Eyeglasses are one of those accessories with a very particular history, so when they’re used in historical costume movies and TV shows on a character, glasses can carry a great deal of meaning. Corrective eyeglasses could be worn by men and women dating back to the middle ages in Europe, but until the early 20th century, most people who needed eyeglasses did not wear them on an everyday basis. They were a tool used for a specific activity, such as reading or sewing or inspecting something closeup. Wearing them frequently would risk loss of this valuable tool, and being painted or photographed wearing them was showing off their status symbol. I wrote a detailed article about historical eyeglasses, particularly women wearing them, with an eye(hah) towards historical reenactors. Because, as a glasses-wearing chick myself, it’s of interest!
A lot of times, when eyeglasses show up in frock flicks, they’re an “artistic choice” that doesn’t make historical sense, especially when movies and TV shows choose sunglasses (which were typically used people with eye illnesses until about the 1920s). Sorry, Picnic at Hanging Rock (2018) and The Affair of the Necklace (2001)!
So let’s look at a few places that got glasses more or less right!
Benjamin Franklin in John Adams (2008)
Obviously, Ben “I invented bifocals” Franklin has to wear some specs. As played by Tom Wilkinson in this excellent miniseries, Franklin doesn’t always wear them, just when necessary, and the same goes for other gents who might need them. He deservedly won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for this performance, plus the series won an Emmy for Outstanding Costumes for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special.
Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1995)
Mary is Jane Austen’s nerd, mocked relentlessly by both her sisters and the author for being a little too accomplished in the arts and books but not in the social graces. So the 1940, 1980, and 1995 adaptions of the novel give Mary glasses to make her awkwardness totally obvious. Here, Lucy Briers plays Mary to perfection, only wearing her spectacles when she’s playing piano or reading a book. This suits the character and is historically accurate.
Charlotte Brontë in To Walk Invisible (2016)
The eldest Brontë sister had terrible eyesight, but most biopics omit Charlotte wearing glasses. The Brontës of Haworth (1973) occasionally show her with them, but I appreciated this adaption where Finn Atkins as Charlotte squints and hunches over her manuscripts, peering through her poor glasses prescription, furiously writing her masterpiece.
Theodore Roosevelt in The Alienist (2018)
So it’s not great history nor a brilliant mystery, but I don’t mind this new series working in a few historical figures. Brian Geraghty plays a young Theodore Roosevelt during his New York City police commissioner days, showing his early use of spectacles. This was influential in popular culture because, as Roosevelt became a well-known public figure and was seen as an active, fit, and adventurous man who also wore glasses, a little of the association between glasses and nerdiness was lessened, at least for men.
Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)
She famously quipped: “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.” But she said a lot of snarky things, and that’s why we love her. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s portrayal of the famously witty writer is as booze-sodden and melodramatic as Parker’s life reportedly was. And while she doesn’t wear eyeglasses too often, when she gets down to writing, on go the glasses.
Do you wear glasses? Have you noticed eyeglasses in historical movies?
Yes, I too wear glasses. And I enjoy seeing them worn correctly in period films, like the fantastic John Adams miniseries and P&P.
Some nice use of them are the Australian series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and Lady Mary in Downton Abbey when she attended the car rally/race.
I actually once had to go glasses-less in a play because my frames were too modern for the 1930s.
My favorite glasses in a frock flick are the tortoise shell ones Natalie Portman wears in Planetarium/The Summoning. But that might just be my crush on her.
You left out Sean Connery / Brother William of Baskerville in The Name of The Rose. His glasses were period appropriate and fit in the story and his character.
I’ve worn glasses since I was in second grade. They’re just sort of always there because my eyesight is terrible and I don’t do contacts, and I’d never thought of them a lot in relation to period films. I do re-enactment/history stuff that’s set around 850-900 CE in the Viking era, and because my eyesight is terrible, I usually keep my glasses on and then take them off just for pictures. Actually, most of us in the group who wear glasses do that, since the medieval spectacles are from a later period. My daughter’s optometrist told us that only about a quarter of eyesight issues are genetic – the rest are environmental and can be moderated with careful screen use and lots of outdoor time (for the natural light) and wearing sunglasses and hats to protect the eyes against very bright sunlight. It made me wonder if the need for glasses would have been a little less common back then.
I’m also a long time glasses wearer. I have astigmatism mixed with farsightedness. So, it’s a double edged sword. As for seeing glasses worn in historical shows/movies, I just get excited to see them worn correctly for daily activity and by people other than the oldest characters.
I remove my glasses for bathing, sleeping and not much else. I chose my current frames after watching Hidden Figures and seeing cat’s eye glasses here and there.
I really like this spec-ific post! groan
yeah, but batalie dormer in those glasses is hot so I can forgive them tbh
oh cool, I cant spell
What about Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker?
Isabelle Adjani in “The Story of Adele H.”! Undeservedly obscure, or near-obscure, these days, and one of Truffaut’s best. The older Adele does wear her specs in the street, but this neatly symbolizes her unhinged state: https://www.mfah.org/calendar/story-adele-h
The 1995 Persuasion has a couple of people wearing glasses on occasion. The one that I found interesting was the little boy wearing glasses while putting a puzzle together with Anne, just before she’s hauled away for the “very long walk”.
Jamie Fraser in Outlander!!