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Why people love to hate tiny sunglasses

The backlash to the innocuous ’90s trend, explained.

@kendalljenner/Instagram; @badgalriri/Instagram; @bellahadid/Instagram
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

All fashion trends are scams, but every so often, one bubbles up in the collective consciousness and forces us all to be mad at it at the same time. Right now it’s tiny sunglasses, those diminutive, barely eyeball-size versions that don’t seem to perform their stated function of providing shade very well at all.

They’re the sort worn by the likes of Kendall and Kylie Jenner, Bella and Gigi Hadid, and various other children of famous people (Zoe Kravitz, Kaia Gerber, Hailey Baldwin), as well as Instagram influencers whose names you might not know but whose aesthetic mimics those of the ones you do.

But these shades’ lack of practicality isn’t why we’re mad at them.

Because, to be fair, everything fashionable is less practical than the alternative, which is either a) being fully naked when it’s hot, b) wearing utility jumpsuits with a million pockets when it’s medium, or c) wearing the skin of an enormous furry animal when it’s cold. That clothes are not always functional is hardly controversial. Yet tiny sunglasses are.

This summer, two bona fide famouses echoed the opinions many others had already expressed over drinks or online during the past year, which is that these things are bad.

“I think we will regret this tiny sunglasses look,” tweeted Mindy Kaling; Anne Hathaway then took a screenshot and Instagrammed it in agreement.

But to understand why we hate tiny sunglasses so much, you have to understand how we got here.

How sunglasses got so tiny

In this, the summer of 2018, there are basically two types of people who are wearing tiny sunglasses: young, hot celebrities, and the people who want to look like them. Which is to say, a lot of people.

Until this year, tiny sunglasses were still pretty difficult to find, and if you did manage to locate them, they were often prohibitively expensive for the average shopper. (Gucci, for example, whose eyewear generally costs in the $1,000 range, had shrunk sunglasses before the summer of 2016.) But thanks to fast fashion’s lightning-speed cycle, they’re now all over sites like Asos, stores like Forever 21, and even on the shelves of street vendors in tourist-heavy cities, which means that anyone with a couple bucks can now participate in summer’s most polarizing (no pun intended) trend.

Tiny sunglasses are often traced back to a January episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, in which Kim says that her husband Kanye West sent her an email forbidding her from wearing the big sunglasses she was known for back in Calabasas in the early 2010s. “He sent me like, millions of ’90s photos with tiny little glasses like this,” she said.

Immediately, the media did its due diligence by parroting the gospel of the E! Channel. “Why tiny sunglasses are going to be big in 2018” (spoiler: Kanye), read one Independent headline, while HuffPost published “9 Pairs of Tiny Sunglasses Kanye West Would Approve Of.”

L: Justin Timberlake in 1998; R: Prince Harry in 2001.
Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images; Dave Benett/Getty Images

Kanye West didn’t invent tiny sunglasses, however. Many credit Adam Selman, the fashion designer most widely known for creating costumes for pop stars like Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Lady Gaga, for their sudden resurgence. His 2017 collaboration with the eyewear brand Le Specs resulted in a barrage of celebrities wearing them last summer, from the Hadid sisters to Kendall Jenner to British model Adwoa Aboah. The twist, though, was that they were also (relatively) affordable at around $120, which allowed even non-famouses to hop on the trend.

But Kanye was correct: Tiny sunglasses are indeed a relic of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Back then, they were simply what sunglasses looked like for most people, regardless of gender, age, or status. Sure, Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow wore them, but then again, so did I, and I was, like, a deeply average child.

L: Jennifer Love Hewitt in 2000; R: Aaliyah in 2001.
Dave Allocca/Getty Images; Sal Idriss/Getty Images

In no film is the tiny sunglasses aesthetic incorporated so wholly as in 1999’s The Matrix. Nearly every character in the sci-fi film dons them at once point or another, usually while wearing leather trench coats and firing guns (or bending over backward in slow motion to avoid getting shot by one). And not only are tiny sunglasses cool right now, but so are many of the fashion trends depicted in the film.

This is fairly predictable, considering the oft-referenced idea that cool young people are drawn to trends that were popular when they were too young to take part in them. A 20-year-old today would have been an infant when The Matrix came out, so one could make the argument that when Bella Hadid wears comically small sunglasses, she is simply subconsciously iterating an idea that, to her, feels novel.

The pendulum swing of fashion is also partly responsible here. i-D described the tiny glasses as a backlash against the “hate-blockers” of the past decade-plus associated with the Olsen twins and Paris Hilton: “2018’s micro-lens is free. It’s unabashed. It embraces its eye bags, its bleached eyebrows, its weirdness. It exposes the face of the wearer, whoever, wherever they are.”

Why we hate them so much

While some trends returning from the ’90s have been met with excitement or at least neutrality (chokers, overalls, mom jeans), tiny sunglasses seem to be almost universally hated. When one writer recently admitted her love of tiny sunglasses, the headline was couched by “Everyone Hates Them But Me.” And just a week ago, Ryan Reynolds mocked them in an Instagram post.

But if this is just the way fashion works, why do they seem to inspire such vitriol? After all, many people who were teenagers or adults around the dawn of the millennium wore teensy rectangular glasses without it feeling icky — even Goldie Hawn wore the angled Lolita versions (impeccably!) in The First Wives Club.

I asked my colleague Eliza Brooke, who knows absolutely everything about fashion, who has spent a large amount of time among professionally young and hot people, and who also despises this particular trend.

“It feels like a pissing contest between extremely beautiful people under the age of 25,” she says. “It’s like they’re trying to one-up each other in finding the most bizarre eyewear on the planet in order to show that no matter what they wear, they remain super hot.”

It’s the same way a lot of fashion trends begin. Because they’re often a backlash to whatever came before it, when the trend first starts appearing, it looks unsettling. It’s only the tiny demographic of the professionally cool, young, and hot who can manage to maintain their status despite taking the stylistic risk.

Even though this isn’t unique to tiny sunglasses, you could also make the argument that because they’re on your face, sunglasses are the most visible and immediate way to communicate your personal style. And if you’re a person buying tiny sunglasses right now, it might communicate that you’re only participating in trends that you’ve seen in celebrity Instagrams. To some, that in itself is worth mocking.

Tiny sunglasses spark anger because they aren’t designed for the rest of us — fleshy, withering, influence-less normies who, given the choice, would probably have our sunglasses cover our full eyeballs, thanks. But this is also just how fashion trends are, and because tiny sunglasses have already trickled down to suburban shopping malls and street vendors, the trend likely won’t last all that much longer. Once us normies get ahold of something, it is, as the old saying goes, “over for you hoes.”

A previous version of this piece originally ran on Racked.