Over the past decade, glasses have become increasingly fashionable. At the moment a part of so-called Geek-chic, what was once the symbol of nerds and losers is now undeniably hip. Even the stars –from Zooey Deschanel to David Beckham – are wearing spectacles with pride. But if the stigma that was once attached to glasses has, indeed, vanished, why is it that more than $14 billion per year continues to be spent on contact lenses worldwide? Are the days of people hiding their poor eyesight really gone for good, or is the popularity of glasses just a passing fad?
Glasses and contact lenses are big business. According to the 2004-05 National Health Survey almost half of all Australians suffer from some sort of visual impairment: 5.3 million are long-sighted and 4.3 million are shortsighted. A total of 9.4 million Australians are glasses and contact lens wearers. As people live longer, impaired eyesight will only become more prevalent. Soon, those who do not use glasses or contact lenses may well be in a minority.
There are, of course, plenty of reasons why people might choose contact lenses over glasses that have nothing to do with fashion: contact lenses can be more appropriate for sporting activities, they do not fog-up, and give greater peripheral vision. Both glasses and contact lenses are widely used, however. In the end, deciding between the two is often a matter of aesthetics.
Significantly, in the recent American presidential elections, Barack Obama chose to wear contact lenses, rather than glasses in public. An interesting, related fact is that in the post-war era US, only two presidents regularly wore glasses in public – Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson – and both of them came to power through the previous incumbent dying. It all comes down to the Jock/Nerd paradigm that we’re all familiar seeing in American teen movies: whereas in Australia we are somewhat used to being governed by studious-looking individuals, in America, the country’s leader still very much needs to look like a tough guy.
The fashion for glasses in recent years has undoubtedly closely corresponded with the rise of digital culture. As roads to success began to increasingly rely upon high skilled information work, it was inevitable that we would see greater prestige given to the wearers of glasses.
Equally, if we want to see what the future may look like, we should turn to China’s example; not only because of its rising economic and political power, but also because of the fact that over the last 2000 years Confucian culture has placed a high premium on studiousness. Indeed, in China today, there is even a fashion for those with near perfect eyesight to don their own pair of frames.