NHS spectacles were a prominent part of the great social experiment that followed the second world war and the foundation of the Welfare State. For the first time ever, everyone was entitled to pair of government-sponsored glasses.
Like a lot of people, I used to cringe at the prospect of NHS glasses. Like many more now, I look back on them with new respect and nostalgia for things passed. The immediate post-war period was boom time for opticians as millions of people who had never even had an eye test before were encouraged to do so. The first ranges were launched in 1949.
The two main frames, the 422 metal frame, (the Lennon) and the 524 acetate frame (the Morrissey) turned out to be pieces of great quality and ultimately iconic design classics. Getting free glasses, though, made people the object of derision and NHS specs were associated with badly-dressed OU lecturers, low-grade officials and bumptious bores, like Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring, the sort of people you wouldn’t want to be like.
In 1985, the Thatcher government stopped the free flow of NHS specs. If you were not on benefits, you had to buy your own. A great swathe of British manufacturing companies involved in the production of NHS glasses disappeared and with them a skilled workforce. A world of talent vanished. It wasn’t long after that what had seemed like the epitome of uncool has become cool again.
In 1989, Georgio Armani was the first fashion designer to launch a range of eyewear and boy did he summon up the ghost of the 422. The whole collection owes a great debt to the NHS and glasses a few years before the cognoscenti wouldn’t be seen dead in.
We reach an interesting pivot here in the history of eyewear design. Beforehand, from the 30s onward, each decade had its own look, its own innovations, its cats eye or nylor or Futura but now we’re styling retrospectively, looking back rather than looking forward, as if our future is in the past, that the future will only be worse than the present and its only in the past that we can be happy, only in the past that we can be cool or charismatic. 70s designs are very much back in vogue now. They’re all coming back. Where do we go from here? Where will we go once we catch up with the 80s and its look-back buzz?