest man in the history of the planet – Jack Nicholson – was without shades. He was so cool he didn’t need them. And nor quite frankly does anyone living in the Cotswolds.
This article by Adam Edwards is from the May 2014 issue of Cotswold Life