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Horn-rimmed glasses originated in Europe in the 1800s, featuring rims made of horn or tortoise shell. Tortoise shell rims were especially expensive and by the early 1900s plastic horn-rimmed glasses were manufactured in the U.S. that simulated the look of these materials. Horn-rimmed glasses have remained a popular style to this day, embraced by mainstream and subcultures alike.
Iconic American silent movie comedian, Harold Lloyd, might have been the first to popularize black horn-rimmed glasses. He adopted the rims as a gimmick for his ongoing character, but removed the lenses because they reflected too much light. A prolific moviemaker, Lloyd donned his signature horn-rimmed glasses in about 200 movies.
The style was popularized and endured, even through periods where the heavy “in-your-face” rims were considered unfashionable. To this day singer Buddy Holly of the 1950s is easily characterized by impressionists because of the black, thick-framed horn-rimmed glasses he wore. Bill Cullen, host of the then-popular game show Password also wore horn-rimmed glasses.
The recognizable rims also served as a trademark for some of Hollywood’s most enigmatic characters. In the original Adventures of Superman series, actor George Reeves donned horn-rimmed glasses to play Superman’s counterpart, Clark Kent. In the 1978 blockbuster remake starring Christopher Reeve, the legions that watched Clark Kent’s bumbling, nerdish character with his horn-rimmed glasses would soon become part of the burgeoning computer culture of geeks and nerds. Often made to feel like social misfits themselves, it might be a no-brainer that the subculture adopted horn-rimmed glasses.
Many other Hollywood characters also made these famous frames work for them. A memorable Nancy Culp played Jane Hathaway in The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971). Diana Rigg occasionally wore horn-rimmed glasses to read when she played sexy British agent Emma Peel in The Avengers (1961-1969), and Mike Meyers’ outlandishly popular Austin Powers emblazoned horn-rimmed glasses into popular culture. America Ferrera’s Betty Suarez of Ugly Betty also takes advantage of that special something that only black horn-rimmed glasses can add to a character.
Celebrities who wear horn-rimmed glasses include news anchor Ashleigh Banfield; talk show host Larry King; director, writer and producer Woody Allen; actor Michael Caine; rocker Elvis Costello; comedian Drew Carey; Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock; actor James Garner; and actor and comedienne Janeane Garofalo. Alec Baldwin, Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Elton John and many others occasionally wear these signature glasses. Horn-rimmed glasses are also embraced by goth, punk, pop, geek and academia subcultures.
Other segments of society including many in the conservative mainstream wear the rugged glasses as a no-nonsense style. Examples include Barry Goldwater (1909–1998), bureaucrat and foreign policy advisor Henry Kissinger, and 2008 Presidential candidate Bob Barr.
Horn rimmed or tortoise shell eyeglass frames are one of the reasons sea turtles are so endangered now. Their shells were also used for things like hair combs. It's not as much of an issue now that plastic ones are available, but some people still poach them for their shells.
Personally, I quite like black frames, but I think most of the time plastic tortoise shell looks kind of tacky and cheap. Maybe because it became so popular for a while, when people could finally afford the less expensive plastic versions, it just seems like the norm now.
I had never really thought about it, but I suppose my glasses, which have heavy black frames, could be considered black horn rimmed glasses. At least they owe horn rimmed glasses something in their design. I always thought of them as librarian glasses, as that heavier black eyeglass frame is often used in a film to identify the librarian or scholarly, straight laced girl.
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