Skip to navigationSkip to content

The enduring, dispassionate power of sunglasses

AP Photo/John Redman
So cold.
  • Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

More people are spending their disposable income on designer sunglasses. The latest global eyewear industry forecast suggests continuous growth for the segment in the $102 billion industry, with demand largely driven by the sunglasses’s “fashion quotient.

But long before it was considered a fashion accessory, sunglasses were used to mask to cover the most telling aspect of our face. Judges in 12th-century China wore flat panes made of quartz (no relation to us) to conceal their eyes when interrogating witnesses in court. By covering the most expressive part of the face, jurors maintained a veneer of impartiality. The ancient sunglasses didn’t offer sun protection and were only meant to be worn indoors. A vestige of this practice can be seen in the allegorical depiction of justice as a blindfolded woman.

Historian Vanessa Brown suggests that British dandies in the 18th and 19th century modelled this detachment via a circular lens mounted on a metal handle. “[The dandy’s] occasional use of the quizzing glass draws attention to the way they used various enactments of the gaze to announce their difference,” Brown wrote in her book, Cool Shades. “Their defining characteristics were studied detachment and unshakeable emotional calm, which enhanced their social power.”

Today, this veil of indifference is also useful for cops, bodyguards, bouncers, and covert agents who use sunglasses as a tactical accessory. Wearing dark glasses is a power move, allowing the wearer to observe the scene without letting others know where they’re looking. Sunglasses also conceal their fear. A 2010 study published in Psychological Science found that wearing sunglasses may even encourage people be dishonest and ungenerous. The experiment at the University of Toronto showed that participants who wore sunglasses gave less money to a stranger because they felt anonymous. “Darkness can conceal identity and encourage moral transgressions; it may also induce a psychological feeling of illusory anonymity,” the authors explain.

Spying sunglasses are very much in vogue in China this year. The BBC reports that police officers in the city of Zhengzhou are now outfitted with surveillance sunglasses linked to a facial-recognition system. The four police personnel patrolling the railway station have arrested over 30 travelers wanted for crimes including traffic violations, using fake IDs, and human trafficking as of February.

The US Secret Service, on the other hand, insists that there’s no insidious reason for agents wearing dark shades, except to keep the sun off their eyes.

Reuters/Larry Downing
Just looking.

Similarly, professional poker players use sunglasses to conceal their moves. Professional player Ashley Adams describes why it’s not weird to wear dark sunglasses indoors. ”I’d learned that many forms of tells involve the eye movement of my opponents,” Adams writes on Poker News. ”Sunglasses would obscure the object of focus of my own eyes. My opponents wouldn’t be alerted to my staring at them. I could look at them forever to see what they were looking at and how they appeared, and without my stare being detectable.”

Reuters/Steve Marcus
Game face.

So effective are sunglasses in obscuring expression that it can be dehumanizing.

In the US, politicians running for office are rarely photographed wearing shades. “There’s no eye contact—that’s how you build trust,” explains image consultant Parker Geiger to the BBC. “Sunglasses put a barrier between you and the other person. They say eyes are the windows of the soul, and if I can’t see your soul how can I trust you?”

Sunglasses are also an essential element of the authoritarian’s costume. From Libyan revolutionary Muammar Gaddafi to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, wearing dark shades when facing the public implies that they have something to hide, as the Global Post points out.

Seeing a politician conceal their eyes was so unusual that former Senate minority leader Harry Reid made headlines when he showed up to work wearing Matrix-like dark glasses to conceal a serious injury on his right eye. It was a improvement on the freakish surgical bandage Reid wore on the Senate floor.

Reuters/Mike Segar
Then-Senate Democratic Leader Harry and Landra Reid at the Democratic National Convention.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.