In the late 13th century a monk, Alessandro della Spina-- who had the extraordinary ability to recreate any man-made article he had ever seen, reproduced and distributed spectacles that had been designed by an anonymous inventor. However, eyeglasses were first documented in China by Marco Polo during the same period, so it is likely that they were used in China prior to when they were seen in Europe.
In the following centuries, glasses went through various iterations. The first lenses were only useful to those who were far-sighted and were thus only helpful to those who actually knew how to read. The first spectacles for those who were nearsighted were invented in the 16th century. By 1519 there were jointed eyeglasses that could be folded together and used as a magnifying glass. It was not until the 18th century that anyone developed a practical means for keeping glasses in place--temple spectacles that were held in place with rigid side-pieces-- but they were not fashionable.
During most the 19th century no eyeglasses worn on the face were considered fashionable, but after the 1840's pince-nez proliferated. Pince-nez are a type of eyeglasses that are held in place by a clip on the nose. Most women wore oval rimless pince-nez on a gold chain, but wearing any kind of eyeglasses often was considered very unattractive. Lorgnettes, or glasses attached to a handle that can be folded together to use as a magnifying glass or opened and held up to the face were used by fashionable women and thus became more acceptable. In contrast, today glasses are seen as both medical devices and a way to express one's personal style.
By Caitlin Cohn, Collections Assistant at GMD, and graduate student in the College of Design pursuing a PhD in Dress, History, and Culture