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Cat Eyes - the ultimate vintage spectacle shape

Our gorgeous featured glasses star is @thebroadwithredlips

When people are asked what a pair of vintage spectacles look like, their mind probably envisages the iconic shape of the cat eye, which just seems to be synonymous with vintage glamour and the classic Hollywood era. But where did the cat eye shape come from? The story is quite amazing.

It all started when American heiress, socialite and artist, Altina Schinasi walked by an optician’s office and noticed the lack of stylish options for women. Schinasi was a fascinating character, who was married and very publicly divorced many times – in an era when this was still seen as scandalous and even hid accused Communists during the McCarthy witch hunts in the 1950s. She had spent time in Europe when studying painting as a young woman and felt inspired by the exaggerated shapes of masks that she saw in Venice. So, she set out to design a frame that conveyed the same whimsy as the masks she loved, with exaggerated emphasis around the eyes. She said, “surely, there must be some way to design eyeglasses that could be attractive! What looks good on a face? What adds to a face? What could a woman wear on her face that would be romantic?” So, the cat eye or harlequin frame as it was often called then, was born.

It was a long road to production though. After being turned down by multiple opticians, she finally got her break at a glasses boutique in New York City and the frames were a hit. Then the deals with department stores came thick and fast and she later expanded her operation to the West Coast. In 1939, Schinasi was finally recognised for her work and she won the Lord & Taylor Annual American Design Award for helping to transform the humble, functional eyeglass frame to a must have fashion accessory. What’s more, she was credited by Vogue magazine as having revolutionised the eyewear industry.

The 1940s was the decade that cat eye frames really started to take off. During this decade, the trend was for more of a rectangular lens with a thick frame, with a slight uplift at the sides, and small details at the corners such as little gold stars or diamantes. Most fashionable ladies in this era liked to wear round, bug eye style glasses and their matching brightly coloured fun counterparts in sunglasses. But the cat eye started to carve its own niche when film stars such as Janet Leigh began to be pictured wearing them.

In the 1950s, the wearing of cat eye glasses became super fashionable and anyone who was anyone donned a pair. Noticeably Marilyn Monroe and her brilliant turn in ‘Gentleman Prefer Blondes.’

The shape was much narrower and more pointed during the 1950s and adornments became much more elaborate, with some designs that were brightly coloured or two tone, or even had engraved metal designs. The shape made the cross over to sunglasses now too and fabulous brightly coloured, glitter confetti frames made of plastic were very popular – these are still super collectible today. Frames got even more extravagant and avant-garde and designers experimented with unusual shapes, such as the kissing fish, scalloped or twisted edges. 

One crazy design was ‘The Kiss’ designed by Oliver Goldsmith; while it looks incredible, I am not sure how practical they were to wear!

In the swinging sixties, the narrow cat eye frame of the decade before began to seem old fashioned and it evolved into a wider shape, which fully covered the eye area. The decorations weren’t as fussy, and designers seemed to experiment more with textures and colours than whimsical adornments.

Audrey Hepburn, in her role as Holly Golightly in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ revived the cat eye as she wore the famous huge black sunglasses, teamed with a simple shift dress and pearls. This look was pure class, elegance and glamour.

This larger shape just got larger and more rounded during the 1970s, before it became less fashionable in the 80s and largely worn by those seeking more of a vintage aesthetic. But in the 2000s, geometric and futuristic cat-eye designs made a comeback and fashion forward celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Rihanna began to accessorise their outfits with them.

At Retropeepers we have a huge range of different shaped cat-eye frames to suit all budgets and they are one of our most popular sellers. We interviewed two of our cool customers about why they love the cat-eye frame so much…

@Paulas_vintage_milinery. Paula wears Peggy in Champagne

I particularly love cat eye frames as these are more traditional with the 1950s look, which I absolutely love. It’s an iconic style and I love the variations - plain frame, patterned, sparkles, diamanté and colours. I have a variety of colours and styles now from Retropeepers and I particularly love the ones with a little bling.

Paula wears Betty in Olive Green

Some of my favourite looks are when Marilyn Monroe wore glasses in the movie ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’. She is one of my biggest style icons I love and admire. She made cat eye glasses look sexy. But I remember seeing a photo of Princess Margaret from Wimbledon in the 1950s, where she wore a stunning pair of black, and diamond encrusted cat-eye sunglasses. She looked just so elegant and I would love to own a pair like that.

@Kensington_gore wears Betty in black above.

I love cat eye frames for a couple of reasons, the main one being that I love the modern rockabilly and pin up vibe and adore the vintage feel they can add instantly to any outfit. Secondly I have very round eyes and I find that a cat eye frame give me that almond eye shape in a quick cheat way!

I only have one pair of actual vintage frames but I think they're more 80s and are a large aviator style; the other frames I have are reproductions and I also have my standard readers and prescription ones but I always try and get a vintage feel frame if possible. However, I would love to find a pair similar to Mrs Peacock from the film Clue, they're so ornate and beautiful but alas they have eluded me thus far.

To see the full range of cat eye glasses on Retropeepers, click on this link. Here are some of our best sellers, if you go for any of these options, you will doubtless find yourself purring loudly!

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