Joey Donatelli slides their glasses off and proudly holds them in front of the camera, as though bestowing an all-powerful gift. Donatelli is wearing a stone-washed Space Jam T-Shirt (the original 1996 version) and three metal chain necklaces, one of which looks like a dog collar. Their hair has faded teal tips and is slicked into a tapered faux hawk. And the finishing touch? Their everyday prescription glasses: thin, gold, and heart-shaped.
Donatelli, who is 26 and identifies as queer and non-binary, is a graphic designer, make-up store associate, and owner of a popular TikTok account. The account is dedicated to their aesthetic interests: Ariana Grande, make-up, Trollz, Bratz, Powerpuff Girls, and other Y2K phenomena that they felt denied in childhood. Both with their environment and body, Donatelli embodies the idea of a doll, which is “very much, literally, an object that you style and manipulate,” they said over a Zoom call last Summer. Back in 2018, Donatelli spent a year-and-a-half searching for their trademark glasses and found them on Quay Australia, which at the time were the only option for clear lens, prescription-grade heart-shaped frames. Heart-shaped eyeglasses were worth the effort for two reasons: 1: they make Donatelli happy and 2: other people are inherently drawn to them.
It’s true that heart-shaped glasses make an impression. On New York City’s St. Marks Place, there are approximately 1,482 sunglasses for sale at any given time. The street, once a home to Beat poets, flower children, punks, and anarchists, remains a window into evolving counterculture trends. Fifteen years ago, plastic slotted glasses crept out of LMFAO music videos and American Apparel ads and onto every stand. The owner of Funky Town, a 31-year-old gift shop on St. Marks, shares that despite updating the available options on a monthly basis, they always carry heart-shaped lenses and have since day one. Friendly and unassuming, heart-shaped glasses are easy to picture; an unexpected item that has quietly become a relevant marker of progress, particularly for some young, non-binary individuals, who, like Donatelli, are using them as a confident statement.
At this point, heart-shaped glasses are so ingrained in popular culture, it’s easy to forget their origins, or even to recognize their long-lasting appeal. While non-traditional shaped lenses can be found in advertisements from the 1950s, the heart-shaped glasses were popularized in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 movie adaption of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The movie poster depicts actress Sue Lyon wearing cherry-red heart-shaped sunglasses and suggestively sucking on a lollipop. Lolita is the story of a man who problematically becomes infatuated with a 12-year-old girl (described in the book as “nymphet”). The heart-shaped frames appear only in the poster and not in the movie or the novel. Nabokov has written that he was “emphatically opposed to any kind of representation of a little girl” on the book cover. (He preferred covers of a bold, no-nonsense, typographic variety). Regardless, this reference has earned the frames the perennial moniker “Lolita glasses” and adds to their gendered connotation.
Today, heart-shaped glasses are used in new ways, mostly removed from nostalgia. For both individuals and celebrities, the glasses are part of a designed look, and the current cultural climate is one of more experimentation and freedom. The lines between offline and online are less divided. Perhaps we’ve become accustomed to the opportunities to style ourselves with more control on screens, and it is now seeping out into the real world. In the past decade, online spaces became areas for users to experiment with different visual languages and themes, hosting a plethora of different subcultures, each with corresponding aesthetics.
The push and pull between innocence and adult desire is somehow cemented in the object, but with time, this juxtaposition has evolved into a proud statement of gender expression.
When Lana Del Rey released Born to Die, her 2012 album inspired by Nabakov’s Lolita that included viral hits such as “Video Games” and other forlorn songs about tragedy and romance, she created a dedicated online following of vintage-loving sad people. Unlike traditional feminist virtues of being capable and empowered, Del Rey personifies what Lolita might feel like from Lolita’s perspective. The songs are about the male gaze, sadness, and ambivalence. On “Diet Mountain Dew,” Del Rey writes about heart-shaped sunglasses. Another song is called “Lolita” and “Off to the Races” uses the opening lines of the novel in the hook. In the article, “Sad Girls and Carefree Black Girls” from Women’s Studies Quarterly, sociologist Heather Mooney writes that Del Rey’s music is emblematic of “Sad Girl” subcultures of the time period, particularly on Tumblr. Her styling is overtly reminiscent of the past — an ambiguous era between the 1950s and 70s. Del Rey used the motifs from Lolita and the sunglasses to perform a character, and in turn, inspired a generation of online bloggers to embrace their sadness while romanticizing their original vintage appearance. In the decade following, this view of the heart-shaped frames has evolved, with today’s styling feeling remixed and reinterpretted, stepping away from nostalgia and creating a more eclectic look removed from melancholy and pain. The glasses are an empowered choice, leaving the learned associations in the past.
The Lolita story is about obsession and the exploitation of a minor. The heart-shaped frames depicted on the movie poster echoed the juxtaposition between youth and sex appeal, pairing something kitschy and light-hearted with something malicious and utlerior operating in the background. The push and pull between innocence and adult desire is somehow cemented in the object, but with time, this juxtaposition has evolved into a proud statement of gender expression. The many non-binary individuals who wear the statement frames today prove the glasses are both powerful and reclamatory.
Consider Teona Studemire, a 25-year-old writer and content-creator, who also wears heart-shaped lenses as their primary glasses. While they recognize that the glasses are vintage-inspired, they hadn’t seen the Lolita movie poster and don’t associate the frames with the film or novel. Regardless, the glasses became a strong expression of their identity. “I see them and think ‘this is me,’” they wrote in an email to me.
Studemire, who was assigned female at birth and identifies as nonbinary, feels affirmed when wearing the eyewear. When they first started coming to terms with their gender, they felt there wasn’t a wide range of representation of genderqueer — and specifically black genderqueer — individuals on social media or popular culture, and what was available didn’t quite match the way they saw themselves. “Often I saw that I had to be androgynous or super masculine becasue maintaining the femininity was just me being ‘woman-lite’ rather than a nonbinary feminine person,” they said. Studemire doesn’t see the glasses as inherently female, however, but rather represents their queer identity because of how they proudly stand out. Studemire notes that while they see the glasses as a personal expression of their own gender, they also see other queer and trans individuals wearing them, which feels like an incidental validation.
Similar to Studemire, Donatelli also sees the glasses as an opportunity to present their gender identification. “The way I look isn’t fun or feminine enough for me,” they said about their masculine-presenting body, and so they adorn themselves with curiously playful details. The stylized specs provide a chance for wearers to either celebrate or challenge their femininity, they said, and that is what makes them a quintessential “queer femme object.” The immediate visibility of this accessory helps provide a clue to the world about how the wearer would like to be addressed.
While neither Donatelli nor Studemire had a style icon behind their choice in eyewear, the glasses have quietly existed in media and storefronts throughout the past 60 years. For example, George Harrison wore rounded ones on a 1967 trip to Haight Ashbury (a symbol of love and acceptance, perhaps). In a 1977 edition of 19 Magazine, a model brings her own heart-shaped glasses to a photoshoot. The article is called, “They Got Style, Man!” and features two men and two women wearing “exclusively-cut garments in soft and sexy, feminine fabrics.” The overtly girl-ish frames are a reminder of the gender association. 90s mega-babes Brandi Quinones, Kristen Klosterman, Niki Taylor, Kate Moss, and Shalom Harlow wore bulbous plastic frames while blowing kisses in a Vogue photoshoot called “Beauty and the Beach.” The photoshoot accompanies an article about a less-is-more beauty regimen for summer weather, the glasses touted as sun-protection and are described in the caption as a “light touch,” referencing the kitschiness and understood silliness of this statement piece. Elton John, a gay icon and expressive-eyewear enthusaist — who is rumored to own over 200,000 pairs of statement glasses, and used the theatrical novelty frames as part of his stage identity since the 1970s — had his own pair of optical heart-shaped specs stolen in 2015. (They were returned and the thief apologized).
Today, fashion is less gendered than in the past century. Bad Bunny, who is one of the most streamed artists and recently won “Artist of the Year” at the Video Music Awards, is known for his gender-noncomforing and flashy fashion choices. On the cover of August’s issue of Harper’s Bazaar, he is wearing a white Louis Vuitton blazer and skirt. In an article in GQ earlier this year, he questioned the gender behind different garments, “I really can’t give clothes gender. To me, a dress is a dress. If I wear a dress, would it stop being a woman’s dress? Or vice versa? Like, no. It’s a dress, and that’s it. It’s not a man’s, it’s not a woman’s. It’s a dress,” he said. It’s unsurprising that on both Instagram and Tiktok, Bad Bunny is seen wearing heart-shaped frames.
As Korean Pop gained more popularity in the Western world, many of the fashion choices of these performers reflect these changes, too. Unlike boy bands of the 90s, many Korean Pop boy bands wear expressive and stylized ensembles including less boyish outfits, playful jewelry, and colorful hairstyles. Yeonjun, a singer and part of the five-member group TXT, has a fully customized appearance, almost like that of an online avatar off the screen. In a video shared on Twitter, he is seen with pink hair, a glittery button-down shirt, and rosey heart-shaped frames. The bold combination reads as part Elvis Presley, part Space Channel 5, and it doesn’t feel overtly masculine or feminine. In 2020, Yeonjun was also seen wearing a t-shirt with three check boxes on the back reading “MALE” “FEMALE” “PERSON” with only “PERSON” filled in. The shirt and his overall styling send a message that fashion doesn’t have to be gendered.
While the contemporary, full-time heart-shaped glasses are just as distinct as its mid-century predecessors, they vary in form. While the traditional Lolita shades were chunky, red, and opaque, new models are thinly rimmed or rimless and either fully or partially transparent. While the traditional sunglasses allow an individual to hide behind them, these newer styles highlight the individual’s face. Interestingly, when prompting the AI image creator, DALL-E 2 to visualize a person wearing heart-shaped glasses all of the outputs are of the Lolita variety, but when asked to visualize a non-binary individual wearing heart-shaped glasses the outputs are more similar to the new style. Inferring too much meaning from artificially intelligent images is problematic because there is no one way of characterizing something as complex as gender identification. However, DALL-E 2 learns to pair an image with text through data available on the internet. Evidently, it learned to associate one style of heart-shaped glasses with the non-binary community.
The glasses are optimistic and omnipresent, capable of being used as a stylized icon of self expression. They’re available as options on most digital platforms like on Animal Crossing or Decentraland, and are likely here to stay. As Donatelli put it, “I don’t think we’re ever going to be at a point where we’re without the heart-shaped frame,” they said, “They’ll just continue to evolve and we’ll have digital ones in the future, which will be super tight.”