Several years ago, when I lived in London, I ended up at a terrible ‘warehouse party’ in one of the most insufferably trendy areas of the city. I’d been working a subbing shift in Westminster that day and was definitely not dressed for the occasion, but this was back in the early days of my Big Smoke adventure when I found myself saying ‘oh what the hell’ to a lot of things (too many things, really).
So I’m by the makeshift bar trying to decide whether I should rip the sleeves off my office shirt or cut a split into my skirt or tie my tights around my head or whatever was needed to make myself look less like a corporate shill, and a man walks over. An effortlessly cool man dressed in the bonkers aesthetic only someone from east London can really pull off.
“I like your glasses,” he said. “Shame they make your eyes so small.”
I was instantly furious. Not just because of the blatant negging, not just because I’d already paid an absolute fortune to have my lenses thinned down in a bid to disguise my mole-like vision, but because the bellend was wearing glasses as well.
“Well, that’s because it’s the prescription I need so I can see,” I sighed. “What about your glasses?”
He looked momentarily taken aback, like he’d forgotten he was even wearing them. “Ah, nah mate,” he laughed, twirling his glasses in his hand. “These are fake. I wear contacts, though.”
So this guy remedied his poor eyesight by wearing contact lenses, and then over the top wore prescription-free glasses, an object originally designed to correct poor eyesight, because…?
“It’s just my style.”
His glasses made him cool because they were singularly based on fashion. But it seemed that the fact that I wore mine out of a genuine need meant my defective eyes and I were unworthy of stylish specs. Basically, why wear cool glasses if the aesthetic is going to be ruined by your tiny pig eyes?
I tend to wear contact lenses on nights out, mainly because I’m liable to fling my (expensive prescription) glasses off my face when I’m drunk dancing. There have been times that I’ve encountered these faux glasses in the wild, so of course, being drunk curious, I’ve tried them on. I remember vividly doing so one time and my (then) boyfriend telling me they made me “look really hot”, which was baffling because they were basically identical to my own everyday glasses. “I don’t know,” he mumbled, like the idiot he was. “They just do is all.”
The difference was, of course, that the fake specs didn’t alter the appearance of my eyes. My eyes looked exactly as they did without wearing them, but somehow the addition of them to my face made me look sexier. Why?
Fashion and beauty’s relationship with glasses is complicated and tumultuous. Dorothy Parker’s famous 1937 quote ‘Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses’ had been gospel for a long time, and then 90s teen movies came along depicting bespectacled, awkward and unpopular girls who suddenly became a whole lot hotter and more desirable as soon as they took their glasses off. IT WAS THE GLASSES HOLDING THEM BACK ALL ALONG.
Suddenly, it was kind of okay to be a bit dorky-looking, because it meant you were probably artistic and thoughtful and SUPER HOT underneath, and I suspect this is one reason why prescription-free glasses became such a thing. Geek chic, right?
Another reason, and one particularly prevalent among hardcore trend followers, is that glasses make a statement. Not a ‘My eyes are broken so I need to wear these to see’ statement, but rather a ‘Fuck your beauty standards’ statement. Glasses are traditionally uncool, but make them enormous and bright green or whatever and you’re saying something by wearing them.
But, as with many elements of fashion, you have to conform to basic beauty ideals before you can make this statement. Catwalks are full of weird and edgy statement pieces designed to be worn by rake-thin bodies. Put an average-sized body into those clothes and against the media landscape to which we’ve all become accustomed they can seem jarring. Ditto: wear glasses as part of your statement look and, if the appearance of the lenses betray your shonky eyesight, it’s not cool any more. You need the glasses, you’re not choosing them, but bless you for trying.
Which is why the speccy Snapchat filter is so popular. Glasses are, for the ‘visually-privileged’, fun accessories like flower crowns (and dog ears?) to play around with. Genuinely needing them, though, is an obstacle to your potential as a visual blank canvas. And so this is why trend du jour FaceApp scrubs any trace of glasses off your mug once you set it to the beautify setting, as evidenced in the horror collage on the left (in which the app has even attempted to masculinise them for my male alter ego, because apparently glasses are gendered).
According to the app, I’m at my most fire when my skin has the matte appearance of a bedsheet, my eyes have the vague, glassy stare of someone who’s had too much MDMA (at, say, a warehouse party) and – surprise! – when my visage is unencumbered by glasses. Hey! We’re try’na make this gal pretty, get these things outta here!
So Dorothy Parker’s pithy comment still rings true 80 years later. Wearing glasses is fun and fashionable when it’s frivolous, but despite the apparent acceptance of specs in the trend arena, if you really need them it seems there’s still no place for you in real beauty narratives.