Wearing glasses has a complex history yet few seem to have thought about what wearing glasses might mean in different cultures. Glasses can radically transform how a person is perceived by others, and of course can influence how a person sees themselves, especially if wearing glasses becomes habitual.
The study of eye-wear should really belong within disability studies, influenced as they are by theoretical insights from poststructuralism, with its interest in semiotics. Semiotics generally refers to the study of meaning making – the way signs are interpreted by people. In the second half of the twentieth century, thinkers began to expand the reach of semiotics, beyond the study of language toward the study of objects as cultural signs.
Current thought on the meaning of glasses seems to position eye-wear as a Western phenomenon, and histories of eye-wear also seem to focus on the United States. But recent analysis suggests that the rapid rise in East Asians who are wearing glasses for myopia from an early age means that the wearing of glasses is become associated with suprageographical phenomena, such as the rise in technology in advanced societies and the way such societies begin educating their children from an early age, requiring large amounts of close eye work.
Prescription lenses are in themselves a contested form of healthcare. Arguments have been put forth that shortsightedness is a social disease rather than anything inherently hereditary. It’s possible that the American stereotype of the geek in glasses rose parallel to the amount of time children were required to study and avoid being out of doors. Indeed, the binary of jock-geek (which is a fetish for some) seems to be a crude representation of a more fundamental social problem – of asking the human to do harmful amounts of close eye work at the expense of using the rest of their body.
Yet regardless of the general increase in amounts of people wearing glasses to correct short sight, it seems that on the whole, wearing glasses is seen as a necessary evil – one which can be ameliorated by seeking sensitive designs and trying to inject glasses into mainstream fashion.
On the one hand, wearing glasses seems to symbolise Western (or advanced, post-industrial society) elitism, indicating a large length of time spent in education. On the other hand, on a more instinctive level, glasses can constantly remind the wearer that they have a disability, and thus their personality is potentially compromised.
It’s always interesting to note how many times paintings or photographs of people in glasses appear in any kind of art context. Of course, for most of history the vast majority of people didn’t wear glasses because they weren’t available; but even now, it seems that there may be a myth that the un-bespectacled face is somehow purer and provides a more transparent window onto a person’s soul.
In an interview with the English-Turkish women’s high-end fashion designer, Erdem Moralıoğlu, Bethan Cole (Independent) wrote of his personality behind his glasses:
Behind his squarish glasses, Erdem, now 30, is handsome in a Mediterranean, olive-skinned way. He’s also incredibly low-key: cool and calm, logical and rational, even a little shy.
The implications is that Cole could only sense these qualities behind the glasses, as if the glasses were somehow an unncessary obstruction.
And yet, of course, for Erdem at least, glasses are part of his trademark look. They have become integral to his personality, it seems. But at what expense? In an interview for Vogue (2015), Alexandra Shulman wrote that his
eyes are a deep toffee colour, and when he removes his dark-rimmed glasses (which he usually only does for sport) you can see that one has an Asiatic almond cast while the other is more oval. Without the glasses he looks more Turkish.
Again, there is a temptation to see the ‘real’ person behind the glasses, in this case Erdem’s Turkishness. Is the implication that Turkish people don’t wear glasses? Is Erdem somehow compromising his Turkish roots, and thus fragmenting his personality?
At the end of the day these questions may seem fairly unnecessary – a case of thinking overmuch. But glasses are such an integral aspect of many people’s lives that they cannot be reduced to pragmatic eye correction, for therein lies the road to the necessary evil.
On the other hand, other people have to negotiate the semiotics of glasses on a daily basis: what do they mean, and what do they signify for this particular person?
There are no answers; only questions. But these are questions that need asking.