Framing the icon, the glasses of Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly’s thick black frames have been hailed as ‘rock’s first great fashion statement’ and became almost as iconic and influential as his music itself. They paved the way for a huge number of other artists who followed in his footsteps by incorporating glasses into a trademark part of their image and appeal, but they almost never were.

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It’s hard to imagine Holly now without the imposing frames, but he hated the idea of wearing glasses on stage and his first choice were a less obvious plastic and metal framed pair, chosen precisely to blend in rather than stand out. He feared glasses would ruin the rebellious, rock and roll image he was trying to project through his music and he had even tried to go on stage without them, ending in disaster when he dropped his guitar pick and couldn’t see to find it. With 20/800 vision in both eyes, he could barely read the first line on an eye chart and after trying an early version of contact lenses as a last resort, which proved to be too uncomfortable and impractical, glasses were his only remaining option.

Dr. J. Davis Armistead was the only optometrist in Holly’s small hometown of Lubbock. Buddy became a patient of his whilst he was in junior high after being referred by the school nurse, and remained his patient until his untimely death at the age of just 22. Upon examining Buddy’s eyes, the doctor saw just how badly the boy needed glasses and told him that he should have been fitted with a pair years ago. Buddy was the youngest of his siblings and although his brothers and sister also had mild visual impairments, they were never considered bad enough to need glasses themselves.

It was Armistead who introduced the young musician to his now signature style, proposing that if he was going to have to wear glasses, he should really wear a pair of glasses, instead of trying to hide them. Inspired by the heavy frames sported by Phil Silvers on Sgt. Bilko, Armistead tracked down the perfect horn-rimmed style on holiday in Mexico. He brought back one pair in black and one pair tortoiseshell, Holly chose black and the rest is history. The doctor was instrumental in helping to create Holly’s look, and who knows if he would have gone on to become such an iconic figure without his distinctive eyewear.

This decision was one that went on to inspire generations of musicians and performers after him. It was seeing Holly on stage in his glasses that served as the inspiration for Roy Orbison to adopt his own trademark sunglasses whilst performing.

Another notable influence was on Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Both were huge fans of Holly, claiming it was him who inspired them to play, sing and write their own songs. They paid homage to this by calling their band The Beatles, a nod to Holly’s own band The Crickets. In a 1986 interview, McCartney remarked that before Buddy rockstars couldn’t wear glasses on stage, and that seeing him perform in his thick black frames made them want to start a band too. John Lennon was extremely nearsighted, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if this helped to influence his own signature round spectacles.

Armistead never took credit for helping to create Holly’s look and he refused to ever fit another patient with the same statement frames, remarking that the ‘Buddy Holly look’ was intended for one person only – Buddy Holly. The doctor always saw Buddy as his patient first and foremost.

Buddy Holly died in a plane crash in 1959, but within the few short years of his career he became a bona fide icon, forever cementing himself and those thick black frames into pop culture history and becoming an enduring lesson in truly owning your look.