Why have browline glasses never gone out of style? While their popularity peaked in the 50s and 60s, it seems that they’re here to stay. A more somber and stylish alternative to horn-rimmed glasses, browlines get their name from their following of the brow and framing of the eyes, with the browline of the glasses sitting below one’s natural brow. Sophisticated, rebellious, and cool, the glasses have always had the edge of intellectualism and have been favored by some of the most important figures of the 20th century.
The style first emerged in the late 40s, when, in 1947, Shuron Ltd. manufactured the first pair of “Ronsir Browline” glasses. It would be the first time a combination frame featured plastic tops on metal rims with plastic temples. The style caught on, and other companies soon started producing their own versions. Over the course of the decade, nearly half of all frames sold in America would be a variation on the browline style, and it’s associated to this day with the 50s.
The first pairs of browlines were customizable, offering greater flexibility than previous glasses. The original “Ronsirs” included interchangeable bridges, eye wires, and “brows,” allowing wearers to customize the size, fit, and color of their glasses. This was possible due to the new availability of plastic during the post-war era, and other companies followed suit. Six companies dominated the browline industry in the 50s, each with their variations on the look, and some even offering unique plaques on the upper frame. Art-Craft and Victory Optical introduced aluminum browlines, which drastically decreased the frame’s weight.
The glasses’ substantial popularity made them synonymous with the culture and style of the 50s, eventually making it difficult to associate them with anything other than the era’s uniformity. This became detrimental for the style in the 60s and 70s, as young people who embraced countercultural movements rejected the music, ideas and style of their parents’ generation. While browlines have found new popularity in recent years, they fell out of grace for much of the late 20th century. They had a brief resurgence during a backlash to the disco movement, but browlines quickly went back to being outmoded.
As the glasses became an icon for the past, they would be most often associated with the elderly and uncool. One of the main images of browlines in the media during their downturn in popularity was Lyndon B. Johnson, who represented a failure in idealism and a dying dream of a better future. While Johnson did sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act, most young people saw him as the figurehead who pushed America deeper into Vietnam—not a popular choice among conscription-aged young men.
Time has been kinder to the browlines, as many have forgotten the push towards counterculturalism. Several generations removed, browlines found new popularity in the 21st century due to popular culture. On the 60s-set Mad Men, ad man Harry Crane wears browline glasses, helping to lead the resurgence. He’s caught between two worlds, as his glasses harken to conservative values, but his embrace of the future suggests a cultural shift. The show pins down the cultural perception of browlines, while also suggesting that the man is more important than the clothes. Shows like Mad Men have pushed 50s and 60s style back into the spotlight, and particularly inspired a browline resurgence. In that sense, culture is the same as ever, as we still look to the screens for inspiration. We can never underestimate the power of cinema and television in how they inform the way we dress.
While just about everyone during the 50s was wearing browlines or some variety, time has a way of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. As figures like Lyndon B. Johnson fall out of the popular imagination as visual icons, people like Malcolm X, who also wore browline glasses, remain vital parts of political and social movements. The image of browlines as the intellectual’s choice was also pushed by the perception of the style during the 80s and 90s, as the only young people who would wear them were the “nerds.” As culture has shifted to embrace nerds, it’s also come to embrace the browline style as representative of intellectualism. It’s easy to forget at this point in history that browlines once represented the new world: They emerged as America was building itself into a superpower, and technology fused the metals of old and the plastics of the future.
Browlines are likely to stay in fashion for a while; they are bold without being ostentatious. Men (conventionally) don’t have makeup or jewelry to accessorize their face, so they rely on their hair and glasses for fashion statements, making men’s glasses an important stylistic staple. Browlines have a complicated history of perception, but they’re cool for now.