Vision Quest

Why we wear our sunglasses at night.

Lauren and Wintour shade themselves from their own brilliance

I’ve never owned a pair of sunglasses—shades, if you prefer. Not because I dislike them, but because if you are as seriously myopic as I am, any filter that blocks light, however bright, reminds you of your poor sight. I could wear contact lenses and buy whatever shades I desire. I could have laser eye surgery to correct my vision, buy a pair of aviator sunglasses, and pretend I am an off-duty pilot, or Howard Hughes as played by Leonardo DiCaprio. But contact lenses don’t sit comfortably on my eyes, surgery seems so much vanity and expense, and prescription sunglasses—well, I’d always be losing them, which would also be expensive. Besides, there is one pleasure to near-sightedness: It’s a second sight. Without specs, colors and light glow and soften in ways they don’t through lenses or, so I’m told, with perfect sight. This desire to see things differently is why people put on sunglasses and go out for a walk.

Many wear sunglasses for practical reasons: to protect sensitive eyes from the glare of direct sunlight or the light reflected off glass, snow, or water. Others wear them to protect their eyes from the lights that illuminate their own fame, the klieg and the camera flash. The blind—who know no glare, no brightness—wear shades to mask the physical evidence that they cannot see: Ray Charles was never without his shades, nor is Stevie Wonder.

The mother of all sunglass wearers

Certain people are famous for keeping their eyes behind shades not for protection but to better intimidate, by cultivating an air of mystery, or for reasons purely of style; Anna Wintour, the feared editor of Vogue, was until recently always a wearer of sunglasses, as was Jackie Kennedy. I worked for some years at her son’s magazine, George, and one day in the art room, John Kennedy looked at a photograph of a contributor to his magazine—she was wearing a pair of large, black, oval sunglasses—and exclaimed: “Who does she think she is? Jackie O?” This, I thought, illustrated his fine sense of the absurd. He was himself an avid wearer of shades and owned many, though they usually made him look more like himself, which is why, in public places such as airports, he disguised himself by wearing a bland pair of clear-lensed spectacles, the rims of which obscured his eyebrows. He understood the first principle of sunglasses: If you want to remain invisible, stay away from the shades.

Though in life sunglasses make you conspicuous—and because many pairs are madly expensive, they also signify conspicuous consumption—in the movies, those who wish to seem hidden, such as spies and secret agents, often appear in sunglasses. Not to hide, but to make their secrecy stand out. (James Bond as played by Sean Connery, for example.) Of course, there’s nothing inherently good-guy about sunglasses. The Matrix series is, you might say, a battle between two opposing styles of shades, between the oh-so tortuously cool sunglasses worn by the heroes, and the more standard shades worn by their enemies, Agent Smith and his many identical-looking colleagues. If you need to be reminded that movies require a suspension of disbelief, then recall that not once, not even in the most absurdly acrobatic of fight scenes, does anyone lose his shades, except in defeat. Keeping your shades is, symbolically, proof of composure in the heat of the action; defeat is to have one’s dead eyes exposed to the sun.

If in Hollywood illusion is everything, this is sometimes true to politics, too. Politicians require illusions, and the most important of these is to appear as if they don’t. For this reason, politicians (except for dictators) rarely wear sunglasses for formal appearances. Even in the brightest setting, you will never see George Bush wearing a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers, and were he to do so, even on less formal occasions, you’d think he was imitating a great Wayfarer-wearer, JFK, who was an exceptional president when it came to what he wore. Politicians want us to see their eyes so that we believe they have nothing to hide, or that they are hiding only what we count on them to conceal. Politicians, I often think, would look more truthfully like politicians were they to wear shades. Why pretend otherwise?

On some people, sunglasses emphasize the wearer’s powers of perception: their predatory ability, if they are a sniper; or their gifts for objective sight, as with authors Joan Didion or Hunter S. Thompson, who in public are, or were, almost always in shades. Those who make a living from seeing acutely, such as pilots, also need sunglasses. Most of us require sight for work, and though sunglasses are not something you’d associate with a book editor or a scientist who observes worms, I’ve known such people to wear them to block the glare from a computer screen or from the grim fluorescent lights of the office. A close relative of mine wears his sunglasses to work, but then he also prepares breakfast in shades, presumably to avoid the glare from burning toast.

This points to the absurdity of sunglasses: You can look like an idiot in shades if you wear them when you don’t need to. Children understand this well, I’ve always thought. Whenever they put on their parents’ sunglasses, it’s never just to imitate but to parody their parents, who often want to appear chic or cool by wearing shades, but who, when they walk into a dark room in shades and can’t see a thing, look ever so foolish. Children must also recognize that grown-ups sometimes wear shades to make themselves appear famous even when they’re not, or at least not as famous as they wish they were, like the women in Absolutely Fabulous. I’m told by an informed source that in some small Midwestern towns, if you go into a restaurant wearing sunglasses, you will likely be treated as famous.

For all the ways sunglasses can improve one’s vision, or create the illusion of sight, shades also serve as protection when you don’t want to see. What better way is there to hide eye-glazing boredom at a meeting than to conceal one’s eyes behind a pair? Since I don’t wear sunglasses, I take off my spectacles and any person I don’t care to see semi-vanishes into a pleasant blur. But I hear that shades, in their many varieties, can create just as pleasing an effect.