James Dean: an eyewear icon

Agreeably, the age of 24 is too young for anyone to pass away.

It was this sad fate that eternalised the Hollywood star actor James Dean, after his tragic car accident in 1955.

As such a young man, his rebellious spirit, good looks and accoladed acting performances immortalised him as a cultural idol and timeless teenage role model.

In his most celebrated landmark film “Rebel Without a Cause,” Dean exemplified the teenage angst of a young man entering adulthood. Via his character (Jim Stark) and edgy appearance, he captivated the American youth with his blue jeans, white T shirt and unforgettable red windbreaker jacket.

To this day, James Dean remains as a symbol of style, figuratively ‘frozen’ in a state of eternal youth due to his untimely death. Which is why we consider him as one of our favourite glasses wearing icons, during the mid-century era of thick acetate spectacle frames.

 

James Dean sitting at table wearing glasses whilst smoking and reading newspaper

 

James Dean’s Glasses

Since their conception, spectacles were deemed as a medical impairment, visible for all to see by everyone around you.

Traditionally, they were reluctantly worn out of need, rather than want; a stigma which continued into the early 20th century. Until of course, they became popularised from celebrity adornment.

Artists, musicians, architects and movie stars changed the notion of what glasses frames could be. Less medical device, more fashion statement. An extension of your personality.

No better example of this was when a young James Dean rocketed to fame after his most defining role in the 1955 movie-hit Rebel Without a Cause. After what was unknowingly the final performance of his career, Dean died a month before the movie was released.

Naturally, this climatic twist intensified the reception of the film and eternalised his relatable teenage role with the American youth. As if being frozen in time, he became an eternal teenage icon.

 

Movie poster for Rebel Without a Cause

"Rebel Without a Cause" was released in October 27th, 1955 just 27 days after the tragic death of it's lead-role actor, James Dean. The plot portrayed Dean as troubled teenage protagonist (Jim Stark) during white, middle class, suburban adolescence. | Image credit: The Parsonian

 

Despite never wearing his glasses in the hit-film, fans idolised his appearance and latched on to what has become a timeless look. Ever since, the James Dean glasses style has been carried forwards, decades after his tragic car accident in the September of 1955.

And it’s easy to see why. His glasses were such an integral part of his real-life character. The shape of his frame complimented his face perfectly, with their rounded corners and charming keyhole bridge.

Despite his rebellious character, his spectacles gave him a much more relatable, approachable appearance. They humanised him, yielded intelligence, refinement and ultimately, changed the perception of how glasses could be worn.

 

James Dean weaing his glasses suit and bowtie at a formal function

James Dean, September 1955, just one month before he died. | Image credit: Frank Worth

 

Who made James Dean’s glasses?

The provenance of Dean’s original glasses is debatable.

Sources suggest various American optical manufacturers such as Tart optical, Universal Optical and Moscot. However, he owned several different pairs of glasses during his short-lived career which makes them more difficult to identify.

What we do know, is that his glasses were full rim and made from a thick cellulose acetate in a tortoise shell imitation. Following Dean’s rise to fame, after his sudden death, tortoise acetate was immortalised as one of the most classic colourways in optics.

Most charmingly, his glasses utilised a traditional keyhole nose bridge which yields the classic, mid-century aesthetic we know so well. Dean’s legacy-look is an unforgettable style, anchored in history as one of Hollywood’s most famous spectacle wearers.

 

Two close view images of James Dean wearing glasses

In both these images, you can detect the streaked pattern of Dean's acetate glasses. These would have consisted of brown, yellow and amber flecks in opaque and transparent tones. | Left image credit: Pinterest, right Image credit: Sanford H. Roth. 1950

 

James Dean wearing a cowboy hat and glasses using a camera on stage

 

Two images of James Dean wearing spectacles sitting at a tabe

 

Did James Dean need glasses?

James Dean was notoriously short-sighted. He struggled to see far away without glasses at all. Distanced objects, beyond arm’s length would have been blurry and out of focus for him to see properly.

Due to his age, barely in his twenties, he’d have used single vision lenses for intermediate and distance tasks. Famously, he revelled in auto sport and participated in numerous professional car races. His need for distance glasses would have been crucial for his driving and on particularly sunny days, he even used sunglasses clip-ons over his spectacle lenses.

 

James Dean sitting inside 1954 Ferrari Mondial 500 wearing clip on sunglasses

James Dean inspecting the interior of a 1954 Ferrari Mondial 500, circa 1954. | Image credit: Robb Report

 

Two images of James Dean driving his Porsche 550 Spyder

James Dean's first car was a 1939 Chevy which his father had bought for him. Later, in February 1955, he bought a brand new Porsche 356 Super Speedster (images above) which he then traded for his more famous 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, famously nicknamed "Little Bastard." Many believe this particular car was cursed as it was the one he died in later that September. He never got the chance to race in it as he fatally crashed whilst driving to its first race at Salinas. | Image credits: Readers Digest (left) and SFGate (right.)

 

Close three quarter view of tortoise acetate James Dean style glasses

 

James Dean’s glasses tribute frame

As homage to Dean’s unforgettable glasses, we’ve recreated the style, shape and colour of his original 1950’s spectacle frame.

Like to the original, we’ve handmade these frames from an indulgently thick tortoiseshell acetate. For both the frame front and the temples, these have been precision machined and scrupulously sculpted, accounting for similar details of Dean’s full rim frame.

Tortoiseshell. Check. Key hole bridge. Check.

The acetate itself comprises of dark brown, light amber and golden flecks of translucent yellow. After 8 stages of progressively fine polishing, the surface is smooth, shiny with an incredible lustre, good enough for the movie star himself.

Glasses rarely come more classic than this.

 

Needless to say, Dean’s untimely departure was sadly ironic.

The race car crash, not on the race track, was a seemingly trivial ending to his short life. Arguably, he’d only just embarked upon what could’ve been an illustrious acting career and may have created many more films than the mere three he’d starred-in.

To this day, he was and still is considered a style idol.

Forever a young man and eyewear icon.

 

James Dean sitting in his Porshe 550 Spyder wearing sunglasses on sunny day

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