Italy is now famous as a center of exciting fashion houses and the latest modes in everything from sports cars to jewelery, from shoes to top quality cosmetics. Thus, it is hardly surprising to learn that Italian designers played an important role in the vintage cat eye glasses world of the 1950s and 1960s, too. One notable business that took root at the time of the First World War in Turin, an Alpine city, was Persol, founded by a man named Giovanni Ratti.
Like many vintage eyeglass companies that started in the early 20th century, Persol gained a foothold by selling protective goggles to pilots and early drivers. This association helped to launch the brand with a daredevil image that blended smoothly into the world of high fashion in the following decades.
There has been a long connection between adventure and haute couture in Europe, as witnessed by the elegant yet adventurous and warlike knights and noblemen of the medieval and Renaissance eras. Glasses like Persol’s prove this link continued at least until the early 20th century – showing just how deeply ingrained cultural currents can be. Persol and its eventual cat eye glasses won their initial glamor from dashing aviators and flamboyant sports car enthusiasts!
Of course, Persol was helped immensely by the fact that style was strongly allied with substance from the beginning. Like many vintage glasses designers, Giovanni Ratti was also an innovator, who experimented with technologies designed to improve the performance of the vintage eyewear while at the same time not neglecting fashion.
Interestingly, some of Ratti’s earliest surviving (and identifiable) designs, predating the official foundation of Persol, show a unique combination of old and new features. These vintage glasses – made after World War I but before World War II – sometimes already show a characteristic cat eye glasses shape, even before the full flourishing of the style in the 1950s and 1960s.
Fitted with vented side visors mounted on small pivots to the top and bottom of the eyerims, these glasses are clearly intended for sporty, outdoor use. In fact, they are often fitted with yellow tinted lenses – which, it will be remembered, first showed up for use by hunters and soldiers, including American Civil War snipers, as a tone believed to provide better vision on cloudy or foggy days.
The yellow tint of these early Persol cat eye glasses was probably a throwback to this period – and was meant to give motorists and pilots clearly vision in less than ideal lighting conditions. The fact that the eyewear was meant to be mostly protective is underlined by the solid side visors, which could be folded out to lessen glare from the “edges”. Tiny vents were pierced through these visors – too small to admit grit kicked up from the road or the odd flying insect, but big enough to keep the space behind the glasses cooler during a hot summer drive.
These vintage eyeglasses are also extremely stylish, and wouldn’t look out of place on a glamorous woman with their sleek, cat eye glasses shape. They are also the harbinger of things to come in the future of Persol glasses – which were destined to retain their glamor and their quality up to the present day. Movie stars playing the role of gangsters replaced the daredevil pilots of the earlier 20th century as the iconic figures who favored these vintage eyeglass frames, but the vigor of Persol carried on.