What Joe Biden's Signature Aviator Sunglasses Say About the Rest of Us

Annie Goldsmith
·6 min read
Photo credit: Michael Stillwell - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Stillwell - Getty Images

From Town & Country

On the first episode of VEEP, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s irreverent political satire, fictional Vice President Selina Meyer has an important decision to make. “Now, what do you think?" she asks. "Glasses on, the intellectual look, focused form of vision?” She takes the glasses off and says, “No, glasses make me look weak. It’s like a wheelchair for the eye.”

It was an absurd moment, politically incorrect, and, as was often the case with the Emmy-winning show, right on the nose. Politicians, like most people in the public eye, obsess over every aspect of their appearance, including something as innocuous-seeming as eyewear. Which leads to the question: Are glasses—prescription and/or shade providing—a political liability?

Our past Commanders-in-Chief and VPs would almost certainly say no—especially about the latter. Over the years, American Presidents and countless other politicians have sported eyewear at rallies and state fairs, at weddings and funerals, and even while kitesurfing.

But recently one pair of glasses—Joe Biden’s aviators—has stood out in a crowded field of political props. Spend any time on the internet and it's next to impossible to avoid seeing memes of the former VP in his now-trademark dark glasses. Biden was early to notice the attention his glasses garnered—his first ever Instagram post in 2014 showcased his Ray-Bans perched on a desk. More recently, the Biden camp has featured the glasses on a variety of campaign merch.

According to fashion observers, aviators may suggest their own political platform: serious but youthful; on trend but not trendy; vintage but not old-fashioned; and masculine but not intimidating. In other words, the glasses reflect (pun intended) an image of Biden that his campaign staff has worked hard to project.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Aviator Glasses: A (Very) Brief History

The military developed aviator sunglasses as a lightweight alternative to goggles. They became popular with civilians during and after World War II as photographs of soldiers began appearing in magazines and newspapers. (General Douglas MacArthur famously paired his with an oversize corn cob pipe.)

The glasses were embraced by the counterculture in the 1960s and '70s. Anti-war activists and hippies, male and female, began sporting the frames with colored or oversized lenses (Gloria Steinem, for example, wore a large, lightly-tinted pair) and, in the process, subverted the eyewear's implied military and masculine connotation.

By the end of the 20th century, aviators saw another surge in popularity—thanks in no small part to Hollywood (it's hard to imagine the 1986 film Top Gun, for example, without Tom Cruise's iconic pair). Today, they are even more ubiquitous and mainstream. “They’re classics, right?” Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize–winning critic-at-large for the Washington Post, told T&C. “I mean, they're not trendy in the least bit, but they're still very relevant.”

All the Presidents' Shades

Joe Biden is not the first politician to wear a set of signature sunglasses. John F. Kennedy was known for his Ray-Ban Wayfarers, which he often donned while sailing. George W. Bush favored sunglasses with circular frames that could be characterized as "very early-2000s." Barack Obama alternated between black Wayfarers and a wraparound, athletic pair. (“The biggest dad sunglasses,” Lis Smith, the senior communications director for Mayor Pete Buttigieg's 2020 presidential campaign, said of the latter.) Donald Trump is a recent exception, and eschews all sorts of glasses, including, briefly, a set of solar eclipse glasses.

Alex Badia, style director of Women's Wear Daily, noted that sunglasses are one of the few accessories a male politician has in his sartorial arsenal. “They rely on them to project a sense of masculinity without distracting from the overall message,” he told T&C.

For that reason, “aviators are good call because they're sexy and cool without being overly hip,” said Smith. “If you're looking for something that says 'commanding and steady,' they are probably the best sunglasses choice for a male politician.”

Photo credit: Don Ryan/AP/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Don Ryan/AP/Shutterstock

According to Jen Psaki, former White House communications director for President Obama, matching the right glasses to a candidate's personality is vital. “Biden's greatest strength is his grandfatherly empathy,” she said. The aviators elevate his “cool grandpa vibe” without going too far. “You know, no one needs to see Joe Biden doing a choreographed dance on TikTok.” (Biden, it should be noted, recently posted a Reel, TikTok’s Instagram counterpart. In it, the Democratic nominee smiles from his convertible, aviators obscuring his eyes.)

The Power in Nostalgia

Washington, D.C. stylists and image consultants Lauren Rothman and Rosana Vollmerhausen told T&C that they think Biden’s sunglasses might be part of broader visual image his campaign worked to create for their candidate. Smith and Psaki disagree, guessing that the aviators are just Biden’s favorite glasses; ones he’d wear anyway. In either case, what's important is how his choice of glasses is perceived by the public.

“Aviators give me a sense of power, a sense of hope, and remind me of a better time,” said Badia, describing his impression of the glasses. “That's something that really resonates with audiences right now.”

Photo credit: AFP - Getty Images
Photo credit: AFP - Getty Images

They also ring a familiar bell to people who, well, look like Joe Biden, and in the process, may point towards a certain type of nostalgic conservatism that many American voters find palatable right now.

“For the people in his age cohort—a lot of them supporters of his—the aviators are just one more thing that ring a bell, a familiar bell,” said Dr. Lourdes Font, an associate professor at FIT. “Oh, we know this guy, right? We know who he is.”

Who Can Be Meme'd?

There's no question that appearance matters in politics. Look back at the famed Nixon versus Kennedy presidential debate, where TV audiences viewed Kennedy more favorably and radio audiences, Nixon. Or simply ask any woman working in or around the political arena.

“When I was pregnant with my daughter and I was the spokesperson at the State Department, I used to get comments on Twitter about how I was not taking care of myself,” Psaki said. “Well, that's because I'm seven months pregnant and I've gained like 30 pounds!”

Psaki's experience was by no means unusual. Whether it’s Hillary Clinton’s outfits or Nancy Pelosi’s haircut, it’s been widely reported that female politicians must pay far more attention to their appearance than their male counterparts. America has a narrow definition for what a politician should look like, and those parameters are even narrower for women.

Photo credit: NBC - Getty Images
Photo credit: NBC - Getty Images

One example of how this manifests can be seen in how infrequently female candidates become the subject of fashion memes. The closest female equivalent to Joe Biden’s aviators are Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits. Even though those outfits ultimately developed a loyal following, they were also met with a mixture of confusion and distain. Project Runway’s Tim Gunn once said, rather infamously, "Why must she dress that way? I think she's confused about her gender!"

Biden already looks like the typical American president, so, with his wardrobe, he can afford to be whimsical in a way that still seems on brand. And that brand? Distinctly masculine, nostalgic, and, yes, meme-able.

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