The First World War was the first major military conflict to see the utilization of aircraft in both reconnaissance and attack missions. As United States aircraft took to the sky, pilots were naturally afflicted by the intense sun at higher altitudes. Combat pilots would often land with exhausted and strained eyes after flights with no eye protection. To remediate this issue, The Army Air Corp contracted a project to optics manufacturer Bausch & Lomb with the aim to have sun blocking glasses for all of their pilots.
B&L came back with an early version of what would become the now extremely popular aviator style sunglasses. The classic tear drop shape was perfect for pilots because they completely covered the eyes, giving protection to the entire eye socket.
By the late 1930s, aviators became a luxury item for sportsmen who needed their vision protected hunting or fishing. However, it would be World War II when the aviator really became the iconic fashion statement it is today. Throughout the conflict, thousands of aviation personnel would receive their own pair of aviators. General Douglas MacArthur wore his pair of aviators when the U.S. retook the Philippines. Millions of Americans saw photos of the heroic general storming the Philippines with his corn cob pipe, ornate hat, and aviator sunglasses.
While the aviator has become one of the most popular consumer sunglasses style in the world, it has remained a staple of military gear for the U.S. military. Since 1978, Randolph Engineering has been producing aviator sunglasses for the U.S. military. It is currently in its 7th 5-year term, supplying the HGU-4/P to the US Army and Navy and allied Air Forces world-wide.
When the boys came home, they brought their military aviators with them. The popularity of aviators grew throughout the 50s as celebrities like Marlon Brando began wearing the style. Alternatives to the original aviator started developing, with options such as square framed aviators and pink lenses emerging.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, aviators could be found on the faces of iconic figures ranging from Gloria Steinem to Paul McCartney. By this time, aviators could be purchased from many different manufacturers. In 1986, the aviator would be solidified into American culture when Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer wore the sunglasses in the hit action movie Top Gun.