Few objects have had as immense a societal and personal impact as eyeglasses. In a fundamental way, this single object can change individual lives, affect literacy, improve learning and, in doing so, impact entire nations. With eyewear sixty percent of us in the developed world transform daily to fully functional beings without experiencing the obstacles caused by our disability.[1] In the developing world sixty percent of individuals—an estimated 600 million people—go without eye care or glasses.[2]

From a macro view of the stars to a micro vision of the written world, lenses have allowed us to explore the mysteries of the universe. The British Museum’s “Nimrud lens” of rock crystal goes back to ancient Assyria—a civilization with a keen interest in astronomy.[3] Medieval monks who first experienced “spectacles” could go beyond their failing eyesight to transcribe Ancient texts, which shaped the course of history.[4] While the invention of the printing press led to a wider dissemination of knowledge, the ability to see letters on a page is no less revolutionary.

Changing the face of history with its corrective powers, eyewear is also a highly visible element of dress that is part of the fashion system. In popular culture it continues to be embedded with intellectualism. It is nonetheless seldom seen in formal portraits, on television, in film or in fashion exhibitions. Worn by billions of people daily corrective and protective eyewear can be used symbolically for a range of personalities from conservative to assertive. Functional, decorative and rich in meaning, this unique object holds tremendous power and promise.


Anne Bissonnette
Cybil Cameron
Katelin Karbonik
Naomi Milne
Katie Mooney
Danielle Peel
Donnalee Riley


[1] “The problem,” Global Eyesight Now, (accessed Nov. 14, 2016).

[2] Ibid.

[3] “The Nimrud Lens/The Layard Lens,” Collection online, The British Museum, (accessed Nov. 15, 2016).

[4] Richard Corson, Fashions in Eyeglasses (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 1967; reprint, 2011), 19.

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Photograph by Anne Bissonnette©


Cite this page (bibliography):
Bissonnette, Anne, Cybil Cameron, Katelin Karbonik, Naomi Milne, Katie Mooney, Danielle Peel, and Donnalee Riley. “Eyewear: Fashion with Vision,  Introduction,” Exhibitions, Clothing and Textiles Collection, Department of Human Ecology, University of Alberta Museums, November 23, 2016. [INSERT URL].