Like all great pieces of clothing, the Aviator and its underappreciated cousin the Navigator both stem from the military and were therefore created out of necessity. With the primary function of improving a pilot’s vision at high altitudes, the combination of a tear-drop lens with a tinted glass was quickly embraced by non-serving members of society. Versatile and consistently cool, Ben St George writes that “its place in the eyewear pantheon is built on the genius of its design”.
If ever a frame could be described as iconic, it’s the aviator. Worn by everyone from General MacArthur to George Michael to Debbie Harry, and seen on screen in so many famous iterations. A few highlights are; Tom Cruise in Top Gun (duh), Al Pacino in Scarface, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Chow Yun Fat in A Better Tomorrow, Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, Christopher Walken in A View To A Kill. In all of these movies, one can see not only their enduring cool but their remarkable versatility, too. The aviator’s origins – and some of its most famous cinematic outings – may be rooted in the military, but its place in the eyewear pantheon is built on the genius of its design.
The aviator shape holds a special place in the history of sunglasses. They are the first truly mass-produced frame shape, essentially responsible for the creation of the sunglasses industry as a whole. But in many ways, they’re also the tool watch of the sunglass world – a style that was developed first and foremost as a piece of functional kit.
In the early 20th Century pilots began pushing the boundaries of what was possible with aircraft. As they began to exceed heights of well over 30,000 feet they had to deal with not only the fundamental risks of early aviation but also the freezing cold. Without the benefit of sealed or pressurised cockpits, pilots had to rely on insulated and fur-lined clothing in order to keep warm and even fur-lined goggles for their eyes. Unfortunately, these also had a tendency to fog up - which combined with the sun’s piercing glare at high altitude could make vision next to impossible.
This was exactly what happened to U.S. Air Force test pilot Shorty Schroeder in 1920. Flying at 33,000 feet in an open cockpit biplane, his goggles fogged up, and with the sun in his eyes, he found himself totally blind. Upon removing his goggles, however, his eyes quite literally froze over due to the air temperature, leaving him once again barely able to see, at risk of permanently losing his eyes and probably his life. Miraculously he managed to land the aircraft - fellow aviator and friend, John Macready, pulled him from the cockpit, and the sight of Schroeder’s swollen-shut eyes made him realise a more specialised solution was required for this problem.
In conjunction with lens makers, Macready began developing special tinted goggles featuring a unique teardrop shape to offer as much protection to the eyes as possible; they quickly became standard issue for pilots throughout the Force. In 1935, a new variant, the U.S. Army Air Corps D-1 was issued by American Optical, featuring that same distinctive teardrop shape, only this time they weren’t goggles as much as tinted lenses held in frames. They sat over the ears rather than strapping around the head and there was no lining whatsoever – they were expressly for blocking glare, and that was it. A “sun glass”, if you will. By 1939, with a few changes to the frame, notably the addition of the brow bar for sturdiness, they hit the consumer market and became an instant success, especially with sportspeople. Modern sunglasses were born.
The aviator’s pervasive adoption has a lot to do with that signature teardrop lens shape. The broad-at-the-top, narrow-at-the-bottom silhouette was designed, by necessity, to expressly to follow the lines of the face. Whether they’re a classic metal frame or a thicker framed pair, like De Niro’s powerfully Seventies shades in Casino, the effect is the same - by following the shape of the face as a whole, they have a tendency to flatter.
This is also true of the navigator – the aviator’s shorter, more rectangular and frankly underappreciated cousin. The navigator was a later addition, brought about by the advent of jet aircraft. It’s original model, the HGU-4/P, was developed in 1959 to be able to sit more comfortably under a flight helmet whilst offering enough clearance for a pilot’s oxygen mask to be worn. The navigator offers a subtler, slightly more refined take on the classic shape - softening the lines without losing it’s timeless and flattering quality. Look at Station To Station-era David Bowie sporting them – case closed, surely?.
Whilst the frame’s military roots are an indelible part of its story and charm, the aviator isn’t about machismo – it’s a perfect example of how form following function can create an aesthetic triumph. A versatile, wearable and elegant piece that’s just as at home worn with workwear or military vintage as it is with the finest bespoke suit. Other shapes have come and gone, but the aviator and navigator have proven that something intelligently developed and beautifully constructed can endure for generations.
– By Ben St George
We have a small handful of Aviator and Navigator shape frames, but two of our favourites have long been Reed and Marc. Reed is part of our range of Handcrafted frames, which means that it’s been made entirely in our workshop in England and carved from thick 8mm acetate. It has a heaviness to it that’s unusual in the market, and we like to think that it’s a sign of quality that’s reminiscent of vintage eyewear. Marc, on the other hand, is much lighter and the grey acetate cuts a much more contemporary look. The subtle pale lenses are refreshing and we think they’d add another dimension to your wardrobe this spring/summer season.