Glass Act

Chunky black frames are back on the most distinguished of noses. It’s about non-conformism more than nerdism, and more than ever before.
fashion
Chunky frames are not at all about nerds anymore.
Horn-rimmed glasses have done the unthinkable: establish the 1950s’ rock-n-roll legend Buddy Holly's superiority over The Beatles, at least in fashion terms.

A pair of horn-rimmed glasses in a field in Iowa, US, led the way to the site of the fateful plane crash that killed the pioneers of rock-n-roll. How’s that for trivia? This year’s 3 February is the 51st death anniversary of Richie Valens, The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly, the man who everyone from Don McLean to Kurt Cobain has paid musical tribute to—the man who was as iconic for his horn-rimmed glasses as he was for rock-n-roll.

That everyone these days from Johnny Depp and Ranbir Kapoor to Karan Johar and Madonna is hiding behind a pair of glasses seems not just a befitting tribute, but also does the unthinkable: establishes Buddy Holly’s superiority over The Beatles, at least in terms of fashion. The mop-top never really made a comeback, did it? Holly’s glasses, on the other hand, make you want to throw exotic French phrases in the air.

BEspectacled

Glasses have gone from being fashion pariahs to fashion favs. Presenting the new posterboys of the frame.

Trend, tribute or treason, it starts from the very top. Bollywood’s new chocolate boy figures on the cover of Filmfare in a white jacket and black pants, looking distinctly retro in a Holly-esque pose. The other go-to boy Imran Khan too has been wearing big nerdy glasses around town, while bad boy Saif Ali Khan’s chunky frames sure have the sound of rock-n-roll about them. Meanwhile, Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan have pairs so well matching, they should’ve got a double discount on them. The boy responsible (okay, partly) for his own father getting kicked out of Mumbai’s top political office, Riteish Deshmukh, has a pair too.

“Glasses,” our designers will tell you in unison, are the new ‘It’ thing—the new Chihuahua for thinking fashionistas. According to designer Vineet Bahl, glasses have become “acceptable, even chic”.

So, whodunnit? Who helped them out of the hole they found themselves in along with other rejects? Fashion did. It realised how much they missed each other, went to rehab, and promised it would be a better person from now on. As a result, designers in the West are advocating glasses to get that ‘je ne sais quoi’ for your look, especially for men. Closer home, the big nerdy glasses have been as intrinsic to the Sabyasachi Mukherji women as the mismatched sari for a good part of half a decade now. It was a part of the designer’s quest for “beauty in the ugly” (his muse, much like his press notes, was intellectual).

Even Ashish Soni’s last collection at the Wills India Fashion Week sent the chic nerd down the runway recently, as front-row fashion hacks peered from behind fluorescent cardboard glasses. It was a far cry from ‘The most beautiful eyes you never saw’ ads of the 1990s for contact lenses.

But Sabyasachi’s librarian chic and Soni’s well-dressed sexy geeks aren’t the only looks that the glasses are pandering to. Designer Nitin Bal Chauhan made the same chunky plastic frames (a derelict pair bandaged at its nose) an intrinsic part of his ‘rockstar grunge’ look.

According to Chauhan, while it’s beyond doubt that glasses rock, even if you wear a strong look and sharp suit, it’s their grunge avatar that he’s a fan of. “The glasses now tend to break away from the normal notion of being grim, dead serious, or the whole concept of being sinfully studious. You wear a pair of photochromatics with a hoodie, converse shoes and torn jeans to go with a Mohawk,” Chauhan says. According to him, the glasses’ new younger avatar clearly has a playful element to it—a bit of grunge, a bit of rock-n-roll, and not necessarily with a suit.

FASHIONABLE REVENGE OF THE NERD

It could just as well be that glasses are no longer exclusive to nerds and are becoming mainstream, but either way, the fact is that they’ve never had it so good. “The glasses are underdogs that have made good... now it implies a certain amount of coolness, it’s a part of the beauty that fashion is searching for in the ugliness,” in the words of a fashion editor, who adds, “When Sabyasachi uses them, it’s still saying ‘look, these women are not pretty on the face of it, but look at the glasses, they are cool’.”

At some level, wearing glasses has become a point of reverse snobbery, according to designer Vineet Bahl: “A pair says you’re pretty and blonde but I’m pretty, blonde and I wear a pair of glasses.” A pair of glasses, he adds, would fit in nicely with the ‘not-fitting-in’ pretence of fashion. “While they do hammer in the point that the geek is cool, most youngsters wear them because they do have an element of intellectualism and a certain amount of eccentricity woven in,” Bahl says. Stylist Vandana Dewan, though, says, “It’s all about creating drama” to impart a touch of seriousness to the fashionista’s “otherwise frivolous personality”.

Dorothy Parker’s most oft quoted and corrupted quote—“Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses”—has been dumped with undue urgency. Men do make passes at women who wear glasses, au contraire. In fact, ‘Bookworms never go to bed alone’ seems to be becoming the new wisdom. An exhibit in Australia labelled as such even achieved fame mapping the geek’s journey from ‘four eyed girl’ to an alternative geeky swan.

So, where did the intellectual/nerd/geek stereotype go? When it came to women, Sarah Palin pierced a sword right through its heart. A poster girl who thought Afghanistan was a “neighbouring country” and couldn’t cite the name of even one newspaper or magazine she read, hardly qualifies as your quintessentially intimidating nerd.

On that favour done unto their tribe, nerds can now gleefully capitalise on their other great conceit: of being non-conformist. It’s a look of self confidence that says, ‘Look, I don’t care about what I wear, I care about what I think’. And to think is cool.

GLASSES ARE FOREVER

The glasses might be making big only now, but the fact is that despite their rather chequered history, they have always been fashionably iconic. Literature and cinema are littered with references to characters who instruct their butlers to bring their monocles ‘because they wanted to look rich’. PG Woodhouse’s love of monocles for his characters, especially Bertie Wooster, is only too well documented. It was, however, overzealous painters of the Middle Ages who were responsible for their first flirtation with fashion—glasses were portrayed as a tool for the learned, though many of them were long dead before specs were even invented. The monocles were a favourite of the French upper class, the les encroyables and their equally stiff-upper-lipped counterparts across the Channel. These attitudes have lasted. Why, just last year a British firm made an attempt (unsuccessful) to market these quaint signifiers of brainy intent. Even scissor glasses have made a cursory appearance, thanks to a revival of interest in Lafayette and Napoleon, as did a pince nez pair that clamped the nose.

Glasses were once a status symbol, recognised as such even by Martin Luther King Jr. The dream leader didn’t need glasses, he just wore them because he thought they made him look ‘distinguished’. World War II, though, marked the glasses’ first fall from grace. The Nazi propaganda machinery dubbed them a sign of ‘ageing’ and made a hard attempt to make sure no bespectacled pictures of Hitler ever came out.

There were others too, of course, like Sofia Loren and Brigitte Bardot who broke the glass ceiling rather literally. Loren paired her wiry glasses with a recycled black dress with crystals at the Golden Globe red carpet last week. Elton John often liked his glasses with polka dots. Bono, who likes a shaded view of the world, and Anthony Hopkins wore them just like he would. But it was only the current lot of chunky glass celebs like Justin Timberlake, Johnny Depp, Chris Brown, Jay Z and Woody Allen who dragged glasses out of contact lens and laser-surgery-forced retirement.

BOLLYWOOD IN DENIAL

Despite glasses’ non-conformist reinvention, and support from some of Bollywood’s biggest, India’s very own tinsel town continues to be deep in the throes of denial. On screen, Hindi cinema continues to use glasses for the same reason it uses oil-flattened hair—to establish instant geekiness. The only leeway it allows itself is to use them as side accessories to white paint in the hair—to establish maturity. Otherwise, the glasses typically come off the minute the hero gets a makeover and reveals his true hunky self.

Uday Chopra in Pyar Impossible is an example of the latter. He’s a blue-blooded geek and they call him exactly that about 15 times into the movie just to make sure you haven’t missed the point.

Jitesh Pillai, editor of Filmfare, agrees, “Glasses were used in the movies most often to show a sudden transformation from geek to uber chic.” He cites the cases of Shah Rukh Khan in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi and Preity Zinta in Kal Ho Na Ho to support his argument. Incidentally, Kareena Kapoor in Kambakht Ishq and Katrina Kaif in Ajab Prem... both wear glasses, though the glasses in both cases seem bafflingly averse to mini-skirts. Even transformation shows like Jassi and its American spawn Ugly Betty try and peddle the same cliché—that glasses don’t go with a beauty makeover.

But whatever the big and small screens say, we know what’s up in the real world: glasses are cool, and they will continue to be. And, it’s a rather peculiar change—five years ago you were nagging your father to get rid of those huge chunky black retro plastic frames, and now you’re willing to finance his change from the rimmed metal glasses back to the sort that activist parents who went to college in the 70s and Kishore Kumar wore.

So, what’s the point, you ask? People have worn glasses all through recorded history (or at least legibly recorded history). Indeed, they have, but glasses have moved on, and how. They are no longer old world and nerdy. They’re suave, classy and elegant, even grunge, edgy and rock-n-rollish (if paired properly). The perfect accessory for the individuality-endorsing fashion chameleons walking our streets.