A question to ask yourself on sunny days: are you, as you conduct your conversations with people, trying to convince them that you are Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix? You’re not? Then will you please take off your sunglasses?
Hardly anyone does these days. For whatever reason, it seems to have become acceptable over the past couple of years to engage in social intercourse with the upper half of your face entirely concealed behind several hundred quid’s worth of metal and glass. No matter that the poor person you’re talking to hasn’t got a clue what your eyes are doing, has not a single indication from the windows to your soul of how you’re reacting to their comments. It’s very off-putting, trying to gauge whether or not observations are hitting the mark solely from the twitching of someone’s mouth. (And given the amount of Botox sloshing around society these days, sometimes you haven’t even got that.) Sunglasses are the equivalent of a beard, a barrier enabling you to hide. For that very reason men with beards are mistrusted. So why is it suddenly OK for shades to perform the same function above the nose?
You’d have thought that given the existence of Bono, no sensible person would ever wear sunglasses again. But for every gnome with a God complex there’s another celebrity who suits the look. Jack Nicholson, for instance. ‘With my sunglasses on,’ he says, ‘I’m Jack Nicholson. Without them, I’m fat and 70.’ Fine, it works for him. The trouble is, plenty of plebs for whom it doesn’t work start kidding themselves. Well I hate to break it to you, Gavin from Accounts, but a pair of Ray-Bans does not a film star make.
It wouldn’t be so bad if it were just Gavin. Yet normal people, socially well adjusted and considerate in every other area, now refuse to take off their sunglasses when they talk to you. You’re left with an impression of arrogance, of someone who deems him or herself too important to grant you eye contact. It’s vaguely intimidating, too, though somehow in a naff way. You’re presented with a cross between the Terminator and a third-rate nightclub bouncer.
To be honest, I’m not happy about people wearing sunglasses at all. Proper upstanding citizens never used to. They preferred to leave that sort of thing to dodgy characters from the underworld. Mafia bosses, for example: there’s a famous picture of 1960s mobster Sam Giancana in a pair. Ditto Lord Lambton, the Tory politician forced to resign when he was caught with a prostitute and some cannabis. How did Peter Sellers give Dr Strangelove his air of sleaze? He wore sunglasses. Back then, shades meant shady.
You certainly didn’t need them because of the British weather. I grew up during the 1970s, before global warming had been invented, and as a result didn’t see the sun until I was nine. Even when it did appear, no one felt any obligation to shield their eyes. Apart from us kids, that is. Sunglasses were a novelty item then, quite possibly incorporating a drinking straw as their frame so you could dip one end in your milkshake and slurp it all the way round your eyes to your mouth. Simple pleasures.
The late 1980s saw a slight change (Top Gun has a lot to answer for), but it’s really in the past decade that things have gone mental. That modern deity known as Fashion has come along and — as it always does — completely ruined everything. The real reason people keep their sunglasses on is, of course, to show off which brand they’re wearing. Always there’s that slight turn of the head. ‘Look at the stem,’ it says. ‘Behold the stem. You see those tiny letters? Dolce & Gabbana, mate. Minted, I am. Bloody minted.’ They might as well go the whole hog and have the left lens covered with the word ‘ker’, the right with ‘ching’.
The very worst aspect of people not taking their shades off is that you spend the entire conversation viewing your own reflection. It’s bad enough not getting ocular feedback on what you’re saying, without being constantly reminded of how terrible you look. Is that a bead of sweat on my forehead? A scrap of food between my teeth? Is my smile really that lopsided? How the hell is anyone meant to keep focused with insecurities like these running round their brain?
Then again, if you yourself are a serial non-remover, you won’t be looking at your face in the other person’s sunglasses — you’ll be admiring your own glasses. Which in turn will be showing their glasses, and so on and so on, like those mirrors in clothes store changing rooms that reflect each other into infinity. It’s a perfect metaphor for the narcissism of our age.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 26 July 2014Tags: Dr Strangelove, Fashion, Global Warming, Jack Nicholson, mobsters, Peter Sellers, Sunglasses, The Matrix