A Brief History of Aviator Sunglasses and Our 5 Favorite Pairs Right Now

Given its name, it should be no surprise that the aviator style got its start as a lighter, more elegant alternative to the cumbersome goggles worn by US Air Force pilots. Developed in 1937 by Bausch and Lomb, the aviator sunglasses’ iconic teardrop shape was designed to cover the entire range of the human eye, limiting any sunlight from messing with the pilot’s vision and protecting them from glare that could cause headaches and altitude sickness. That functional feature led to the casual style name “ray bans.” In 1950s America, with post-war jingoism at an all-time high (and the wide circulation of an admittedly badass photo of General Douglas MacArthur sporting a pair), aviator glasses broke out in a big way into the mainstream market.

We have real aviators to thank for sunglasses going from being a purely functional piece for hunters, sportsmen, and military to an enduring fashion statement rocked by musicians, actors, and celebrities of every stripe. From Hunter S. Thompson to Freddie Mercury, from Eddie Murphy to Gloria Steinem, cultural icons throughout the last 70 years have used a pair of aviator sunglasses to convey their don’t-mess-with-me coolness. It’s no stretch to say that aviator sunglasses confer an entire history of cultural iconography to anyone smart enough to wear them — no wonder they’re still the most popular shape in the Ray-Ban brand catalog.

Over the decades since it debuted, the aviator style has undergone subtle stylistic changes. According to Ray-Ban senior brand director Marie DiPalma, the 1940s brought gradient and mirror lenses that further enhanced the sunglasses’ military performance during World War II. In the 70s, the aviator adapted to the disco era of the 70’s with photochromic Ambermatic lenses (as seen on Robert DeNiro in the film Taxi Driver); in the 80’s,  the classic aviator style was revived from its fighter pilot roots, thanks to Tom Cruise in Top Gun. Through every decade of its existence, DiPalma says, aviator sunglasses have helped shape popular culture and remain an enduring classic for both men and women. “The style,” she adds, “is the perfect accessory for the strong-willed and independently minded cultural icons who don’t want to be seen, but definitely want to be noticed.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Driven by our enduring love of these timeless shades, we’ve pulled together the ultimate aviator sunglasses guide, with all the worthiest iterations of the style right now.

Classic Aviators

Ray-Ban Aviator Mirror Sunglasses
Ray-Ban Aviator Mirror Sunglasses

You can’t get better than the best. From 1937 to this day, Ray-Ban’s aviator sunglasses are the original from which all other aviators were spawned. Fun fact: the mirrored coating isn’t just to be cool—it also reduces glare.

American Optical Original Pilot Sunglasses
American Optical Original Pilot Sunglasses

A favorite of U.S. military pilots for more than 50 years, these all-business aviator sunglasses are a marvel of premium materials and precision engineering. If understated badassery is your goal, look no further.

Squared Edge

Randolph Engineering Concorde Sunglasses
Randolph Engineering Concorde Sunglasses

If you’re looking for something a little more restrained, this slightly squared-off iteration softens the “Fear and Loathing” look of the original aviator profile.

Oversized

Porsche Design P’8478 Sunglasses
Porsche Design P’8478 Sunglasses

Glam it up in the same shades sported by rockers like Axle Rose, Usher, and Rick Ross. The only thing cooler than the 80s-throwback style is the interchangeable lens feature, which was the first of its kind when the P’8478 debuted in 1978.

Affordable

Nectar Maverick Sunglasses
best aviator sunglasses for men nectar maverick

Unsure of whether you can pull off the aviator style? The easygoing price point of Nectar’s aviator shades lets you give the style a fair shake without spending next month’s rent. If you end up deciding it’s not your look, at least you’ll have the satisfaction of having helped repopulate honeybee colonies with your purchase.

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