What a spectacle! Nerd chic and hipster glasses

I’ve been fascinated with hipsters for a while now – and not just because of the indescribable “cool” factor that seems to ooze from their every pore. I’m mainly interested in so-called hipster style because of deeper implications regarding how group membership is reflected in dress. In light of my preoccupation with all things “hip,” I want to take a moment to look at an infamous hipster accessory – glasses.

What’s with the glasses, folks? Are bi-focals really the new signifier of cool?

Perennial "it" girl Chloe Sevigny in hip glasses

I can’t decide if glasses are especially hip because of the reference to intellect and intelligence or the simple fact that they obscure the eyes. (Remember, as with all things “cool,” maintaining mystery is always the most important.)

But what’s really behind the trend of spectacles? Why this tendency toward false intellectualism? Since when is being smart “cool” — isn’t that the opposite of cool?

The way I see it (no pun intended) is that the appeal of glasses as a stylish or cool accessory is related to one of four issues:

-obscuring the eyes
-highlighting the eyes
-a façade of intelligence
-a façade of awkwardness, unattractiveness, goofy, innocent, and naïve

Obscuring or hiding the eyes has always been an element of fashionable styles. Women have worn veils in many cultures as way to hide the allure of their eyes. And in more recent times, celebrities are known to wear huge sunglasses to hide their identity from the world. Regular glasses employ the same means of making the eyes hard to see, rendering a person’s true identity (or true feelings) less visible.

Likewise, glasses can actually highlight the eyes. By drawing attention to one’s face and then to the eyes, glasses have a way to making one’s eyes a central trait either to be seen or not seen.

Glasses (and all the ensuing accoutrements of “geek chic”) give one the appearance of intelligence. They highlight nerdiness and geekiness which has its appeal precisely in the last trait – presenting a façade of awkwardness or unattractiveness. Some cultures have conceptions of beauty which actually include the imperfect as the most beautiful. Perhaps in hipster culture, and in other parts of mainstream culture, what is less overt is becoming more appealing. The hidden sexiness of librarian or schoolgirl is appealing explicitly because it presents an illusion of innocence and awkwardness. Goofiness and awkwardness send the signals of approachability. And what’s more, a truly attractive person who chooses to make him/herself “ugly” through wearing glasses is telling the world that perhaps they don’t care about their appearance and/or that they have enough attractive features to intentionally blemish their physical appearance.

Madonna's daughter Lourdes already "cool" in her oversized glasses

When glasses were first invented they were almost never worn in public. They were considered shameful and embarrassing. It was thought that they were especially “disfiguring.” However, glasses did enjoy a brief moment of stylishness around 1914 and into the 20’s. It was thought that deformities were actually not something to be ashamed of. Sunglasses then become very popular in the 30’s and then continued in popularity until today.

Of course, Buddy Holly famously donned the ubiquitous Wayfarer’s that are now the trademark of the hipster. And Sarah Palin’s election spectacles sent many a soccer mom to her local optometrist for a similar pair. Glasses have always come in and out of fashion, much like a migrating hemline, but as a token of new lifestyle revolution that is occurring among America’s most “hip” set, I think they are especially curious and cause for reflection. Thoughts?

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  • melina bee April 02, 2010 03.59 pm

    I LOVE this!! I don’t wear glasses, just have always admired them. I was told that in Italy, many of the most fashionable people you see wearing glasses, do not have prescriptions at all. Just a fashion statement.
    melina bee

  • Suzanne April 05, 2010 11.56 am

    Given that spectacles are seen in late medieval artwork, who says they weren’t worn in public? And consider that one of the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte wears glasses–supposedly in mockery of a Spanish fad for wearing them more as a fashion statement than as an adaptive device. Although I doubt that “hipsters” are referencing 17th C. theatrical conventions… you never know!

  • Lewis December 04, 2010 09.37 am

    Perhaps some people simply have a genuine affinity for the classic style of large, bulky plastic eyeglass frames.

    I happen to value them for their durability and no-frills appearence.

    Dismissing everyone who wears them as pompous or pretentious is downright unfair and narrow-minded, in my view.

  • Candace January 25, 2011 06.25 pm

    “However, glasses did enjoy a brief moment of stylishness around 1914 and into the 20′s. It was thought that deformities were actually not something to be ashamed of. ”

    Deformities? Some of us need vision correction and would like to look reasonably fashionable without being regarded as “deformed”. How about the theory that those who need glasses have so effectively reclaimed this token of geekdom that even those who don’t need them are copying this so called “trend”? It’s that trend that should be under examination.

    I agree with Lewis here. Let us wear our glasses in peace. Vision correction doesn’t “come in and out of fashion, much like a migrating hemline”.

  • Raul March 03, 2011 07.52 pm

    I have worn glasses since I was in grade school. They have never been cool, and I have always been called a nerd. Now that I’m approaching 30 suddenly it’s cool to be out of style. “Nerd” is chic, and since the dot com boom, nerds have gained social status in new ways.

    It’s just as easy for people to wear contacts as it is for them to wear glasses, so pretending you are wearing your bulky plastic framed glasses out of some necessesity is pure delusion.

    What bothers me about hipsters is that they are trying to be unfashionable in a very prescribed way. They are creating their own fashion while pretending not to care about fashion. “I value them for their no-frills appearence.” I.E. I value them because they scream, “I don’t really care if you think what I’m wearing is ugly.”, while the person wearing them chose them because suddenly it’s hip to be square. It’s very pretentious.

    Normal people choose glasses because they like them. When asked why they like them they’ll say, “because they look good, I like how they look on me.” The hipster responds with, “Well after 5 days of shopping, these were the glasses that said,’ I dont care what I look like.’ the best…”


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