Hipstered: A Browline Adventure

My husband suggested I try cateye glasses frames as my search for a pair of glasses to suit my aging (sagging and tired) face in Germany was proving fruitless. At the time, 2014, cateye, wayfarer and browline frames were found only in vintage shops, online at Etsy, and E-Bay as overstock from the 50s and 60s.

My first pair of Etsy ordered browlines from Bosch and Lomb sported arched black Bakelite brows with feminine aluminum detailing in the upper corner of each brow. Unfortunately these glasses had a history, shown in the original lenses: a half moon in the lower lens and a bent metal frame. The frames, shipped out of Idaho had a more serious problem: a stripped hinge which no amount of UHU glue, later applied monthly, held the ‘arm’ of the glasses intact for long.

I sometimes tried to imagine the woman in Idaho who had worn the frames in bi-focal format. Perhaps an aging Mormon in a nursing home who one day fell over, glasses still on her nose, banging her head on a hard checkered vinyl floor and bending the frame. Older Mormons in Utah and Idaho did sometimes still adhere to a pseudo-50s-60s style at least. I also wondered what it would be like to literally see the world from someone elses’ view, e.g. through their glasses lenses, with their eyes, but nothing so magical happened when wearing these wonky frames from Idaho. In fact, I later found the Russian-German optician had given me them with my reading prescription not my far sighted prescription. After a month of all day wear causing me headaches, I half-wondered if the formerly bi-focaled, aged, Idahoan was sending me a message after all.

70 Euro frames, 13 Euros import tax and my prescription 120 Euro lenses in the toilet later, I read up about NOS glasses frames ‘new old stock,’ and screwed up the courage to again invest in browlines, this time from an Etsy shop in New York. NOS also means no one bought the frames back in the day. These frames are new but have simply gathered dust in a warehouse over time. No stripped hinges at least.

My new arched black browline looked more unisex, though stamped with ‘Empress’ inside one of the arms, no feminine detailing, the wider arms looked somewhat heavy on my face, but the squared shiny aluminum rims sparkled, giving my white face a magical glow. With my new bowlines on, I suddenly felt like I could grow into these frames for all the decades to come.

The newer glasses had a dramatic effect in my workplace. One German female co-worker said outright, ‘I don’t like them.’ A Romanian female co-worker said, ‘I LOVE them! They are YOU!’ Another German female co-worker said, ‘You look so clever in those,’ like it was a threat to her. My German husband started referring to me as his ‘hipster wife.’ I didn’t know what a ‘hipster’ was.

Child guests at my work perked up when I smiled at them and my glasses twinkled. Perhaps I reminded some of them of the devious cateyed fairy in ‘Shrek’? Unfortunately a few German men seemed to think I was as loose as the red haired secretary in ‘Mad Men.’ Random teens and 20-somethings cozied up to what one called my ‘hipster’ look. The German Baptists, who remind me of Mormons and women out of ‘Mad Men’ themselves with their beehive hairdos and chiffon scarves pinned on their hair spray starched nests of hair seemed to think perhaps I was one of them as they wore grandma era glasses too. Perhaps they inherit them.

My own inspiration for the look came from my grandmother. In a happy photo of her at her second wedding, at the age of 68. She wore a pair of cateye glasses apparently worn over decades of prescription upgrades. The glasses pulled her face up, paired nicely with her high full cheekbones and illuminated her smiling pale blue eyes. The aluminum frames seemed to cast a soft sheen in her curly grey hair. A British film, ‘Nowhere Boy,’ about John Lennon’s youth, featuring the ever pale Kirsten Scott Thomas as his aunt, looking elegant in cateyes, sealed my commitment to try and find similar frames for myself.

Between 2014 and mid-2016, I observed that wayfarer glasses, at least, became mainstream and particularly with men. The online prices for NOS cateye, wayfarer and browline frames doubled and tripled. Perhaps German men felt inspired by Jürgen Klopp, the, now, football trainer for Liverpool and his relaxed, carefree no-shave today, ads for cars and alcohol free beer. Klopp sports the newer version of the browline. Perhaps the plethora of super hero series and films with characters like Ed (geek in ‘Gotham’) or psycho Silar (‘Heroes’) wearing what used to be termed the G-man (government man) glasses inspired men worldwide to emulate their fictional heroes.

I didn’t feel heroic in my browlines though. At times I felt self-conscious. Old even. Then, as I saw a middle aged man also wearing the actual vintage style, his were brown brows with gold detailing, I discovered how possibly ridiculous people look in this glasses frame. Though I genuinely complimented him on his look, he seemed as shy and defensive as I had sometimes felt wearing my own frames, when out shopping in rural Germany. The newer browlines, cateyes and wayfarer frames in Germany look chunkier and have less finesse than the originals, they are plastic take-offs that can make anyone look like they have baggy stuffed sinuses hanging on either side of their nose.

Six months ago I tucked my vintage browlines in a drawer and went back to wearing my old mainstream,lightweight, red, oval, wire frames from Apollo. A Wednesday night regular asked every few Wednesdays, ‘Where are the glasses?’ and I mumbled various excuses, anything from, ‘time for a change’ to ‘I think I look doof (rediculous) in them.’ He only insists, ‘They are classic!’ He used to show up and say, ‘These’s the lady with the beautiful glasses!’ After my doof comment he didn’t show up for a while.

Amazing what a pair of old glasses can do.

Now browlines are mainstream, I guess by wearing them again I might instantly remove myself from the hipster categorization, at least from the neck up. Perhaps I should wear the shiny glasses again, take a wintry walk out the door and around the village, knowing, no matter what anyone says, I defy categorization and, like you, am simply back to enjoying following my whims and being a ‘me.’

Where the Rainbow Ends-Roger Quilter

I came upon Roger Quilter via a CD of ‘British Light Music’ in the basement of my university library more than 20 years ago. A shiver greeted me as I first heard the ‘Children’s Overature’ to  ‘Where the Rainbow Ends.’ Something in the brassy Edwardian era stiffness mixed with tingling and tinkling joyousness swept me back to my childhood in the 70s, dressed as a green bird, flapping in a company of young ballet students on stage during a matinée of Vivian Ellis’ ‘Listen To the Wind,’ in Lower Hutt, New Zealand.

St. George in a scene from ‘Where the Rainbow Ends’ Source: http://www.vam.ac.uk

‘Where the Rainbow Ends’ was a Christmas play written by Clifford Mills and John Ramsey. Though the fantastical performance once enthralled almost five decades of theater goers, virtually no one today knows it ever existed.

On December 21, 1911, the play’s debut curtains rose before an audience of squirming children and accompanying adults who heard the orchestral sweetness of Roger Quilter’s incidental music flowing up and over the orchestral pit like a warm spell on a wintry day. The  Children’s Overature  contained snippets of children’s nursery songs like ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ as well as Quilter’s original compositions. I can imagine a chorus of spellbound children sang along back in the day. Quilter conducted the first matinée of the Christmas season for many years and hosted a cast party for child actors, among them Noel Coward, in his own home.

One of the most beloved pieces from ‘Where the Rainbow Ends,’ heard frequently on radio BBC over the years, was  ‘Rosamund’, a slow unfolding romantic piece, carried over strings and wind instruments, and punctuated by fairy light crystalline triangle ‘dings.’ Quilter’s music school friend Percy Grainger said of all Quilter’s works, this stood out as his favorite.

To its credit, ‘Where the Rainbow Ends’ imaginatively carried children and adults safely away from the horrible realities of two world wars. When the curtain went down on St. George and the Dragon, fairyland and whimsy, the excitement of Christmas just around the corner was certainly dancing in everyone’s heads.

Prior to composing music for ‘Where the Rainbow Ends,’ Quilter had attended Dr. Hoch’s Konservatorium-Musikakademie in Frankfurt-am-Main, a music school where Clara Schumann once taught. A fellow student of Quilter’s, under the tutilage of Iwan Knorr, was the brilliant young Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger. The two members of what came to be called The Frankfurt Group, started out as strangers in Teutonicland and left Germany as musical friends for life. Both had in common not only musical composition and a stint in Germany but also that they were their mother’s favorite child (in Grainger’s case, his mother’s only child).

Described as a gentleman, Quilter didn’t feel at home with other aristocrats, preferrng the company of art lovers, whatever their age or class. His generous nature led him to offer financial support to budding artists. He also supported a number of Jews fleeing Europe during the Second World War. When his nephew, Arnold Vivian, serving overseas during that war, was captured and shot by a Nazi officer, Quilter’s often fragile world shattered. His long secreted homosexuality started to ‘show’ in public when he went about giving flowers to young men on the streets. Concerned friends and famly finally convinced him to seek treatment at St. Andrew’s Hospital. He checked in twice in his lifetime for stays from 1946-47 and again 1951-52.

Here is a narrative poem I wrote, trying to somehow capture Quilter’s sense of lost identity while seeking treatment for his plunge into depression:

Dear Arnold  (for Roger Quilter)

After news of your execution,

this old marionette fell into a cumbersome mental slump.

I wandered streets,

pressed pale roses

onto passing London boys.

I’m afraid those beautiful strangers took my meaning all too well.

They call it electroconvulsive therapy.

Humiliating how my Daddy Long Legs dance,

how hours later my dull fingers simply rest on ivory keys.

I can’t remember all the silvery songs

that made us smile and

you wouldn’t know me by my latest compositions,

they hang and drip like rain-soaked velvet curtains

pulled either side of me.

Perhaps, as children, these fresh doctors

reveled in the spectacle of my sparkling make-believe tunes,

but now my thick tongue’s stammer

sends their sharp pens whispering

over my hospital chart.

When that squatty grey pigeon of a nurse

waddles away,

you can find me slung in the over-stuffed sitting room.

I’m the aging dandy,

dressed in elegant evening attire.

I get my glazed appearance from off-white walls,

hourly tides of too much sugar in my milky tea

and boiled dinners of faded vege.

Would you fancy a hand-in-hand journey

over a stretch of hospital lawn?

We could follow the rainbow that skirts the gravel drive,

curves toward Billing Road.

Was it some poor promising musician or

fleeing Jew I helped who said,

“Quilter’s a pot of gold!”?

They were quite mistaken,

as I have come to know,

beyond this wood runs British Rail,

and home, my dear boy, lies where the rainbow ends.


Today it’s rare to meet someone who has even heard of Roger Quilter. In his own lifetime, he was known for his incidental music and for many poignant songs he wrote based upon Elizabethan texts.

As Christmas approaches, I find myself wondering how Quilter would have liked to have been remembered and, having  no answer to share with you, have simply written here how I have remembered him, in hopes you might be inspired to explore his life and music too.