The First Sunglasses Were Not Made For Beaches

Inuit, Yup’ik and other Arctic-living Indigenous peoples have been handcrafting sunglasses for at least 2,000 years.

/// Cover art by: Megan Hunt, Nunavut artist currently based in Iqaluit. Follow her on Instagram: @mutecutes ///

They go by many names. “Ilgaak” in the Nunavut Kivalliq dialect, “iggaak” in the North Baffin dialect, “nikaugek” to Central Yup’ik and “iyegaatek” to the Siberian Yup’ik.

No matter what you call them, they are all ancient sunglasses – used long before Ray Bans and Oakleys were invented.

Dating back to about 2,000 years ago, the oldest existing sunglasses came from the west coast of Alaska. But they have been common across the North ever since. Caribou antler, bone, driftwood and walrus ivory were the original materials used to create this necessary Arctic eye-wear.

Traditionally, they would be tied with walrus hide or caribou sinew. Soot or, later, gunpowder would be used around the slits to help soften the glare, says Dr. Jessica R. Metcalfe, who writes about Indigenous art, fashion and design at Beyond Buckskin.

While they are often called “snow goggles,” in English, these traditional sunglasses were used to protect the eyes from the sun more than from the snow.

Snow blindness, or photokeratitis, is caused by amplified UV light when it reflects off the white of snowy landscapes. It is quite literally a sunburn of the eyeballs. It can be excruciating for the retinas and requires days of bed-ridden recovery, which would be problematic for those needing to travel for hunting or other essential reasons.

In the northern regions, spring and summer months mean longer days with more and more sunlight. As you get closer to the north pole, the days creep up to reaching 24 hours of sunlight.

Since the part of the goggles used to see through are typically slits rather than glass or plastic, they don’t fog up in the cold.

If you’ve ever worn modern-day plastic goggles while snowmobiling in the Arctic, you know it can be really inconvenient – or even debilitating – having to stop and remove them or wipe them clear when you can no longer see through the fog generated by breath or body heat.

Illustration by Megan Hunt, Nunavut artist currently based in Iqaluit. Follow her on Instagram: @mutecutes.

Traditional snow goggles are crafted to fit the face of the wearer perfectly so no light would enter anywhere besides the slits. But even before they gained mass corporate appeal in the 1950s, there was more than one way to make a snow goggle.

According to a 1996 study by Danish opthalmologist Mogens Norn, there are several different types of historical Inuit or Yup’ik snow goggles and they would vary in accordance to the specific Arctic community in which they were crafted.

They can have viewing slits shaped like triangles, figure-eights, circles or even tear drops.

For instance, some snow goggles will have one slit spread out and across both eyes, others will have two separate slits (one for each eye) and there are even some that have shaped slits or rows of slits.

Triangles, figure-eights, circles and even tear-dropped slits have been recorded, according to Norn.

Norn found that Greenlandic snow goggles had been crafted more often with slits shaped like figure eights or tear drops, while traditional or ancient Canadian Inuit more often crafted their snow goggles with triangle slits or with separate slits on each eye.

Even the materials used to create straps could vary. In Alaska, some snow goggles were attached with bands of coloured beads.

In the 20th century, more binocular-like designs started to become popular in the Canadian North, with snow goggles that had glass circles over the eyes.

Many Nunavut Inuit artists continue to create snow goggles as a means to reclaim, reconnect or stay connected to their culture despite the impacts of colonization. These days Inuit snow goggles will, for the most part, continue to be made from the original antler, bone, wood, sinew or ivory materials. At the bottom of this article you will find a list of ways to shop for them in Canada.

This reclamation comes as a response to many years of their designs having been borrowed without Inuit seeing any or much of the profits for their contributions.

On Inspiration And Appropriation

In the last century, several major fashion designers have been inspired by or appropriated these Indigenous-made snow goggles. The slit in eye-wear caught on quickly with other North Americans and Europeans.

One example is the 1950’s driving glasses dubbed “Slit Specs.” In a November 1955 issue of Popular Mechanics, these driving glasses are advertised as “originated by the Eskimos” – an outdated and controversial term for Inuit and Yup’ik peoples. The text of the ad reads that these Slit Specs are considered “the most on Canadian ski slopes these days.” “Glassless, slits guard against sun’s glare,” the advertisement says. They would cost $20 at the time.

Additionally, throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, the style spread to high fashion eye-wear designers who coined the slit style as “space age,” despite its Arctic roots. For example, in the 1960s, André Courreges created the “Lunettes Eskimo Eclipse.” These were a white plastic and metal mod take that combined the popular European and American cat-eye style with historical Inuit and Yup’ik slit design.

Still considered a rare vintage collector’s piece, or a souvenir of mid-century French high fashion, any existing pairs currently sell online for a cool $1,600 to around $4,000.

Other mod or “space age” mid-century designers who borrowed the concept were Oliver Goldsmith, Pierre Cardin and the brand Neostyle. The trend later had a comeback, as styles do, in the 80s and 90s with Michele Lamy and Thierry Muegler. A version of a non-Inuit take on the Inuit snow goggle slit design was actually featured in the American film Big Trouble in Little China.

In the 2000s, Vivienne Westwood brought the slit eye frame back to the runways and high couture in a new wave. Her Undercover collection made headlines in 2008 and 2009. This would then influence other designers like Jun Takahashi, Linda Farrow, Alain Mikli, Louise Grey, Jean-Paul Castlebajac to ride the wave out.

There are dozens of designers who made their own version of the historical Arctic classic. Even Pierre Cardin took a second stab at the slit style with a revamped pair of shades that built from his mid-century appropriations.

Many of these designers became more open about the roots of their inspiration in their marketing but rarely were Inuit or Yup’iq consulted or compensated for these products. Some entrepreneurs even named their brands “Ijaak” or “Igaak.”

These authentic handmade Inuit snow goggles were purchased one night directly from a local artisan during a dinner at the Frob Kitchen & Eatery restaurant at Iqaluit’s Frobisher Inn. Photo cred: Courtney Edgar.

How Can I Shop For Authentic Arctic Sun Goggles In Canada?

If you are interested in shopping for your own pair of authentic Nunavut (or Nunavik) Inuit snow goggles, you can find them for sale at the following places.

1. If you ever travel to Nunavut or Nunavik, often artisans sell their work at restaurants or bars throughout the evening. It is not uncommon to go out for dinner and have a couple to several different artisans approach your table throughout the evening trying to sell various handmade carvings, toques, paintings or goggles.

2. If in Iqaluit, Nunavut or if you have friends or family who visit, the store Malikaat Designs is a little Inuit art boutique in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

3. Again, if you go or if you know someone who lives in or visits Iqaluit, Nunavut, the Nunatta Sunakkutangit Museum sells these.

4. Another example in Iqaluit is its annual Christmas Craft Sale. It is held in December each year at the Inukshuk High School. Of course, you would have to be in town or have someone you know there make the purchase for you.

5. The Iqaluit Sell/Swap Facebook group, or any other Nunavut community’s Facebook group, will often show listings for Inuit-made art. You can also check the Nunavik communities’ Sell-Swap pages or groups on Facebook. If the artist is willing to sell online and ship to you, you can purchase them from across the distance. However, keep in mind that shipping from the remote North can be much slower than typical shipments. It is also a bit more expensive.

6. The Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts in Pangnirtung, Nunavut has an online store for credit card orders. They offer shopping opportunities through their website anywhere in the world and they will ship internationally.

7. In Montreal, Southern Quebec Inuit Association runs craft sales near the Christmas season where Inuit artisans sell their work directly to the public. In 2019, the SQIA’s craft sale took place in early November.

8. In Ottawa, Tungasuvvingat Inuit also runs craft sales around Christmas time and sometimes throughout the year. Get in touch with them and they may be able to connect you to an artist who specializes in snow goggles or let you know when they host their next craft sale.

9. Large art galleries in big cities like Montreal and Toronto often have Inuit art collections. They may carry Inuit snow goggles. However, in these situations the artist often only gets a small fraction of the price it sells for. In some cases it can be under 15 per cent. For that reason, it is much better to buy directly from the artist, if you can.

Leave a comment below if you know of other places, shops or artists where the original form of sunglasses can be purchased by Yup’ik, Inuit or any other Arctic Indigenous peoples in Canada.