Here’s How Sunglasses Evolved To Support The Military

Come spring and summer, people all over the world buy the latest sunglasses. They don’t only shield people’s eyes from bright rays; they make a fashion statement as well. The shades that now help people feel cool, though, have their roots in the military and among military leaders. Sunglasses also go back further than most people probably realize. Here’s the history of sunglasses and how they changed the battlefield.

The Romans Were First

Nero Watches Gladiators
BPA2# 4513

Like with many innovations, the Romans were the first to come up with the idea for sunglasses. Back then, the shades were only for the wealthiest of people. While the concept matches today’s premise in many ways, there are noticeable differences.

Unlike materials that are readily manufactured today, the Romans used naturally occurring materials to produce sunglasses. The lenses, in this case, were crafted from concave emeralds. Roman Emperor Nero would use the emeralds to watch gladiator fights. The gemstone lenses both blocked the sun’s glare and aided with his nearsightedness.

Snowblindness and Inuits

Inuit Snow Goggles
Image Per Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Inuit people, chiefly found in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, protected their eyes with unique sunglasses such as those shown above. Their concern, however, was the damaging rays that occurred in extremely snowy conditions.

The form of glasses worn by Inuits were circular pieces of ivory with tiny slits carved out. These glasses almost completely protected the wearers from the dangerous combination of strong sunlight and ice. The shades were also effective in keeping snowflakes and other debris out of the eyes of the wearer.

Sunglasses in the Civil War

Civil War Sniper Glasses
Image Via eBay Seller losttreasurestoo

The first more modern version of sunglasses popped up in the American Civil War. Soldiers in both the Union and the Confederacy spent long hours traveling on foot in intense heat. Some of these soldiers were lucky enough to have sunglasses to shield their eyes from the bright rays. In this instance, the sunglasses were more about keeping soldiers comfortable and alert to their surroundings.

While there had been snipers in previous wars, the Civil War was the first American skirmish to prominently feature them. And some of these snipers wore interesting shades. The very center of the glasses featured a yellow lens. The other part of the lens was completely frosted. The intention of these glasses, though, wasn’t to block the sun’s rays. Blocking out everything other than the very center of the lens allowed the shooter to focus on their target wholly.

Pilots and Aviators

WW2 Pilot Wearing Aviators
Via Getty Images

Aviators may be the most popular sunglasses style in history. And they were first designed for a very specific purpose. Technology was rapidly advancing when World War I began. As pilots took to the skies they reported bouts of airsickness and headaches from the glare. US Army Air Corps Lieutenant General John Macready asked Bausch and Lomb to do something about the issue.

The eyeglass maker tackled the problem by designing green-lensed glasses that would cut down on the glare and allow the pilots to fly in a safer and more efficient manner. Since the glasses prevented the harmful rays from getting into the eyes of pilots, it was decided that they would be called Ray-Bans.

Sunglasses grow in popularity

MacArthur Sunglasses
Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

During World War II, as air fights became a regular occurrence, Ray-Ban continued to work on improving their lenses. The newest models were polarized with the top half of the lens being dark and gradually becoming lighter in the bottom half. The glasses weren’t just a hit with pilots.

A famous picture was taken of General Douglas MacArthur wearing Ray-Bans while in the Philippines. The photo helped generate huge demand for Ray-Bans among the general public. Today, Ray-Bans are not only iconic, but they are also a huge seller.

Sunglasses as part of the uniform

Special Forces Sunglasses
Photo by Scott Nelson/Getty Images

Shades may or may not be approved as part of a soldier’s kit. In the case where the soldier is a spy, it may be encouraged as the glasses can clearly make the wearer less identifiable. Soldiers who perform specific jobs or work in specific environments may also be able to wear certain kinds of shades. Think snipers, troops who work in the extreme cold or heat, or soldiers who work in dusty or sandy places. The army allows:

“Use of sunglasses within a garrison environment, but restricts their wearing during the formation and while indoors. Soldiers are not allowed to wear sunglasses in the field, unless specifically specified otherwise by their commander. In some cases, the commanding officer might instruct the specific use of sunglasses for soldiers on a mission, because of some safety requirements for protection against high glare and other demanding field requirements.”

Modern Use

Military Sunglasses
Photo by Sergei BobylevTASS via Getty Images

Tactical sunglasses have become popular not only within the armed forces but also for people outside of the military as well. Of course, the average person doesn’t meet the demanding technical specifics of a soldier, but that doesn’t stop people from purchasing the glasses worn by an Army Ranger or a Navy Seal. Some of the most popular military sunglasses brands include Oakley, Wiley, AO Eyewear, Under Armour, and Skullerz.

Todd Neikirk

Todd Neikirk is a New Jersey-based politics, entertainment and history writer. His work has been featured in,, and He enjoys sports, politics, comic books, and anything that has to do with history.

When he is not sitting in front of a laptop, Todd enjoys soaking up everything the Jersey Shore has to offer with his wife, two sons and American Foxhound, Wally.