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What is the story behind the iconic cat eye frame design?

All the women out there who love vintage glasses will own a pair of cat eye shaped frames, they are truly an iconic style that endures through the years. 

The Cat Eye Cheat Sheet

All the vintage cat eye facts you need...

First Made By
Altina Schinasi
Key Characteristics An exaggerated upswept frame that forms the shape of a cat's eye.
As Seen On Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Rihanna, Gigi Hadid.


This feline-inspired style really started to take off in the 1950s as the stars of the day took to wearing this glamourous shape on the big screen. However, if we want to go right to the beginning of the cat eye story we need to learn a little about Altina Schinasi. 

The "Harlequin" Frame

Altina Schinasi was born in the Manhattan's Upper Westside in 1907, after receiving schooling in the US she made a trip to Paris in her late teens to study art. It was here that she developed a deep passion for the subject, so she changed her choice of college to art school in New York. 

Altina graduated and took up work as a window dresser on Fifth Avenue for Peter Copeland, where she would collaborate with the visionary artist Salvidor Dali. It is during this period in her late 20's that she registered her patent on the Harlequin frame. Inspired by the lack of interesting frames for women available in opticians in New York, Altina designed the first prototypes of a more glamorous silhouette. Her original shape designs were cut away from the romantic and whimsical harlequin masks worn at ballroom dances at the time and it is from this mask that the cat eye shape got its first name "Harlequin". 

40s Cat Eye Model

After initial scepticism from stores, Altina grew her business substantially over the 1930s as women across America voted with their wallets and purchased these fun, playfully shaped feminine frames. In 1939 Altina was awarded the Lord & Taylor Annual American Design Award for her avant-garde transformation of the eyeglass frame into a proper fashion accessory. Vogue and Life magazines credited Schinasi with revolutionizing the eyewear industry and aesthetic. 

Altina exited the eyewear business in the early 40s to continue her other passions including painting, sculpture, film making and the anti-fascist and civil rights movements. If you want to know more about this fascinating woman I highly recommend checking out the eponymous documentary "Altina".

The Fifties: Housewives To Filmstars

Housewives in cat eye glasses

Throughout the post-war years, the popularity of the cat eye frame for prescription lenses soared. Eyewear companies started to truly cater to the market for feminine frames adding stylistic touches such as diamante, gold stars and elaborate flairs to the tips of the frames. 

Marilyn and Lauren Bacall In Cat Eye Frames

Everyone from movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, politicians like Shirley Chisholm, professional women and stay-at-home mothers favoured the cat eye silhouette, which tended to be smaller with a super-exaggerated, upswept flair.

The Sixties: The Breakfast At Tiffany's Effect

When Audrey Hepburn's character Holly Golightly wore the large tortoiseshell oversized cat eye "Manhattan" sunglasses by Oliver Goldsmith in the movie "Breakfast At Tiffany's" that was it. The cat eye sunglasses frame was now number one. Sophisticated, feminine, romantic and seductive all in one this larger silhouette opened up the cat eye design to a whole new audience thanks to the addition of tinted lenses. 

Time In The Wilderness

After the surge in popularity of the 60s, throughout the 70s the eyewear world was getting shuck up by funky large square and circular designs made famous by Jackie O. Whilst the frame stayed in manufacture it was no longer the dominant silhouette on the street and throughout the 90s and early noughties, they became associated with your Grandma's frame as opposed to being fashion-forward!

Vintage Versace V90 Cat Eye Glasses Frames

Vintage Cat Eye Glasses For Women

V90 Col 987


Early 90s Versace Cat Eye Frames

Own the retro housewife look in these stunning early 90s cat eye glasses frames from Versace. Featuring exquisite diamante detailing and made from Italian acetate these are the only frames for a fashion-forward Nona to be seen wearing. With their classic upturned edges and ornate gold temples, these specs are perfect for all occasions.

New Appreciation 

As consumers grew tired of the more bug-eyed look of the early noughties frames flying out of the Luxoticca production lines, the pin-up look started to see a revival led by stars such as Dita Von Teese and Rihanna both regularly seen sporting a thin traditional cat eye shape. 

Find Your Piece Of History

The History Of Cat Eye Glasses

At Ed and Sarna Vintage we have hundreds of cat eye frames available for you to choose from and all of them can be customised with new modern UV lenses or fitted out with your prescription. We hope you learnt some new things about this amazing frame shape and as always do get in touch with any questions or queries you have. 

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