by Preston Fassel
Moreso than anything else in the film, D-Fens’s glasses have become Falling Down’s iconic image. Parodies are instantly recognizable from the combination of the frames with a short sleeve shirt and tie, and even the recent DVD release emphasizes their appearance with a loving closeup of Foster’s grimacing face framed by the battle-damaged frames. In a story that is largely about broken ideals and the loss of an idea of America, the choice of glasses couldn’t have been more appropriate.
Though the imagery may be lost on many younger viewers just coming to enjoy the film twenty years after its release, when Falling Down hit theaters in 1993, the frames were probably recognizable to a majority of middle-aged viewers. The style referred to as “browline glasses,” also known as “combination frames.” The Shuron Optica company began manufacturing them in 1947, and quickly started something of a craze. Though it’s a strange thought now, plastics being used in everyday life was something relatively new to Americans in the 1950s. Appliances and other household wares had traditionally been completely metal; the introduction of plastic casings cut down on costs and allowed the emerging post-war generation to set themselves up comfortably for a minimal investment.
The idea that this fusion of plastic and metal could carry over to eyeglasses as well struck a chord with Americans, and pretty soon half a dozen other eyeglass companies were producing their own browline frames to get in on the action. By 1960, half of all Americans wearing glasses were wearing browlines. For Americans with vision problems, browline glasses were tough, confident, and rugged; rather than suffer with poor vision, they could turn their handicap into a symbol of American ingenuity and perseverence. From a fashion standpoint, browline glasses helped to define the 1950s, right along with flattop haircuts and poodle skirts.
It was for this reason, then, that a backlash grew against browlines as the children of the 1950s grew up to become the counter-culturalists of the 1960s. Rebelling against the class-conscious, status-quo driven conformity of 1950s consumer culture, the young people of the late 1960s and early 1970s distanced themselves from anything even remotely resembling something their parents might have owned or worn. This meant that browlines had to go. The glasses had already begun to suffer a backlash in the early/mid 1960s, as literally everyone and their dad was wearing them; anytime something becomes too popular, something new and unique has to come and take its place. Rather than just slip out of fashion, though, browline glasses ended up on the receiving end of serious hate. People still wearing browlines in the 1970s weren’t just considered unfashionable: Regardless of the individual’s actual beliefs, wearing browlines post-Vietnam came to identify someone as a racist, sexist, conformist, stubbornly trying to uphold the ideals of an aging generation even as a younger, more enlightened, more savvy one was taking over the country. Sound familiar?
In many ways, Falling Down is about the last gasp of the 1950s in the face of the savagery borne of the early 1990s recession, set at that culture’s ground zero: the gang-ravaged, at-one-another’s-throat “melting pot” of Los Angeles. While proponents of 1950s social values had been given a “second chance” in the form of the Reagan 1980s, the economic collapse that came to define the early 1990s, and the resultant societal backlash, proved to be the final nails in the coffin of mid-century Americanism as an acceptable, mainstream ideal. In another era, D-Fens would have been the ideal American: A hard-working husband and father with unwavering loyalty to his job, country, and beliefs. (Amidst the climate of anti-government sentiment that defines conservative politics in 2013, it may be hard for younger readers to believe that in post-war America, loyalty to the government was synonymous with patriotism). The “lies” told to D-Fens were the standard line given to an entire generation of American men, all led to believe that getting up in the morning and going to work were all that was necessary for a lieftime of financial security and prosperity.
It’s appropriate, then, that the glasses that came to symbolize the outdatedness of the 1950s generation were chosen by Falling Down Costume Designer Marlene Stewart as Foster’s glasses. Not only do they put his character into context as a “leftover” from another era, but they are literally how he sees the world: A portal which warps his environment and leaves him perceiving of life as still existing as it did during another time. And, of course, the crack that appears in his glasses partway through the film symbolizes his own fragmented and fractured vision not only of America but indeed of his own life.
An interesting side note is that, despite browlines being a widely available style of eyeglasses, the particular brand that Foster wears remain a mystery. During the original heydey of browline glasses, the majority of frames were produced by a small number of successful manufacturers: Shuron Optical, Art-Craft Optical, Bausch and Lomb, American Optical, and Victory Optical. Many webpages claim that Foster is wearing Shuron frames; this is understandable, as Shuron optical has produced more browlines than any other company, and in fact continues to manufacture them to this day. However, this is incorrect.
Though, to casual observers, most brands probably look alike, there were subtle differences between every manufacturer’s frames, from the shape of the lens to the placement of the bridge. The easiest way to tell different brands apart, though, are the little pieces of metal in the upper corners—called “rivet covers.” In the early days of frame manufacturing, the arms of the glasses were actually riveted on; the rivet covers were a way to make the frames more decorative while also securing the rivets. Manufacturers all had their own different types of rivet covers, so to the trained eye, different brands were distinguishable with a quick glance—not much different from determining the make of a car by looking for the logo. Over time, several manufacturers started putting arms on the glasses in ways that didn’t require rivets, but they still put the metal—known instead as a “plaque” –on for decoration/identification.
Shuron Optical’s rivet cover design was the staff, a thin rectangle ending in a small bulb; Art-Craft’s were similar, but instead of the bulb, the river cover sort of slanted up, creating a kind of ramp shape; and Victory Optical had little V’s. American Optical had different types of plaques. The first, and more well known, was the stylized “wing,” as seen on Malcolm X’s American Optical Sirmonts (itself a very popular model). They also had plaques which were little “AO”s. Bausch and Lomb was unique in that they used multiple types of rivet covers. They had chunky “+” signs. They also had chunky, slanted “-“ signs that look similar to Art Craft’s river covers, except B&L’s had a much softer taper. They had shapes that looked like diamonds with one edge thicker and one edge thinner.
Of course, D-Fens has diamond shaped rivet covers. This has traditionally been the rivet cover design for Ray-Ban’s browline frame, the Clubmaster; however, because it is so basic a shape, it is also the one most found on generic, knock-off browline frames.
It is easy to tell that D-Fens is not wearing Ray-Bans by looking at the bridge, which is the most unique feature of his glasses. The bridges on virtually every manufacturer’s browlines are thick, rectangular slips of metal. D-Fens’s glasses, though, have what is called a “rolled bridge”—a thin, cylindrical piece of metal that is meant to simulate the kind of bridges found on much older styles of glasses. Having this type of bridge on a pair of browlines is almost unheard of, making D-Fens’s glasses very unique. (Though some Internet sites claim they are a “first generation” Clubmaster from the 1980s, contemporary photos show that virtually nothing has changed in the construction of the Clubmaster from the 1980s to the present).
Though there is some speculation that the costume designer simply bought a pair of cheap, knock-off glasses to use, this is unlikely for several reasons:
1) Knock-off goods are, by definition, trying to mimic something more popular. A generic brand would most likely have had the same type of bridge in order to more look like a branded frame.
2) D-Fens goes through a fair amount of physical abuse through the movie; the production team would have needed multiple pairs of glasses in order to serve as backups in the event that a pair broke or were severely damaged. Buying the glasses as cheap knock-offs could have meant not being able to get their hands on any more in the event that all of the glasses were damaged/broken. (This also raises the possibility that the frames were made by a company that was still manufacturing them in the 1990s).
3) Most tellingly: Recently, a character on the CBS show Vegas has shown up wearing identical frames, down to the diamond rivet covers and rolled bridge. It is unlikely that a line of cheaply produced, knockoff frames with such a unique identifying feature would still be in production over twenty-years later, and that those frames would also be chosen by another large-budget production.
The mystery remains, then: who manufactured these iconic glasses? If you know, contact us through this web site!
Preston Fassel is an optician in Houston.