Glasses as Fashion Accessory

Apr 26 2018

From the mid-20th century glasses became a fashion accessory in their own right, a trend actively pursued by the British optical firm Oliver Goldsmith, who created deliberately stylish and occasionally outlandish frames for the likes of Princess Grace of Monaco and Diana Princess of Wales.

We hold over 70 pairs of glasses and sunglasses designed and handmade by Oliver Goldsmith over a 60 year period. This collection charts dramatic changes in glasses design, from the handcrafted tortoiseshell frames of the 1920s and 1930s, through the early use of plastics in the 1950s to the sophisticated manufacturing techniques and style statements of the 1970s and 1980s.

(Left) Portrait of Philip Oliver Goldsmith. (Right) Photograph of the façade of Raphael’s, the London optical firm where Philip Oliver Goldsmith worked before founding his own firm. © Oliver Goldsmith Eyewear

The firm was founded in 1926 by Philip Oliver Goldsmith (1890 – 1947) who started out as a travelling salesman for the well-known optical firm Raphaels in the 1920s. Catering to the higher end of the market, he hired a group of craftspeople to make real tortoiseshell frames by hand in his own London workshop, based at 60 Poland Street. At the time, tortoise species had not yet been declared endangered, and their shells were a very popular material for glasses.

Tortoiseshell glasses, Oliver Goldsmith Eyewear, 1930s, England. Museum no. T.242A-1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The firm crafted tortoiseshell spectacle frames throughout the 1930s, supplying members of the armed forces during the Second World War. Philip’s son Charles Goldsmith (1914 – 91) entered the family firm in 1930 and became chairman after his father’s death in 1947, assuming the name Oliver Goldsmith. After the war, the company expanded from utility-style tortoiseshell frames to new experimental styles and materials, aiming to attract greater publicity and encourage people to spend more on glasses.

Oliver Goldsmith and sons Andrew and Ray at an eyewear trade show. © Oliver Goldsmith Eyewear

Oliver’s sons, Andrew Oliver and Raymond, joined the family business in the 1950s and the firm produced a string of deliberately wacky designs, incorporating unusual materials like bamboo, and outlandish motifs from butterflies to union jacks to tennis rackets (at the request of Teddy Tinling, an English tennis player and fashion designer who designed clothes for a string of Wimbledon tennis champions).

Tennis Rackets, plastic sunglasses with net and pearls, Oliver Goldsmith Eyewear, 1956, England. Museum no. T.243E-1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London T.243E-1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

An alternative to purely practical eyewear, Oliver Goldsmith’s attention-grabbing frames were worn by the likes of actors Michael Caine, Peter Sellers and Grace Kelly, alongside Lord Snowdon, Princess Grace of Monaco and Diana Princess of Wales, gaining the brand world-wide publicity.

(Left): Actor Peter Sellers wearing Oliver Goldsmith glasses, about 1967. (Right): Pianist Winifred Atwell wearing an Oliver Goldsmith design, 1964. © Oliver Goldsmith Eyewear

Sunglasses were also fast becoming a fashion statement. British film-star Diana Dors wore Oliver Goldsmith’s eye-popping white ‘Martian’ frames at the Cannes film festival, while several pairs were worn by Audrey Hepburn, including ‘The Manhattan’ for her starring role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Such innovative designs and their celebrity appeal helped to transform glasses from a medical necessity to a chic, fun fashion item.

The Martian, plastic sunglassses, Oliver Goldsmith Eyewear, 1950s, England. Museum no. T.243F-1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the 1960s, all Oliver Goldsmith frames were still crafted by hand in the Poland St workshop. The process started withe a design, in the form of a hand-drawn sketch. The frame-makers would cut a slab of plastic into the desired shape, file down the edges, attach the sides, sand down the finished design and lastly, fit the lenses.

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