The Eyes have It
Max Blagg makes a case for glasses
Architect, artist, assassin? Who should I be today? My wide selection of designer eyewear —a dozen pairs, not counting sunglasses—will not only sharpen my vision but also provide temporary membership in any of these professions. Apart from enhancing my fantasy life, glasses—elegant confections of polycarbonate, titanium and faux tortoiseshell on the bridge of every nose, most of them discreetly or immodestly flaunting a designer’s name—are an accessory that men can buy as freely as women buy handbags, and at a similar price.
Certain frames have become emblematic of the icons who wore them, and we discreetly pay homage to their outsize personalities when we sport a variation on what they wore. The artist David Hockney’s circular black “raccoon-eye” frames, not to mention his Day-Glo socks, immediately designate him as an intellectual with a sense of humor. Diana Vreeland sported the women’s version, oversized round lenses a questioning “O?” or “O!” or “What ho!” Levity as well as gravity was implied.
T. S. Eliot’s small round tortoiseshells seemed to reflect a more serious thinker, the kind of chap who might recite great chunks of Latin or Greek poetry, given the chance. You might want to steer clear of him if you are not in the mood for gravitas. That manly president Teddy Roosevelt popularized the rimless style that implied intellect as well as muscle, removing the stigma of glasses being fit only for vicars and schoolteachers. A century later Steve Jobs made that style his own, in a modern variation designed by Marc Jacobs.
Glasses transform the personality as well as the face. There is a photo by Eve Arnold of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses, and her rapt expression as she appears to drink in Joyce’s words. I can almost believe she is really reading it (it was Joe DiMaggio’s favorite novel, after all), but what helped me believe were the horn-rimmed glasses I remembered her wearing. Imagine my surprise then, when I Googled the image and discovered that Marilyn was bare-eyed as she devoured that tome, even though she had famously worn specs in many of her movies, most notably How to Marry a Millionaire, in which she bemoans, “Men aren’t attentive to girls who wear glasses.” How wrong she was!
A novelist friend, who recently admitted to a certain difficulty in reading the printed page, still refuses to wear glasses in public; “bespectacled writer” is not the public image he wishes to project. His wife reads aloud to him, like poetry, the menu at the restaurants they frequent, but his palatial loft is now littered with those cheap readers, whose inaccurate ocular settings only further degrade a person’s vision. They clutter every available surface, and his frequent sorties from desk to kitchen are often accompanied by the sound of splintering plastic, as another misplaced pair goes underfoot.
Such vanity seems absurd when both men and women in glasses have been for some time the subject of constant passes. There is a powerful connection between seductiveness and myopia. Cary Grant helped to begin this trend years ago, adding a sensual dimension to that witty intellectual look by merely twiddling his horn-rims. A similar black plastic frame was used to brilliant effect by Marcello Mastroianni, playing a tortured movie director in Fellini’s 8½. His subtle manipulation of his spectacles while he reminisced made him look as smart as he sounded.
When I finally gave up squinting at the news headlines and began wearing glasses, it immediately kicked my conversational exchanges up a notch. Instead of asking me my opinion of the Yankees, friends would demand a rundown on the situation in Somalia. I had to quit reading the Post and take out a subscription to the New York Review of Books.
Those who say no to the laser do come to depend on, even delight in, their spectacles, and when they are misplaced, our immediate surroundings become an unfamiliar blur. A haze that reminds me of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last,” in which a lowly bank clerk, played with perfect dottiness by Burgess Meredith, is harassed by his boss for his obsession with reading. He survives a nuclear blast to become the last man on Earth, with nothing left to do but read. Then, tragically, he breaks his only pair of glasses. The printed page goes out of focus. I felt that way a couple of years ago when I awoke from a sun-induced nap to find my customized Persols pulverized by a lawn mower—the poolside was murky and indistinct, my daughter and her friends shiny little blobs frolicking in the water. I reached for my backup pair, safe in their leather case with magnetized flap. The polarized lenses gave the summer foliage a vivid clarity and confirmed my opinion that my daughter, now sharply in focus, was by far the most beautiful child in the pool. BG
MAX BLAGG is a writer living in New York. His next book,Lifting the Veil, interviews with dead artists and fashion icons, is in preparation.
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