A History of Cat Eye Glasses

The history of glasses is long and varied. The first glasses historians have studied are from the 1200s. Since then, new styles, new technologies, and new fashions have brought changes to the look and functionality of glasses.

Yet one of the most iconic styles of glasses is a recent innovation. Cat eye glasses first appeared in the 1930s, quickly became the leading glasses style for women, and have not been out of style since.

1950s tortoise shell cat eye glasses with rhinestones for the quintessential vintage look

Cat eye glasses have undergone changes in style during the past decades, but the basic shape has remained the same – namely, the corners that sweep up dramatically to connect with the temples.

Vintage cat eye glasses from many decades are a chic addition to a wardrobe. They add classic flair to your look, or help make a costume or period piece more authentic. And with dozens of styles, designs, and colors available for these vibrant glasses, you can find a pair of antique cat eye frames to match your specific style.

Learn more about all of the options available for cat eye glasses, from the earliest frames to defining styles for women in the 1950s to the pairs worn by celebrities throughout the decades. If you are seeking an authentic pair of cat eye glasses, this guide has all the details you need to know about cat eye glasses throughout recent history. Alternatively, if you simply want to know more about your favorite glasses style, this is how cat eye glasses came to be – and how they have stayed so popular.

Altina Schinasi and the Invention of Cat Eye Glasses

Imagine being a woman who needed glasses at the beginning of the 1930s. You have a few options to choose from:

  • Gold Wire Rim Glasses – There are gold wire rim glasses with round lenses, ovoid lenses, or octagonal lenses.
  • Other Wire Rim Glasses – Similar wire rim glasses were available in metals like brass or steel with the same lens shapes available.
  • Pince-Nez – You could wear a pince-nez, but those were considered out of fashion and not always helpful for correcting vision problems.
  • Horn Rimmed Glasses – The other option was horn rimmed glasses, usually with round lenses. These were made out of animal horn or tortoise shell, so the only color choices were black or mottled brown.

And those were the entirety of your options. Glasses were almost entirely for vision correction and there were no colors or decorations to match your personality. No one had yet imagined glasses as a fashion accessory instead of just a medical implement.

This all changed with Altina Schinasi. An American artist and window dresser for popular stores on New York’s Fifth Avenue, Shinasi was looking at an optician’s display one day only to find that not a single pair of glasses that she found attractive for women.

She immediately set out to create a more whimsical and vibrant pair of spectacles, using Harlequin masks as her

gold harlequin mask
The type of harlequin mask that Schinasi took inspiration from.

inspiration. These are the brightly colored and highly ornamented masks worn originally in comedy plays, and in the early 1900s for Mardi Gras and masque balls.

Schinasi used the shape of Harlequin masks by cutting them up into the shape of glasses. This created a broad browline, rectangular lens shapes, and upswept corners, while also including the colors and ornamentation of the mask.

By the end of the 1930s, Schinasi’s Harlequin glasses were in wide production and Shinasi was honored with a number of rewards and accolades, crediting her with revolutionizing the optical industry.

Harlequin Glasses in the 1940s

Altina Schinasi left the eyewear industry at the beginning of the 1940s, but by this time Harlequin glasses, as they were now officially called, were already fast on their way to becoming a dominant eyewear for women.

The 1940s style of Harlequin glasses did not change much from the original design of the 1930s. Lenses remained rectangular in shape with an upsweep on the outer edges and a wide corner for decorative embellishments.

Gold cat eye glasses from Tura with metal rose embellisments

In the earlier half of the 1940s, the frames and embellishments were generally still made with metals, such as aluminum to give them a silver appearance or occasionally gold. However, as the decade went on and acetate became a more common material for glasses, manufacturers started offering their cat eye glasses for women in a range of bright colors with thick frames.

Decorations at this time on cat eye glasses included silver or gold filigree, stars, flowers, spirals, or rhinestones.

For the first time, glasses manufacturers were selling glasses as a fashionable accessory instead of just a medical implement. Companies advertised their glasses as “debonair” and available in a range of “gay colors,” transforming the glasses wearing woman from owlish and bookish to attractive and chic, and  starting atrend that would peak in the next decade.

Cat Eye Glasses as the Height of Women’s Style in the 1950s

The 1950s was a notable time for all eyewear, including both men’s and women’s styles. Some of the reasons for this were new to the decade and some were holdovers from glasses trends that had been building in  previous years. New materials, fashions, and production methods all combined to make glasses, from prescription glasses and sunglasses, one of the most prominent accessories of the 1950s.

Vintage men’s glasses saw the introduction of the browline frame and more colorful eyeglass frame options, but it was women’s eyeglasses frames from the 1950s that truly set the standard for fashionable vintage eyewear with cat eye glasses.

A dramatic example of the pointed frames of 1950s cat eye glasses

The overall shape of the cat eye glasses in the 1950s changed to become narrower with a more dramatic point in the corners that left plenty of room for decoration and embellishments. The resemblance to the shape of a cat’s eye resulted in a name change as well.

Brigette Bardot wearing cat eye glasses in the 1960s by Ivo Bulanda; licensed under CC BY-ND 3.0

Within the first few years of the decade, almost every woman who wore glasses was wearing cat eye frames. Young women, housewives, and movie stars all donned these colorful frames. Marilyn Monroe notably sported a pair of cat eyeglasses with gold embellishments in the 1953 movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and actress Brigette Bardot often wore cat eye sunglasses on and off screen. American women from all walks of life were quick to imitate the look.

Using new technologies and catering to changing tastes, eyewear manufacturers were able to make cat eye glasses so popular that wearing a pair of vintage cat eye glasses today still evokes a sense of 1950s nostalgia.

Mass Production Transforms the Eyewear Industry

One of the leading factors that transformed eyewear in the 1950s was cellulose acetate, a type of plastic. Also called zyl, this material had first been developed in the late 19th century in response to an ivory shortage resulting from the rising popularity of billiards. In order to continue making billiard balls, pianos, and other products that relied on elephant ivory, manufacturers developed cellulose acetate.

Lt. Col. Pauline Kirby of the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) and Chief of the Nursing Service at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. wearing patterned acetate cat eye glasses in 1954.

Throughout the first half of the 1900s, acetate was used in various items like women’s hair combs and in eyeglass frames as well. The problem was that it was not yet as durable as it needed to be to withstand daily use in glasses. With many opticians still producing each set of frames individually, many companies also had not invested in the equipment and materials needed to produce cellulose acetate frames.

This had changed by the 1950s in large part due to World War II. The global conflict resulted in the development of many new plastics and changes to the way that manufacturers produced goods. When the war ended in 1945, manufacturers – including the many glasses manufacturers who had supported the war effort with spectacles for the armed forces – now had extensive production lines and access to the latest plastics.

Clear yellow acetate cat eye frames from the 1950s or 1960s

They also had a consumer base ready to throw off the austerity of wartime and the money to embrace accessorizing. Mass production quickly caught on in multiple industries, including eyeglasses. Glasses frame makers now began to produce hundreds of glasses very quickly while opticians could insert the prescription lenses each individual customer needed. Cat eye sunglasses also became popular in the 1950s as mass production made plastic cat eye glasses affordable enough to use as everyday wear at the lake, beach, or out and about in town.

Colorful Options and Decorations Make Cat Eye Glasses an Accessory

The other benefit to cellulose acetate – beyond its affordable manufacturing price – was its  customizability. Plastic glasses frames are made by pouring the acetate into molds and letting it cure.

This is already ideal for creating cat eye glasses with their unique flared shape.

But in the mixing process, it is also possible to add any color to the acetate. Far from the gold, silver, or tortoise shell options of previous spectacles, cat eye glasses could be:

Glasses could even have a two tone color scheme, swirl colors for a multi-color look, or have glitter mixed into the plastic, a look that was sometimes sold as “disco” coloring.

Leading women’s eyeglasses manufacturer Tura advertised 12 vibrant frame colors for their cat eye glasses. American Optical went a step further and created interchangeable tops, allowing the wearer to pop the top part of the frame off and replace it with a different color so she could match her outfit or change her look from day to night.

To compliment the bright colors, cat eye glasses also came with many embellishment options along the top of the rims, in the top corners, and on the temples. Some of the most popular decorations for cat eye glasses were:

  • Filigree – Delicate gold, silver, or aluminum filigree decorated the corners and bridges of cat eye glasses.

    Gold wing embellishment on vintage cat eye sunglasses from Tura
  • Jewels – Rhinestones or colored jewels added a sparkle and maybe a pop of color to a pair of glasses. These could be inlaid into the acetate or added on top in shapes like flowers.
  • Gold Dot – Simple circles of gold along the rims and temples were a classic touch on cat eye glasses in any color.
  • Gold Brow – A simple design in gold on the browline of the rims adds sparkle and visual interest to a pair of cat eye frames.
  • Lens Jewels – In addition to jewel-studded frames, glasses designers also started putting jewels on the lenses. Some could be removed and changed when the wearer wanted a new look.
  • Decorative Pins – Companies like Tura began selling pins that could clip to the temples of cat eye glasses. Some included bejeweled tiara-like headpieces and hair clips to complete the look.
  • Other Unique Designs – Wings, fish tails, geometric shapes, leaves and vines, and more can all be spotted on vintage cat eye glasses.

Marketing became about having the right pair of glasses to match every outfit and glasses makers sold accessories, like jewelry, hats, and bags to help the fashionable woman create a cohesive look.

Popular Vintage Cat Eye Glasses Brands

Vintage Art Craft cat eye glasses with aluminum frames and flower etchings

Given their popularity, there were hundreds of different companies manufacturing cat eye glasses in the 1950s. Thousands of the pairs that flooded the American market were cheap imports only meant to last for a season or two before the plastic cracked or warped. Others were expensive designer cat eye glasses, some even with real gemstones as decoration.

The vintage glasses that remain today are often from the top companies producing vintage eyewear at the time. Many of these companies were known for their quality, high production rates, and innovative designs. Some of the names to look out for if you are interested in purchasing a pair of antique cat eyeglasses include:

Each of these brands offered their own unique approach to vintage women’s eyewear as they endeavored to stand out with their cat eyeglasses in the 1950s and later. The many options are part of the fun of purchasing and wearing vintage eyeglass cat eyeglasses today.

Cat Eye Glasses in the 1960s, 70s, and Beyond

A woman working in the research laboratory of Lockheed wears clear vintage cat eye glasses in 1962

The shape of cat eye glasses changed in later decades, but the style never completely went out of fashion. As the 50s ended, the lenses of cat eye glasses became rounder and grew, extending up to the brow line and completely covering the eye area.

More subdued embellishments and colors also became more popular as women often opted for black or dark colored frames with minimal decoration. Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s brought this style into prominence.

Optical companies also turned to fashion designers for new cat eye looks. In 1966, Tura partnered with Christian Dior to design several styles of cat eye glasses as part of Dior’s fashion line. Other eyewear manufacturers soon followed, partnering with other designers like Oscar de la Renta, JH Collectibles, Cartier, and Chanel, pushing cat eye glasses into the realm of haute couture.

Rhinestone cat eye glasses from the 1960s

Cat eyeglasses briefly went out of style in the 1970s and 80s as women embraced a growing range of options in eyewear, but the style is one that continues to come back in with either the more modern round frame cat eye glasses or the nostalgic vintage 1950s frames. The style works as prescription glasses, reading glasses, sunglasses, and even as an accessory to costume or daily wear.

Vintage Cat Eye Glasses for Sale Online

In the world of vintage glasses, there is no style that offers as many options and is quite as iconic as vintage cat eye frames. These glasses were created with the goal of providing women fashionable options when it came to their eyewear and their decades of popularity are a testament to their success in doing just that.

The benefit of all the different cat eye frame designs through the years is that women interested in wearing vintage glasses today can find the perfect pair to fit their aesthetic. From pink plastic cat eye glasses with rhinestones for a sock hop costume to dazzling silvertone glasses with gold filigree to a pair of sleek black frames, it is possible to have vintage cat eyeglasses that match every outfit and mood, just as was originally intended.

The best place to find vintage cat eye glasses online in any of these styles is right here on our website.

At Eyeglasses Warehouse each pair of our glasses is carefully chosen and refurbished by our team to be ready for daily wear. Once your optician replaces the lenses with your specific prescription or turn them into a pair of custom vintage sunglasses, you will have a one-of-a-kind pair of vintage frames. You can browse our wide inventory of glasses frames from the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and more on our website and be sure to come back frequently as we continuously add to our inventory.