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``FREEZE, SUCKER!'' That's the subtle imperative uttered by ``Miami Vice's'' Crockett and Tubbs from behind their Ray-Ban Wayfarers. But it might also be a useful directive to American consumers who are about to choose new sunglasses.

Since some shades sell at prices you might expect to pay for a small Jacuzzi, you can't afford to look at the world of sunglasses through rose-colored lenses.

The schlock and fluff among the good stuff -- and the array of claims to sort out -- should give sunglass buyers pause before getting sucked into an expensive purchase of such glitzy options as polarized, no-glare, photochromic, ultraviolet, and infrared lenses.

These options have proliferated in spite of the fact that many buyers today look at sunglasses as a way to make a fashion statement rather than to keep the sun out of their eyes.

``Whereas people used to buy one pair of sunglasses for the season, now they buy many pairs to mix and match with outfits,'' says Barbara Schreier, a fashion specialist and professor of home economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

A survey she took recently showed that the average student there owns between five and 10 pairs of sunglasses.

``College students are buying them to create attitudes -- identities that they can easily slip in and out of -- while the wealthy are buying them for status,'' Ms. Schreier says.

Whatever their reasons, consumers have been rushing to the counters to grab up the new and arresting sunglass styles.

Sales of sunglasses have doubled to 160 million pairs a year since 1980, according to Douglas Niegh, manager of North America Sunglass Operations for Polaroid. Of these, 88 percent are imported, but the greatest growth, according to Mr. Niegh, has been in the ``unclassified'' category -- those sold with no brand.

That category has doubled its sales to 40 million units in just three years.

``The US is by far the largest single market for sunglasses anywhere in the world, far exceeding Europe and Britain combined,'' he adds.

Here in southern California there's everything from Taiwan-generated copies of famous names, selling for about $4 to $9 from beachside vendors, to the Maseratis of sunglasses found at salons like Optica on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

Students frequently opt for the former as the most versatile and inexpensive fashion accessory available, passing up more expensive models ($50 to $250) from designer collections put on the market in recent years by Anne Klein, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne, Christian Dior, and others.

The hot sunglasses in the upscale eschelons these days -- Laura Biagiotti, Porsche, Vuarnet, Alpina, -- run anywhere from $75 to $300. Up-and-comers are unisex and metal Identity-brand sunglasses in geometric and futurist shapes. Ray-Ban Wayfarers (about $45) and its copies are perennial best sellers, now with chrome frames and paint-splattered lenses. Also in demand are the metal-framed, Lester Maddox-style sunglasses (named after the former governor of Georgia) in myriad colors with and without mirrored glass.

The trend is toward oversized glasses, so both sexes are purchasing those made for men, though many brands are designed as unisex.

Some observers see a bit of irony in the whole sunglass syndrome. In fact, probably nowhere in fashion is there more paradox than the world of sunglasses.

Fashion studies traditionally find that when respondents rate attractiveness in people wearing normal, clear eyeglasses vs. those that don't, the latter are always rated more attractive. It's just the opposite for sunglasses.

``They are at the same time hard to ignore and very alienating,'' says fashion consultant Schreier, noting the greatest offender, mirrored sunglasses, that were the rage in the late 1970s.

``There's also irony when you consider the history of clothing has shown that whenever you conceal part of the body, you automatically draw attention to it,'' says Schreier, noting the social decree of covering the ankles in the 19th century, which made them seem all the more mysterious.

Sunglasses are like that too, ironically drawing more attention to the very apparatus they are designed to conceal.

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