Every kid knows that glasses are for geeks. In the 1999 teen flick She's All That, senior class prez Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr.) has to turn artsy-fartsy loser Laney Boggs (Rachael Leigh Cook) into a prom queen in six weeks. What's the first thing she sheds on her way to becoming a hottie? Her glasses. "You have beautiful eyes," Zack tells her, turning on the charm.
As a nearsighted teenager, I fell for the hype. I got glasses at 12, but by 15 I'd switched to contacts. I was tired of hearing that condescending refrain, "Have you ever thought about contacts?" Glasses, it seemed, were for ugly people, old people. Naked eyes were sexy.
It wasn't until I was out of college that I realized I had been duped. Glasses can be stylish. More importantly, I realized, glasses function as a useful sort of shorthand, sending subtle and not-so-subtle signals about one's tastes. This might not have been true 50 years ago, when people with defective eyesight wore glasses by default. But thanks to advances like disposable contacts and corrective surgery, for most people who wear glasses it's a choice, and an increasingly popular one.
Gary King and Melanny Baker, opticians at The Optical Center on Church Street, agree. They say that sales of frames have increased over the past few years. "Glasses have become a fashion statement," says Baker. "They've definitely become more of an accessory."
The shop is Burlington's exclusive dealer for the Oliver Peoples line. In its press kits, this trendy company prints a list of celebrity clients and the glasses they wear. In addition to nerds like TV weatherman Al Roker and actor Kevin Spacey, there are some surprises. Musicians Lauryn Hill, Lenny Kravitz and Ozzy Ozbourne wear Oliver Peoples. J-Lo owns five pairs. Helen Hunt has eight, including one undercover-sounding style called "Whistle BG with Camou-flage."
Oliver Peoples is a hot seller for the Optical Shop, but not as hot as rimless glasses -- the ultimate in minimalist eyewear. As the name implies, rimless glasses have no frames; the earpieces attach directly to the lenses. I saw a particularly striking pair on a guy at Uncommon Grounds one morning and asked him about them.
Justin Bullard has multiple tattoos and piercings, but his glasses are his most, er, eye-catching accessory. His rimless specs are unique -- instead of the usual circular or oval lenses, his are square. They look like something from a sci-fi film, glasses that double as mini-computer monitors, allowing the wearer to scan stock quotes or check email.
Though Bullard bought the glasses at the Optical Center, he designed them himself. He says he was "aiming for something futuristic, something that said '21st century.'" He hit his mark.
Daniel Thomas, the optician who owns Eyes of the World, has been selling a lot of rimless specs, too. The Battery Street store is known for its selection of what Thomas calls "fun and funky stuff." Besides the usual CK and DKNY, EOTW stocks frames from smaller companies such as Hiero, Sama and Kata. This is where I got my own Kodo frames a few years back. They're sleek and slim and just a bit bookish. I had hoped to buy a bolder pair -- one of what Thomas calls "Lisa Loeb or Elvis Costello glasses," but they just didn't work for me. I always try them on anyway. I imagine they'll make me fashionably eccentric, but they just make me look like Elvis Costello.
I've always admired people who could pull off wearing bold glasses like that. Lluvia Mulvaney-Stanak can. The 23-year-old Outright Vermont program specialist and part-time DJ wears round black frames that dominate her face, perfectly accentuating her androgynous, populist style. She says she was going for the "anarchist punk girl" look when she bought this pair during her freshman year at Castleton State. Heavily into ska culture at the time, she and her friends dubbed her glasses "the skankiest."
She likes them so much that when they snapped in half during an intramural soccer game, she had them fixed instead of buying a new pair. "I had the whole dorky tape thing going on for a while," she says with pride. Her glasses still sit just a shade crooked, and that's fine with her. It emphasizes her practicality and adds to the political dimension of her appearance. "I have to have everything skewed a little," she says.
But, let's face it: Fashion, politics and, well, being able to see aren't the only reasons people wear glasses. If "Why Do People Wear Glasses?" were the survey question on "Family Feud," the number one answer would be, "Makes them look smart." And it's true, glasses do make people look smarter. Imagine, say, Mike Tyson wearing them. See what I mean?
Looking smart doesn't count a whole hell of a lot when you're 15, but by the time you're looking for a job, it helps to appear a little brainy. Gary King at the Optical Center remembers one woman who came in to buy glasses before her big interview at a law firm in New York. She didn't need them to see. "When she sat down for her interview, she wanted to look more intellectual, more serious," King recalls. "And it worked for her." She got the job.
It's not just lawyers who want to look smart. As I explain this story to my friend Jill, she admits that she's always wanted to wear glasses. She's been seriously thinking about buying a pair. "They're very distinguishing," she tells me. She confesses that once, in high school, she wore prescription-less glasses for a whole semester in biology. The nun who taught the class had been treating her like a delinquent. She wanted to be treated like one of the smart kids. She's not sure if the glasses changed Sr. Mary Jane's attitude, but Jill says they did make her feel smarter.
She isn't the only person I know of who confesses to wearing prescription-less specs. King says people come to him all the time wanting to buy glasses they don't need. It's ironic, really, considering the lengths some people go to avoid wearing them.
In workshops she runs for Outright, Mulvaney-Stanak asks participants to list disabilities. They mention deafness, even blindness, but never bad eyesight. She figures people just don't see it that way. Even she doesn't seem to. "Having glasses in general," she says half-jokingly, "you're a cut above the rest."