There can’t be many connections between Lady Gaga, Andy Warhol, the cows on yogurt adverts and Father Christmas. But here’s one: they’ve all been spotted wearing sunglasses and analyzed by Vanessa Brown, senior lecturer in design and visual culture at Nottingham Trent University, England, as part of her theory into the “coolness” of shades and why we wear them. It’s not, she can report, just to keep the sun out of our eyes.
A trip to the supermarket was the inspiration for Brown’s research. “On the way home after decorating my new flat, I stopped at a supermarket to buy a pint of milk,” she says. “I was wearing old painting clothes and was generally a bit of a state, so as I left the car I grabbed my sunglasses from the dashboard. But when I approached the store I caught sight of myself reflected in the glass facade, and realized I looked quite cool.
“Whether I did or not is obviously debatable, but it struck me how odd it was that the mere addition of one accessory could transform my perception of myself.”
Brown has always been interested in the meanings of objects and their cultural values — she has previously studied Tupperware and the idea of the housewife — so “sunglasses seemed like an ideal next project,” she says.
With the help of the British Optical Association and the curator of its museum, Brown began searching through thousands of images, adverts, films, fashion photographs, documentary photographs and optical industry journals to investigate the symbolism of shades. “I found that sunglasses were always strongly associated with the glamour and power of modern technology, control of emotion, control of the body and control of interactions with others,” says Brown.
She then started to analyze the link between the wearing of sunglasses and the broader phenomenon of “what it is to be cool.” Brown, who is 40, explains: “Sunglasses are appealing because they connote coolness, which is used to sell almost everything.” That was obvious from the sunglass-wearing cows in the yogurt ad. “Some other researchers say coolness is emerging as the highest value in Western society,” she adds. “This can be seen as a very worrying and profoundly antisocial shift, as cool characters display lack of concern for others, lack of respect for authority or social convention, and a focus on style above all else.”
However, Brown’s research suggests that cool, sunglass-wearing heroes and villains are not so worrying. The shades represent their composure, their “self-possession in the face of seemingly overwhelming forces,” she explains. “This resonates with experiences many of us share — we’re increasingly alienated from work, each other and the natural world, increasingly aware of financial, medical, environmental risk and increasingly faced with identity choices. By shading the eyes, we can appear detached from the chaos, either frankly unbothered by, or utterly on top of, the frantic pace of technology and fashion.
“Sunglasses, by covering those vulnerable eyes and implying that connection with sleek engineering and glossy surfaces, make it easier to pull off a truly cool demeanor.” Brown says her research has highlighted the proliferation of sunglasses in DVD covers, music videos, fashion images and adverts. “There are thousands of examples of sunglasses being used in visual culture as a key prop,” she says.