In the stormy land of grey skies and infinite puddles, Seattleites are not known for having very sun-friendly wardrobes. Summer days reveal a score of pasty legs as people rush to buy shorts. Puffy jackets never quite make it to the back of closets, and Northface zip-ups are worn year-round. Seattle is a city dressed for the drizzle, not for the sizzle. So why do Seattleites buy more sunglasses per capita than any other city in the United States?
Sunglasses, first manufactured for the public in the 17th century1, protect eyes (more specifically the cornea and retina) from damage by UV rays emitted by the sun.
For those who are more photosensitive, sunglasses can help prevent squinting and glare. Sunglasses are an especially helpful tool while driving, optician Paul Smith of the University Vision Clinic said.
“A [gray] day like today, with a cloud break and the sun out on a wet road, you’re going to get a lot of glare, definitely.”
This is a common phenomenon in Seattle and calls for a lot of eye protection while navigating I-5, I-90 and the likes.
Carrie Anderson, a sales associate at Market Optical in University Village, attributes the high number of sunglass purchases to the unique lighting in Seattle.
“We have a different kind of light here, where even when it’s gray and cloudy, there can be a brightness to it. The light is just so different because of the position of the Pacific Northwest.”
Such brightness drives sales of sunglasses here in the Emerald City.
Let’s not forget the more superficial reasons people don dark lenses. Avid sunglass owner Amanda Austin explained, “A lot of my favorite fashion bloggers wear sunglasses in their posts and the fashion magazines I read have sunglasses all over their editorial spreads. It makes me want them.”
Many retail stores have recognized the desire for fashionable sunglasses and sell a variety of frames and styles. Crossroads Trading Company employee Jill Tourtillotte described aviators and wayfarers as two of the clothing store’s most popular styles here in the University District store. Sunglass sales at the store are highest “during the sunny seasons: spring, summer and autumn,” but have trailed off in the last month or two, Tourtillotte said.
When customers have concerns about glasses in the store, it’s typically about the style factor of the pair rather than eye protection.
“I think at least here I’ve never heard a question of UV protection, just ‘cause I think it’s kind of assumed [by customers],” said Maddy Hagen, another employee of the store.
“I think it’s always for the style and for the look of it.”
Sunglasses sold by department stores and other retailers for their stylish aesthetic typically are not as good of quality as those you would purchase from an optometrist.
According to Smith, they are mainly manufactured with polycarbonate lenses that, while shatterproof, lack stable UV protection.
Do Seattleites opt for buying cheaper frames because we have less sunny days? If so, does this generate a cycle of continuously losing and replacing the cheap pairs?
“It’s a disposable economy that we have, and people have disposable mentalities. They’ll buy [something], and if it gets lost they don’t care,” Smith said.
Seattleites, who don’t use sunglasses as often as other Americans, might be more prone to misplacing theirs.
“They get put away, they get lost. They get broken,” continued Smith.
“We wear them for a few months, and then we throw them under a seat. We’ll set them down on a counter and they just get lost. We probably lose more sunglasses than anybody else.”
Stuart Haynes, a lab technician at Market Optical, agreed that Seattleites buy more sunglasses per capita because “people misplace them.”
“It’s the most common problem,” the man responsible for fabrication at the optical said, “I’m bad at it myself. A lot of people will put them in their shirt and forget about them. They’ll lean over, and they’ll fall out. They lose them.”
People on boats or engaged in other water-based activities popular in Seattle lose sunglasses even more easily.
“They’ll hang them off their shirt as the sun starts going down if they’re on a boat,” Haynes said.
“It falls off, it’s in the water, and it’s gone. People lose them on [the water] very frequently.”
Sunglass lover Austin admitted that she has lost several pairs to the ocean and has had to buy replacements multiple times.
Smith advised residents to invest in a better-built pair of glasses to avoid the cycle of cheap glasses being lost and repurchased.
“If you buy something that’s quality, you’re going to wear it more and you’re going to keep your eye on it.”
A good option for those prone to misplacing their sunglasses are Croakies, or chains that hold sunglasses around the neck, Smith said, but perhaps Seattleites are reluctant to take this step in keeping track of their glasses.
“People tend not to wear Croakies here,” Haynes said, claiming it is a matter of fashion. The use of Croakies has been stigmatized, and Seattleites are reluctant to wear them because they can make, “you look like an old person.”
There are some alternative styles to the traditional Croakie most popular in the south, such as a more style-minded chain offered at Market Optical. When worn alone, the chain looks like a sleek necklace, and sunglasses can hang from it in their folded form—it’s a less noticeable way of hanging onto frames.
Keeping glasses protected in a hard case is the best way to prevent damage or broken lenses, Smith added.
Seattle resident Laura Jordan had a different perspective on why Seattleites buy more sunglasses.
“A lot of people deal with the darkness by fantasizing about the summer time, when Seattle is absolutely stunning,” Jordan said.
“It might be December but if you walk into a store and see an awesome pair of sunglasses you will probably buy them because it’s nice to plan ahead [to when] the weather gets nice again.”
Austin shared a similar sentiment, “it must be an aspirational, wishful thinking type of mentality” on the part of Seattle’s sun-deprived residents.
Do Seattleites simply have more disposable income to spend on things like multiple pairs of sunglasses? In 2011 the median household income in Seattle was 15% higher than the national median income2. That’s a lot of pocket change for residents who otherwise may have thought twice about replacing a lost pair of sunglasses.
Students and professionals alike have come up with a handful of reasons Seattleites buy so many sunglasses (the “bright” gray weather, the fashionable benefits of sunglasses, more disposable income) but one opinion has risen above the rest: Seattleites buy more sunglasses per capita because they lose (or misplace) more sunglasses than any other city in the country.