In A Cloudy Clime, Seattleites Still Go For The Shades

It's true, Seattle. Despite our gloomy meteorological profile, we're a bright market for sunglasses.

Seattle's appetite for shades has long been one of our defining cultural characteristics, along with the usual cliches about amped-up caffeine ingestion and good-natured temperaments.

But according to an executive at Bausch & Lomb, makers of Ray Ban sunglasses, the sunglasses rumor is true. Seattle buys about 50 percent more sunglasses per capita than the national average. After New Orleans and San Diego, indisputably sunny cities, Seattle buys more Ray Bans per capita than any other city.

"To think that Seattle would be one of the leading sunglasses markets is strange but true," said Norman Salik, vice president of publicity, Bausch & Lomb eyewear division.

Salik has no theories on the subject, but local explanations about our sunglasses habit mostly revolve around Seattle's infamous gray skies. With 228 completely cloudy days per year, pundits say that Seattleites forget where they stored their sunglasses during the long periods between wearings. (By comparison, New Orleans has only 143 completely overcast days each year; San Diego has a mere 101. A footnote for sun worshipers: Seattle has 56 days annually that are clear all day, while San Diego has 148.)

Mike Patnoe, meteorologist at Boeing, has more scientific theories. And it doesn't surprise him at all that we're heavy consumers of sunglasses.

"Because we're so far north, the sun sits a lot lower most of the time," Patnoe said, meaning that the sun is more level with our eyes than in southerly cities where the sun is more directly overhead. Second, in the summer we get a lot of low-hanging, shallow stratus clouds that allow more sun through than you might think. Finally, because some of our heaviest daily commute routes are east/west, many drivers are looking directly into sunrises or sunsets during winter months.

"I wear sunglasses a lot in the winter around here," Patnoe said. "Doesn't everybody?"

Which brings us to spring styles. If fashion elsewhere is an indication, the newest styles in Seattle this spring will be small round lenses or squarish ones with wide temples. Such shapes go with the '70s retro look sweeping women's fashion and the cool-cat '50s look seeping into men's sportswear. Round lens will be forever associated with John Lennon, and the wider temples are a throwback to the '50s.

But those small round frames are not terribly functional, since they don't block out as much sunlight as larger lenses, says Sally Kaye, owner of elegante eye, a Capitol Hill optician's shop. Among styles she prefers to sell are cat-eye shapes that have larger, uptilted lenses and "look fabulous on a lot of people." She stresses that people should pick frames complementary to the size and shape of their faces, rather than what's being shown in fashion magazines. But she admits a fondness for some of the old classics, like the Ray Ban Wayfarer, which has squared lenses a little wider at the top than the bottom. Bausch & Lomb introduced the basic shape in 1952.

"People are going to sleeker-looking frames, maybe more high-tech," Kaye said. "There's also a more European influence now, which you see in gorgeous, larger frames, sometimes with metallic detailing."