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STYLE / FASHION

Forever Cool

September 15, 1996|Colman Andrews

The sunset strip. A dark autumn night in 1961. I'm walking west, on the north side of the street, past a little building housing a detective agency, on my way to the Unicorn. I'm wearing jeans, black tennis shoes and a black-and-gray-striped sweater, and carrying my $95 German-made Spanish guitar in its pasteboard case. I am the ultimate 16-year-old beatnik. I am wearing shades.

Some kids roll by in a '58 Impala. "Hey," yells one of them, "dig that crazy cat!" I'm so cool I don't even turn around. Then I walk right into a 3-foot-high, sharp-cornered newspaper box, sending it skittering a foot or two until it clunks to a stop at the end of its chain. The kids honk and hoot. My leg throbs. That's the trouble with shades. They lend the wearer automatic attitude, but they're hell on peripheral vision.

It is not quite true that kids in California are born with sunglasses, but they do tend to acquire them about the same time they graduate from booties to shoes that actually have soles. My daughters--not quite 4 and 7--have each gone through about a dozen pairs already, thereby learning another of life's important little lessons: Sunglasses don't last. The lenses get scratched; the frames get cracked or bent, or those little screws come out; you leave them someplace. They're like umbrellas in that last respect: Specific to certain exterior conditions (your occasional nighttime shade-wearing aside), they go from being essential to being sort of in the way. No wonder you're always leaving them on the chair in the restaurant.

There are hundreds and hundreds--maybe thousands--of different kinds of shades on sale at any given time in America, in emporiums from the Price Club to Bijan. You can get a pair for $2.99 or for $500 (and probably much more). Sunglass specialists catalogue them according to lens type, lens color, light transmittance, frame type, frame color, temple size, lens size and intended use (you'd want different ones for water-skiing, say, than for walking down the Sunset Strip at night). Some are durable classics--"aviator" glasses, for instance, have wire frames and lenses shaped like slightly lopsided pears, and Ray-Ban's famous Wayfarers, with their '50s-look molded black plastic frames and half-orb lenses, are so emblematic of Southern California beach life that Don Henley sang about them as a veritable icon of lost summer.

I've never paid much attention to (or much money for) shades myself. I always have some, but I never know what brand they are or what their temple size or light transmittance factors are. It's just sort of whatever's on the rack at the supermarket that looks OK and doesn't cost too much when I've sat on my last pair. I am conscious of lens color, though. On my first visit to Spain, I had a jaundiced view of the country solely because, I later realized, I happened to be wearing yellow-tinted glasses. And when I wore Blublockers for a while last summer, I quickly made the startling discovery that, through their lenses, Yellow Cabs look pink. Now I tend to go for traditional dark green or brown.

Sunglasses are about image, of course, and so it's hardly surprising that what shades are called seems to have become so important. The people who buy Revo's Napa glasses or Ray-Ban's Bohemians, for instance, probably shouldn't be caught dead purchasing Ray-Ban's Predator 1s or Predator 2s, the Killer Loop brand's Xtreme Pros or Reebok's Schwarzeneggerian-sounding models, the Eliminator and the Intimidator, and vice versa.

The very fact that Reebok, best-known for its athletic shoes, even makes (or lends its name to) sunglasses bespeaks another sunglass phenomenon: They now bear not only the names of fashion designers (from Courreges and Saint Laurent to Hanae Mori and Isaac Mizrahi) but also of expensive stuff that the vast majority of sunglass-wearers will probably never be able to afford. If you want to own a Porsche, a Nikon, a Hobie or a Harley (among other things), that is, you can do it with shades. They may not be cars or cameras or surfboards or motorcycles, but, hey, they're cool.

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