Wayfarers: The World’s Most Popular Sunglasses

Ray-Ban, like many other American companies, really made its name in the Second World War. They supplied eyewear, aviator sunglasses, to help U.S. Air Force pilots. The constant sunlight while flying above the clouds was causing headaches, nausea, and a general decreased level of vision. After the war, Ray-Ban looked for a new innovation, and in the 1950s, the Wayfarer was introduced. In no time at all, the definition of Wayfarer changed from “one who walks on foot,” becoming synonymous instead with the iconic eyewear.

The First Wayfarers: 1950s and 60s

For the first time, Wayfarers moved away from a metal frame and into a more cost-effective and lighter plastic. In the offices of Bausch + Lomb, the pioneers behind Ray-Ban, a designer named Raymond Stegman came up with the idea of mounting the lenses into plastic frames that flared at the top. The original trapezoid shape is different to the Wayfarer sunglasses that we know today. However, the 1950s was considered manly and, according to Stegman, the style offered a “masculine look.” This was evident in one of the first celebrity endorsements of Wayfarer sunglasses. The design became wildly popular after James Dean wore them in his 1955 film, Rebel Without a Cause. The movie was a huge hit, and as Roger Ebert put it in his review, a Wayfarers-adorned James Dean “decisively altered the way young men could be seen in popular culture. They could be more feminine, sexier, more confused, more ambiguous.” 

Dean tragically died in a car accident before the film’s release, only adding to the mystique and legend of the young star.

The 1960s saw Wayfarers going from strength to strength: Marilyn Monroe wore them on multiple occasions and Audrey Hepburn sported a pair in the 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When the President of the United States is wearing your sunglasses, as JFK did, it is safe to say they are popular.

Decline and Rebirth 

In the 1970s, fashions changed and Wayfarers became less popular. Fashion at the time favored smaller frames made of wire coupled with more cylindrical lenses. Sales were at an all-time low in 1980 when John Belushi and Dan Akroyd wore them in The Blues Brothers. In 1982, Ray-Ban signed a product placement agreement to ensure that Wayfarers would appear in at least 50 TV shows and films per year. This tactic worked:

  • 1983, Tom Cruise in Risky Business – 360,000 sales 
  • 1984, Don Johnson in Miami Vice – 720,000 sales 
  • 1985, Bruce Willis in Moonlighting – 826,000 sales 

This deal continued until 2007 and had been extremely successful. Notable musicians in the 1980s also wore Wayfarers – from Johnny Marr of the Smiths to Michael Jackson – further contributing to their wild success. In the 1990s sales once again declined slightly, despite celebrity endorsements. In 1999 Ray-Ban was sold to the Luxottica Group for a huge $640 million, and the Italian eyewear giants began to change things. 

The style of the Wayfarer has changed significantly from the 1950s. They have moved away from the original design – which aimed at a “masculine look” – and embraced a more unisex audience. In the early 2000s, Luxottica redesigned the Wayfarer, slightly changing the shape and size, as well as overhauling the brand. Nowadays, high-quality modern Wayfarer sunglasses are available at wholesalers such as Olympic Eyewear. Stars wearing Wayfarers include Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, Beyonce, and Kate Middleton. These names have helped Luxottica’s revenue climb to $7.7 billion. 

From U.S. Presidents to the British Royal family, Wayfarers’ combination of simple, yet stylish and iconic design means they are today the most popular sunglasses in the world.

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