Go back to article: Rather unspectacular: design choices in National Health Service glasses

Conclusion – my hopes for future research

The provision of optical care to the British public under the National Health Service during the period 1946 to 1986 had a restrictive effect on the entire optical business and profession, affecting the business and professional activities of ophthalmologists and dispensing opticians, and the commercial activities of frame manufacturers and prescription houses. This had huge repercussions for the design and style of spectacles available to the population of Britain by severely limiting the market. Although both the government and the optical industry acknowledged the existence of a ‘fashion factor’ in frame selection, government concerns were with the cost-effective delivery of basic medical appliances while opticians were focused on providing professional eyecare and running a profitable business.

The range of NHS spectacle frames produced during the period 1946 to 1986 was provided as a functional medical appliance; ‘fashion’ and styling were consciously rejected for fear of increasing demand and raising the cost of delivering eyecare under the National Health Service. There were a very limited range of frames available and no significant changes to the patterns included in the range over the majority of the period. This contributed to NHS frames being a social marker, a ‘badge of poverty’, with a stigma attached to them. Within the range of state regulation frames there was no active concern for ‘design’ in terms of appearance and it was only through the purchase of private frames that significant choice and variety in eyewear could be attained. The scope for the public to select more fashionable frames whilst receiving an element of state aid was through the purchase of NHS hybrid private frames. State intervention in the optical market affected the design, production and distribution of all types of spectacles while the terms of service for optical practitioners in turn affected retail and distribution, having an impact on the patient as consumer. There were attempts at innovation by British designers when changes in materials and production methods offered potential for design change; Chappell’s Supra style was recognised on the worldwide stage due to the production of these frames for the European and American market, and Birch challenged the establishment by introducing the stylised Candida frame as a NHS hybrid frame.

The story of National Health Service spectacle frames is inextricably linked to the context of its time; due to this unique set of circumstances, a comprehensive analysis of these objects in terms of their production, mediation and consumption is currently unattainable due to the business, commercial and professional restrictions upon the market, the absence of representations of NHS wearers from visual culture due to restrictions on advertising, and also the negative associations and memories held by several generations. There are still important stories to be discovered relating to the experience of consumption of NHS glasses, wearing them due to necessity or as a contemporary ‘retro’ style statement, and the symbolic nature of NHS spectacles and how they contributed to identity.[60]

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170703/013