Shades of Cool

Alluring, timeless and treasured—the functional art and bold designs of classic mid-century sunglasses
Shades of Cool
Eye-catching vintage cat-eyes, 'the sunglass star of the 1950s.'

"Men aren't attentive to girls who wear glasses." That's what glamour actress Marilyn Monroe insisted in 1959 during 'How to Marry a Millionaire,' one of the most memorable comedic film roles of her career.

In the movie, Monroe plays Pola Debevoise, a high-fashion model who can't see a thing but refuses to wear glasses in the presence of eligible men.

Happily, by the end of the film, a gentleman airline passenger wins Pola's heart by challenging her to give glasses another try. Pola glances at him, gingerly slips on her 1950s-era 'cat-eye' glasses, and—looking drop-dead gorgeous—emphatically makes film history.

Those bedazzling cat-eye frames would go on to become one of the most sought-after sunglasses styles of all time.

Shades of Cool
Stars Marilyn Monroe (left) and Jon Hamm. Monroe made a splash in 1959 with cat-eye frames, Hamm (as Don Draper) nearly 50 years later in 'Mad Men' with Aviator sunglasses.

History repeats itself

Besides cat-eyes, they were also called shades, sunnies, sun cheaters—all catchy names for sunglasses of the mid-century. Polaroid, Ray-Ban, Fosta-Grantly, Cool-Ray, and Schiaparelli—among a myriad of brands back then—were that era's popular leaders of the pack. There's one thing all these companies and the many fascinating sunglass models they produced have in common today—they're solidly 'in.'

While experiencing a resurgence in popularity over the past two decades, retro sunglasses caught the eye of collectors and made notable fashion statements along the way.

One of the greatest catalysts during those years was the 'Mad Men' television series that premiered in 2007, igniting a phenomenon that played a significant role in bringing 'mid-century cool' back into the mainstream.

Beginning with the very first 'Mad Men' episode, the authentic feel and mid-century production design of the show spoke to a whole new generation. Everything came into focus—from the sleek architecture of the show's Madison Avenue advertising offices to its award-winning production design and inspiring fashions.

  Shades of Cool
Sexy SoCal 1950s aficianado Marjorie VanderHoff: period-perfect sunglasses, fashion, and 'Miss Madeline' the Buick.
 

Who can forget dashing Don Draper in his rugged, square-framed 'Aviator' sunglasses? "Where did those vintage shades came from?" we wondered. The 'Mad Men' end credits pointed the way: 'Eyewear provided by Russ Campbell and Old Focals.'

We tracked down Campbell to South Pasadena, where the founder and owner of Old Focals operates a brick-and-mortar eyewear retail shop. But he's better known these days as the vintage eyeglass expert who has been supplying period pieces and studio services to the entertainment industry for the past 40 years.

Campbell's world-class collection of vintage eyewear encompasses every decade from the 1920s into the '90s. He carries 'new old stock' (vintage glasses that have never been worn), and as a pop culture influencer, he's also developed his own designer line of frames.

"Old Focals is not only inspired by the mid-century look," says Campbell, "we try to make [our reproductions] like they were made back in the day, manufactured using many of the same materials and techniques."

Working directly with prop masters and actors, Campbell advises the style and era of eyewear for film and television productions, and determines the appropriate glasses for individual characters.

  Shades of Cool
Gals on Venice Beach in 1941 show off a myriad of period sunglass designs.