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Spec-tacular exhibition in Sunderland shows stars in the frame

The National Glass Centre in Sunderland hosts The Oliver Goldsmith Collection of glamorous spectacles, as Barbara Hodgson reports

Audrey Hepburn wearing Bude by Oliver Goldsmith Ltd in How to Steal a Million
Audrey Hepburn wearing Bude by Oliver Goldsmith Ltd in How to Steal a Million

They can make a statement or they can help you fade into the background. Rapper Tinie Tempah confesses that as soon as he takes his off, nobody recognises him.

They can also make or break an outfit. And it goes without saying that for millions they add clarity to life.

We’re talking, of course, about spectacles.

Love them or loathe them - and these days there’s more of a love affair going on - glasses, sometimes several pairs, are essential for most people.

Many of us might simply pack a pair of sunglasses for holidays but for the myopic masses who can’t get away with contact lenses, or those starting to struggle at a certain age with near vision, they can be an everyday necessity. Which makes it even more frustrating when they go missing just at the point we’re handed a menu to read.

But we’ve come a long way since the days when being handed a prescription for less than 20:20 vision was a cause of school-day dread, inspiring such insults as four-eyes and rhymes about passes and girls in glasses.

Not only are those pink and blue National Health glasses a thing of the past but everybody now knows that wearing glasses is cool. And just about everybody is doing it.

For many in the public eye they’re a trademark: think Janet Street Porter’s wacky look, while it was in a recent TV interview that the previously-mentioned Tinie Tempah told how he loses his identity when he takes off his heavy black statement frames.

National Glass Centre Spectacular eyewear on display at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland
Spectacular eyewear on display at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland
 

And where would Dame Edna Everage be without those flamboyant cat-eyes? It’s got to the stage where she no longer has to feature in promotional pictures. A picture of those specs is all the advertising you need.

So it will be sad to see the last of them as the grand dame bows out on her current farewell tour which is bringing her to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle later this month.

At the other end of the scale from Dame Edna’s questionable taste, eye wear can be the very height of sophistication.

And who is it that we have to thank for turning the humble specs into a must-have fashion accessory?

Well it’s all due to designers such as the famed Oliver Goldsmith whose far-sighted vision over generations will be revealed this month in a new exhibition at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland.

The Oliver Goldsmith Collection, opening on January 18, will feature spec-tacular Goldsmiths from across the decades, with some of Hollywood’s leading stars in the frame.

At the height of movie star glamour in the 50s, Oliver Goldsmith Ltd Spectacles and Sunglasses was the designer company of choice when it came to eyewear.

From its humble beginnings as a family-run firm, selling its first specs in 1926 (hand-made from one single piece of real tortoiseshell), the British company made the most of high-end manufacturing technology to turn out innovative styles that appealed to celebrities ranging from Grace Kelly to Peter Sellers.

It was soon working with fashion houses such as Dior, Givenchy and Vidal Sassoon on frame designs to complement their changing seasonal collections.

The exhibition will feature images of, for instance, the effortlessly chic Audrey Hepburn, looking as eye-catching as ever in a pair of white Goldsmith’s in a photograph taken in Paris in 1965 during filming of How To Steal A Million; and fellow Brit actor Michael Caine, striking a mean and moody pose: their iconic looks established thanks to their choice of eye-wear.

The Goldsmith company is still going strong, currently run by the third generation of Olivers who joined his family tradition in 1960 and is credited with the famous John Lennon “granny glasses”.

Other public figures to choose the company’s designs include Dusty Springfield, the late Princess Diana and Cilla Black.

As the current Mr Goldsmith says, his reputation for “quality, elegance and comfort” lies behind every frame produced and it’s that kind of vision that has set the standards for today’s glasses-wearing trend-setters.

The Oliver Goldsmith Collection will chart the successful company over its generations and runs at National Glass Centre, Sunderland, from January 18 until May 6. Visit www.nationalglasscentre.com

Dame Edna’s show Eat, Pray, Laugh is at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle from January 21-25.

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