Shades of Cool - Page 5

Alluring, timeless and treasured—the functional art and bold designs of classic mid-century sunglasses

Oh, Those Crazy Cats!

  Shades of Cool
Rebelling against the ugly 'Benjamin Franklin look' of 1930s' eyewear, designer Altina Schinasi (above) created the cat-eye model, emphasizing the beauty and shape of a woman's eyes.

They're chic, they're sexy. Ask anyone to describe what vintage sunglasses look like and chances are the alluring cat-eye shape will be one of the first examples that come to mind.

Looking back at the 'cats' fascinating story, it's easy to see how this timeless style turned the tide for ladies eyewear and continues to make such lasting impressions today.

It all started with the daughter of a tobacco magnate who was also a gifted artist. Altina 'Tina' Schinasi was born in 1907 to an upper-class family on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

After completing high school and a stint studying painting in Paris, Schinasi returned to New York and eventually took a job in the studio of industrial designer Peter Copeland. There she worked as a window dresser designing showroom windows for Fifth Avenue stores, and even constructed windows designed by Surrealist artist Salvador Dali.

One day while walking past an optician's store window, Tina made an observation that struck like a lightning bolt.

  Shades of Cool
Cool-Ray Emeraldite celebrated the cat-eye with this mid-century print ad.

"I passed the shop…and I saw this oil painting [with eyeglasses] glued onto the face, and I thought, 'That is really so ugly!,' she explained in a scene from the 2014 documentary film 'Altina.' "...and I thought, well something better could be done than just these awful glasses that look like the time of Benjamin Franklin."

Recalling the flamboyant Harlequin masks that had caught her eye at the carnivals in Venice, Schinasi set out to design an eyeglass frame that would not only be flattering to a woman's face but would emphasize the beauty and shape of her eyes.

After approaching a number of opticians and getting rejected, Schinasi and her idea finally caught the eye of Lugene, a high-end optical boutique on Madison Avenue, during the 1930s. Before long, department stores and fashion-forward shops were featuring Schinasi's cat-eye designs—or Harlequin frames, as they came to be called.

Schinasi's brilliant design transformed the practical eyeglass frame into a sophisticated fashion accessory that would evolve into sunglasses as well. For her extraordinary contributions to the eyewear industry, Schinasi was honored, in 1939, with Lord & Taylor's Annual 'American Design Award,' and her Harlequins were spotlighted in 'Vogue's Eye View of Summer.'

Today, the unique cat-eye style that Tina Schinasi created has taken on a life of its own—with pin-up models reinventing them, and celebrities—most notably comedic actor Barry Humphries' outrageous 'Dame Edna' alter ego—taking the 'cat' to the limit of flamboyance.

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