Seneca is said to have read all the books in Rome by peering through a glass globe of water. In the Middle Ages, painters, scholars, statesmen and master craftsmen used Venetian reading stones (magnifiers made of ground glass), which extended their working life enormously and thus contributed profoundly to Western civilisation. Benjamin Franklin probably couldn’t have co-written and signed the US Constitution in May 1787 without bifocals, which he invented. Glasses and the images of distinguished men have gone hand in glove for centuries.
And yet the day it dawned on me that I needed glasses was not a happy one. What a dispiriting cliché to turn 40 and promptly hold your books at arm’s length, squint at menus in restaurants and overshoot your exits on the motorway. Computer Vision Syndrome must be the cause. After all, staring at the VDU is the muscular equivalent of doing push-ups all day long. My eyes were simply tired.
It’s not surprising that I was in denial, because while specs almost always enhance the image of a man, for us women they’ve always been a no-no. As Dorothy Parker told us, ‘Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.’ I tried to think of marvellous women with weak eyes: Catherine the Great, Colette and …anybody else? Precious few role models could be found. But then women usually wanted to appear irresistible, not impressive — and they never, ever posed for portraits wearing their glasses. This obviously doesn’t apply to sunglasses, about whose mysteries Audrey Hepburn and Jackie O taught us long ago.
My solution was to grab the cheapest pair of supermarket specs and hide them among groceries as they slid towards the checkout (does anyone spend good money to look foul?). But they were useless, and I needed advice. ‘Often people who need reading glasses are also long-sighted or have astigmatism and may have different prescriptions for each eye,’ said Michel Guillon (www. michelguillon.com), the optician in Duke of York Sq, Chelsea. ‘None of these things are corrected by ready-made reading glasses and often result in eye-strain and less than optimal vision.’
In the end I went to optometrist Viren Jani (020 7409 2559) on Mount Street in Mayfair because the eye test came with complementary Iridology — the Ayurvedic practice of analysing flecks in the iris for signs of trouble in the body. ‘The demands on our eyes are so much greater today,’ said Mr Jani softly. ‘It’s important that we take care of them properly.’ Then he showed me the frames, and that’s when my attitude changed. We think nothing of spending £250 on a pair of shoes, I reasoned, glancing at the fabulous display, and great accessories of all kinds can be the tipping point where a woman becomes truly dressed. So it makes sense to invest in eyewear by a top designer because you will be seen in and using your glasses every day.
I was initiated into the world of bespoke hand-crafted frames in laminated woods, buffalo horn, titanium, cellulose acetate (derived from cotton) and brands like Gold & Wood, Kata, Judith Leiber, Lindberg and Gotti & Niederer — the possibilities were exhilarating. The François Pinton (www.pinton.fr) range, celebrating l’Art de Vivre with the motto ‘banality, mediocrity; stay away!’ appealed hugely. I chose bold frames in faux tortoiseshell, a material first used for early Chinese specs in the belief that the tortoise’s longevity would rub off on the wearer (Charles Darwin’s tortoise died last week aged 176). Able to see again, and thrilled with my new look, I started noticing glamorous women in specs everywhere: Nicole Kidman and Liv Tyler following auto-cues at the podium, Madonna at her Kabala, Zadie Smith — that was enough for me.
So it appears that just because Dorothy Parker could turn a good rhyme, it doesn’t follow that she could see into the future. The world has moved on, thankfully. In recent years women in glasses have appeared intelligent, beautiful and fully in control. The best opticians are now temples of design catering to a huge demand from the stylish and weak-eyed of both sexes.
Roughly 80 percent of the world’s most fashionable shades and specs are designed and made by the Safilo, Allison and Luxottica groups in the area around Venice where reading stones were first ground, and where the innate sense of style is legendary. So now it’s official: girls in glasses are glamorous — and you can eat your heart out, Dorothy Parker.