September 16, 2011

“Those new glasses?”

When White House press secretary Jay Carney recently fielded a question about, of all things, his eyewear, he plunged into a danger zone more fraught than his sparring sessions with reporters over Syria’s regime or the latest unemployment figures. The question was a little flirty, a little taunting.

After a middling attempt at humor (“The better to see you with”) and flattery (“You guys look great, actually”), Carney settled on humility, pleading that his new square-rimmed, big-lensed, chunky-framed glasses were dictated by “the ravages of age.”

No luck. “But they’re hipster,” a reporter retorted.

“Really?” Carney said. “I thought they were sort of retro-nerdy.”

Two weeks later, they were gone. Why? Were they too blue-state and threatening, like John Kerry’s windsurfing? Or were they too cool and distracting, like the collegiate Barry Obama smoking under a fedora?

Officially, no. In an absent-minded-dad tale, he claimed he left the glasses on the car bumper when dealing with a bike rack and then drove away. He issued a mock apology: “I take full responsibility for the regrettable action that resulted in the loss of my fancy new glasses.”

Or maybe he just got scared — because fancy can be fatal.

Decades ago, everyone who got glasses got the same pair. Glasses were just glasses — a tool, not a statement. Think of NASA Mission Control, with its many bespectacled rocket scientists in Houston evaluating The Problem. Today’s problem is not what we’re seeing with glasses, but what we’re saying with them. Eyewear has become me-wear.

Suddenly, the frames that Carney owned and then disowned are all over the place. The young and the slightly less young, the creative and the slightly less creative, the brainy and the slightly less brainy have chosen to look at the world through the same big, unignorable frames. These black plastic glasses give men and women alike the same aw-shucks Clark Kent vibe: a wordsmith with hidden powers. It’s been many years since “The Revenge of the Nerds,” the movie, turned into the Revenge of the Nerds, the business story, with uber-geek Bill Gates becoming a master of the universe. Not all who wear the big-and-clunkies are imagining themselves a future billionaire or a secret superhero, but the implication remains: I can pull off this look because I’m special.

Until everyone else starts doing the same.

The glasses assemble disparate personalities into the same in-the-know set: MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Drew Carey of “The Price Is Right”; CNN’s Don Lemon and Zooey Deschanel on Fox’s sitcom “New Girl”; NBC’s Lester Holt and documentarian Davis Guggenheim; Sen. Al Franken and Fred Armisen of “Saturday Night Live”; Current TV’s Keith Olbermann and White House deputy economic adviser Jason Furman; Anderson Cooper and Kanye West. If the thick frames worn by Johnny Depp give the actor an Ivy League air, then with his new eyewear, Jay Carney (Yale ’87) gains an aura of Johnny Depp-ness.

Yet none of this can be discussed in public. It’s a Federal City taboo. Carney’s I’m-not-a-hipster discussion of his glasses felt as awkward as Christine O’Donnell’s I’m-not-a-witch commercial. In the White House’s nationally televised role, Carney makes a daily pitch to a disaffected electorate. Thus he must remain an avatar of We the People equality. Nothing about him can say anything other than “I’m you.”

He should not get defensive. After all, gravitas figures have long favored thick frames as projections of seriousness, symbols of intense concentration. Look back at old photos of then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush offering intel out of Lebanon to his fellow bespectacled mandarins in the Cabinet Room of Gerald Ford’s White House. From Dean Rusk to John Dean (who studiously donned frames for his Watergate testimony), from Henry Kissinger to Henry Fairlie, from David Broder to David Stockman, prominent glasses connoted prominence. They helped to see, but also to be seen.

Similar glasses have served as an effective prop since the early days of network news. Walter Cronkite removed his glasses from his teary eyes when announcing President John F. Kennedy’s time of death. Peter Jennings sometimes employed a pair of spectacles with a bit of this-just-in panache when narrating something live and momentous. Brian Williams brings out his own understated glasses during live events, such as President Ford’s funeral, when there are notes to squint at and synthesize. And then there’s Matt Lauer and Katie Couric and on and on.

Still, for a long stretch, glasses were by and large not recommended for most talking heads. Cable show bookers had mandates for each guest: Tame the mane, avoid stripes and checks, and, above all, ditch the glasses. The worry was that their eyes would not be visible, that nonverbal vocabulary would be limited. Then lens technology advanced, preventing studio-light glare. And high-def now lets viewers see iris color, pupil dilation and abject fear more clearly than ever.

So today if you have glasses, no problem. In fact, they can even be helpful. Cable exposure is open to the many, not the few. A pair of glasses that used to be seen as a distraction is now often an attraction, adding another dimension to a speaker’s identity, offering some counterbalance to whatever persona is meant to be projected: I am conservative, but sassy. I am progressive, but classy. I am beautiful, but I don’t see myself that way. I am not a lawyer, but I anchor at TruTV. I am a Zuckerberg, with a little bit of Winklevoss. I am an Iditarod groupie, but I can go on Greta Van Susteren’s show from my garage. I used to work for Moynihan, but I’m stuck in this studio. I am a White House mouthpiece, but I’m married to Claire Shipman.

The glasses can deliver any kind of message, though it is not always defended in public. It gets too convoluted. In the new HBO documentary “Gloria: In Her Own Words,” Gloria Steinem is confronted with the idea that her glasses were her ploy to minimize her beauty, to prevent the usual objectification of her gender. No, she clarified: Her signature ’70s aviators were not a gimmick but a shield, a barrier between her and the society she provoked.

On the cover of the New York Observer recently, an illustration depicted President Obama in a pair of thick-framed glasses trying and failing to appeal to a cluster of similarly accoutred hipsters. Sticking the glasses on absolutely anyone or anything has become an Internet craze, a meme that satirizes how the glasses bestow cultural savvy. There’s even a hipster kitty wearing glasses, with a hoodie over its little head and ironic captions such as: “I donated to Haiti . . . before the earthquake.” Or “I liked Nirvana . . . when it was only a Buddhist concept.”

How did glasses get to be such a statement of exaggerated self-worth? They didn’t start out that way, and maybe that’s what subjects them to today’s curse of popularity. There’s an iconic pair worn by Gregory Peck as the proud but humble Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And of course, those very frames are now being remade by luxe eyewear designer Oliver Peoples. The glasses that are most knocked off belonged to Buddy Holly, who had a voice like a hiccup and who remains locked in his permanent nerdy innocence at age 22 because of a tragic plane crash. James Dean, the Pleasantville era’s hoodlum with a heart, wore horn-rimmed tortoiseshells that are so memorable that Michael Bastian, menswear’s emerging interpreter of all-American mythology, made those glasses the signature look at his show at Fashion Week this month, with each of his models sporting versions of them.

Wherever you look in American culture, you can find wearers who embody a knowing nerdiness. Woody Allen’s frames are a salute to Groucho, but they also magnify his angst. Elvis Costello’s glasses work well with his nasal whine and post-punk snarl. Think also of thick-framed bruisers such as NBA beast Kurt Rambis and the elbow-throwing Hanson brothers in the hockey comedy “Slap Shot.”Rivers Cuomo of Weezer belted out that he didn’t care that people said he looked just like Buddy Holly; the Harvard-educated ironist rocker was declaring the glasses to be, at the very least, not a disqualifier in late-20th-century mating.

There are so many optical allusions. Remember Max Fischer, Jason Schwartzman’s character in “Rushmore”? Think back to Devo as well as hip-hop pioneers such as Run DMC and the Beastie Boys and De La Soul. Recall those record-store clerks in the ’80s and video-store snobs in the ’90s and fair-trade-coffee professionals of our new century.

Not everyone who wears geek-chic glasses imagines himself or herself as a proto-Kanye who knows that kale is a super-food and that the New Pornographers are a super-group. But Urkel frames are obviously traveling up the cultural totem pole. Look no further than the NBA’s three current fly guys, Kevin Durant, LeBron Jamesand Amar’e Stoudemire, each sporting oversize frames. Glasses have moved from lady-repeller to babe-magnet.

So if everyone from ballers to brainiacs, rockers to reporters, is enjoying the same signature look, why isn’t that a good thing? Big, chunky glasses connoting cool and uncool at the same time could be like a stylistic harmonic convergence, an advance toward a more perfect union. Instead, we’re seeing what usually happens as a zone deemed hip gets crowded: The leaders scatter as the followers throng.

And they’re definitely thronging. “We’ve had customers come in looking for glasses to appear more authoritative,” explained Matthew Parkhurst, a PR rep for Sol Moscot, the Manhattan eyewear emporium that outfits Maddow, Cooper and Depp. “They don’t have a prescription, but they want a pair of glasses to give them more confidence.” Such customers ask for Plano lenses, non-prescription pieces of glass inside the frames. Why? Parkhurst cites how glasses project authority and bestow confidence. And, he said, customers “see glasses as a really cool accessory.” Among 20-something hipsters, it’s even cooler to wear frames without lenses at all, owning the falsity and transmitting how something so wrong can be so right. (I am a riot grrrl, but I identify with Harriet the Spy.)

If geek has become chic, where’s a geek to go? Examine the nation’s public wonks, and there’s your answer: Their glasses are getting smaller and smarter. Picture Rep. Eric Cantor and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and the Simpsons’ neighbor Milhouse Van Houten — all more front-of-the-book New Republic than back-of-the-book New Yorker. Gen-Xers will recall warbler Lisa Loeb — Bethesda native, Brown grad, Zappa ex-squeeze — and even more people will think of her sister in hot-librarian style, Tina Fey.

On the cool end, expect glasses to get bigger and brasher. Look at right-this-exact-second fashion darlings Terry Richardson (the naughtiest fashion photographer) and Jenna Lyons (the statuesque J.Crew design genius) and Iris Apfel(the oldest living hipster). See also Tom Daschle’s post-Senate, I-gotta-be-me red frames and Rep. Rosa De Lauro’s graphic glasses, accenting her poncho-swathed New Haven vibe.

The question for our bleary-eyed era: Can glasses still achieve any kind of optical pop if everyone has them? And conversely, if the glasses pop too much, are the wearers just making a spectacle of themselves? Carney didn’t do that, but his glasses do offer an object lesson for nerds and cool kids alike: If you wear big frames, don’t let anybody knock them off your face.

marteln@washpost.com

Ned Martel covers politics and culture for The Washington Post and wears dead-stock Bausch & Lombs.

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