Released from the fetters of stodginess by the changing times, it is perhaps hardly surprising that eyeglasses would explode into an efflorescence of colorful materials and ornate designs when they became fashionable for the first time in history. Cat eye glasses are one of the most memorable, persistent styles from that day and dominated the world of stylish eyewear for close to two decades.
The world of vintage eye glasses was not a staid or banal one – instead, it is a scene filled with highly eccentric alpha personalities whose quirks had a strong influence on the development of modern eyeglasses in general and high fashion glasses in particular.
There was no general rule about either the people or companies involved in the evolution of this distinctive visionwear. Some of the individuals were keenly scientific, while others were fiery, impulsive, creative prima donnas, while yet others were a blend of the two. Some companies had existed already for decades, and simply dipped into the new market for a share of the “pie”, while others were bold startups riding popular enthusiasm for cat eye glasses to overnight success.
In true competitive fashion, the jostling of the various cateye glasses manufacturers for space in this large and lucrative market produced many innovations as the companies tried to “one-up” each other with fresh salable features.
Not all developments occurred because of a Darwinian death-struggle between the major players, however. Many of the designers were passionate enough about the artistry of the glasses to pursue new avenues of creativity simply for the sake of seeing what they could do – an eyeglass equivalent, perhaps, of George Mallory's reason for attempting Everest: “Because it's there”.
German contributions to cat eye glasses
Germany's long history of precision optics and high quality lens grinding placed it in an excellent position to enter the cat eye glasses market, with both actual German firms and Austrian ones participating. Austria gave these glasses an immense boost in popularity because of the exciting cloak and dagger Cold War reputation of Vienna, which made the eyewear seem daring and chic, an artifact from a spy thriller rather than simple eyewear.
Rodenstock pioneered the use of celebrities such as race-car drivers and Sophia Loren to sell eyeglasses through advertising, and also made several important technical advances, such as eliminating reflections with magnesium fluoride coatings and making dual purpose indoor/outdoor cat's eyes with photochromic lenses that darkened when exposed to ultraviolet light.
British contributions to cats eye glasses
The British, especially as represented by Michael Birch, took the cat's eye format of eyewear to its logical extreme in the direction of rimless glasses. Obviously, a pair of glasses could not be rendered completely rimless and still remain cat eye glasses – but Neville Chappell's supra method, holding the lenses up with a slim wire tightened into a groove on the underside edge of the lens, made possible some of the lightest and least visible designs ever to appear during the Fifties and Sixties – many of them with an ultramodern look that would not look out of place in the 21st century.
American contributions to cat eye glasses
Tura, American Optical, Bausch & Lomb, and Art-Craft all had significant contributions to make to the vintage eyeglasses evolution, with Tura perhaps making the largest impact. Tura's all aluminum frames were a bold innovation at a time when most frames for these glasses were Zylonite embellished with a few touches of aluminum for the sake of style and rigidity.
Their pattern was imitated by such firms as Art-Craft and produced probably some of the most long-lasting vintage cat eye glasses in the world, as well as those featuring extraordinary anodized metallic colors that could not be duplicated in plastic at the time.