Ugly is the new hip

Hipster glasses with thick plastic frames are cool because they suck and everyone is wearing them

The other night, I found myself making a special trip to the Japanese fashion chain Uniqlo after work to try on a pair of hipster glasses.

I couldn't take it anymore. Everyone is wearing them these days.

At the gym that morning, I found that any guy with a half-decent body was putting them on in the locker room as he readied himself for work. Later that afternoon, at a meeting in Raffles Place, I realised that every single executive in the room, man or woman, under the age of 40 was wearing a pair.

I used to think that my barefaced look simply suggested a stubborn resistance to a fickle fashion trend - something which is itself trendy in some circles. Now, I'm beginning to think it just shows me up as an old man who's possibly unaware of either trend.

If you have to Google the term "hipster glasses" to find out what they look like, you are quite possibly beyond any help that this column or anyone else can administer. But for the record, I'm referring to spectacles with thick, usually black, plastic frames.

Depending on your age, you may recognise them as the kind worn by Buddy Holly, Elvis Costello, Elton John, Ben Folds, Justin Timberlake and so on. Why are they back in style?

Well, some people say they are icons of a retro era that's generally coming back in style - an era that features vinyl records, full-length hippie beards and mid-century modern Scandinavian furniture.

Others will say, though, that's missing the point. For hipster glasses are more than iconic - they're ironic.

I won't even try to begin to explain the hipster love of irony. The way I understand it is that these plastic-framed glasses used to be widely thought of as so ugly that they sucked.

But now, anything that so obviously sucks is cool precisely because it sucks. Follow me?

Whatever the reason for their popularity, hipster glasses have truly taken hold in today's society.

Last year, an orthodox Jewish school in Brooklyn became the first in the world to ban its students from wearing them.

"We are asking that everyone buy simple glasses. The yeshiva will not tolerate thick plastic eye glasses," read a letter from Bobover Yeshiva B'Nei Zion school to parents.

"What we have to commit ourselves to is we have to stand on top of this and not tolerate the new modernism. The good deed that accompanied the Jews in Egypt was that they didn't change their names and clothes, and this same strength is still accompanying us and maintaining us in exile - in all generations."

Eyewear is also making its presence felt in fields like American politics.

Desperate to boost the image of the party, a new ad campaign earlier this year featured young Republicans prominently wearing hipster glasses. Even more recently, Texas' Republican governor Rick Perry, from out of the blue, started wearing a pair of cool "Clark Kent" glasses - a move which some pundits immediately saw as the surest sign yet that he is going to contest the next presidential elections in 2016.

As I surveyed the wall of hipster glasses - first at Uniqlo, then at H&M - I indeed felt the strong pull of irony.

I used to hate wearing glasses. When a Primary 3 school medical check-up surfaced the need for me to wear them, I went home and cried the whole night. I wished over and over again I had not read those Enid Blyton books while lying on the couch or in bed or sat so close to the television set.

I felt my foolishness had consigned me to a lifetime of inconvenience, of forever remaining the skinny little nerd that I had already become.

To my dismay, my myopia rapidly worsened after that until it was more than 800 degrees for each eye when I became a teenager.

My glasses became heavier and heavier and eventually became a real hindrance to playing contact sports such as basketball or soccer, relegating me to mostly watching from the sidelines. They would have been even more thick and unsightly if not for the advent of high-index glass lenses and lightweight metal or titanium frames.

Still, these materials would eventually be unsuitable for army training by the time I enlisted for national service. I remember that my heart sank when I went to the optician to collect my pair of thick black plastic army regulation spectacles.

By some cruel twist of fate, these very same glasses have become desirable again.

Stranger still, I remember once breaking the frame of my army spectacles in camp and having to tape it up temporarily before I got them replaced. Now, the only thing trendier and even more ironic than hipster glasses is hipster glasses taped up at the bridge and proudly showcased on a dead trendy television show like Orange Is The New Black.

But the ultimate irony, of course, is that I actually don't need to wear glasses anymore.

About eight years ago, I went for Lasik surgery to get my myopia permanently fixed.

It was, and still is, one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life because it restored so many basic human functions that I thought had been taken from me forever.

Unlike some Lasik patients, my surgery's success has been lasting and I still have 20/20 vision today.

Am I too old to wear glasses purely as a fashion accessory, I thought, as I picked up a pair in the store to try them on. Can I pull it off? Will anyone take me seriously ever again?

As it turns out, I may never need to answer these questions, for the glasses looked awful on me. They aged me by at least 20 years and I looked like a Pioneer Generation Chinatown uncle, complete with the lecherous moustache. It didn't matter what frame shape I chose - the result was roughly the same.

Later that night, however, I wondered if it was really the fault of my round face, my receding hairline or my brutally short almost-bald haircut.

Everyone dreads the day they become just too old to win the battle to stay fashionable, however hard they try. Perhaps hipster glasses are my Waterloo.

ignatius@sph.com.sg

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