The story of Steve McQueen’s iconic Persol sunglasses

The Persol 714 folding frame sunglasses have become synonymous with the famous 1960s actor. But how did the enduring pairing come to be?

In 1968, when The Thomas Crown Affair hit theatres throughout the world, reviews came back surprisingly mixed. Despite starring real-life action hero Steve McQueen, zipping along with a gripping heist storyline and being scored with an Oscar-winning soundtrack, critics and audiences alike just couldn’t make up their minds about the film. However, there was one group bowled over by the film; eyewear aficionados.

And that’s because leading man McQueen — one of our best-dressed men of all time — spends most of the picture with a pair of Persol 714 sunglasses wrapped around his head. Specifically, the acetate Light Havana frames with crystal blue lenses cooler than the actor himself.

Originally, it wasn’t intended for these singular sunglasses to make it onto the screen. It was only when the unconventional, uber-cool McQueen strode onto set the first day of filming that producers spotted the actor’s own personal pair of 714s, and decided to incorporate them into his character’s style.

steve mcqueen persol sunglasses

Needless to say, the iconic design became one of the enduring images of the film — along with the famous silent chess game McQueen plays with Faye Dunaway. The Persol 714s sit front and centre as McQueen’s Thomas Crown roars along the Massachusetts coastline in a dune buggy, and as he swoops about the skies in a bright yellow glider. They even epitomise the film’s first glimpse of McQueen — when we see him suavely pulling bags of stolen money out of a graveyard trash can while wearing a three-piece suit.

But the actor’s penchant for Persols began several years before. The brand had only been available in the US for six years by the time The Thomas Crown Affair was released — originally having been founded in Italy in 1957 to produce sunglasses for pilots and racing car drivers. McQueen’s frames of choice, the 714s, were a folding version of another Persol design, the 649s; which had been designed in 1957 for Turin tram-drivers.

Steve McQueen
steve mcqueen thomas crown

Nevertheless, the actor’s early American adoption of the brand was just what Persol needed. And Steve McQueen’s affair with his own Persol 714s didn’t end with Thomas Crown. His continued championing of the design saw sales skyrocket. Everyone suddenly wanted to look the part of the suave action hero — and as long as McQueen kept wearing them, people would keep buying them.

And wear them McQueen did. After he had wrapped filming on The Thomas Crown Affair, he’d walked his favourite sunglasses straight onto the set of his next big hit, Bullitt. Lieutenant Frank Bullitt may have been on the other side of the law to McQueen’s Thomas Crown, but the frames remained part of the production. You can even spot them on screen when McQueen crouches down to take a call on a portable phone. It’s a shot in which the actor is also wearing his suede “Playboy” chukka boots — yet another style choice he carried over from his personal to professional life.

steve mcqueen persol
steve mcqueen sunglasses

He even popped on a pair during The Getaway, and can be seen wearing his trusty 714s during filming of Le Mans. And it created an enduring image in the eyes of film enthusiasts and McQueen devotees alike — in 2006, a pair from McQueen’s old collection sold at auction for over $70,000.

By 2008, Persol had launched its 714 SM frames — a tribute to the actor that bears both his name on the inside arm, and 10 additional manufacturing steps to ensure McQueen’s favoured folding frames are now as enduring as the image of the actor wearing them. Today, you can pick up a pair for £319 from Persol — the perfect first step on your way to dressing like Steve McQueen.

Looking for more inspirational style icons of the past? These are the best-dressed men in the history of the Cannes Film Festival…

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