The history of the suntan

As millions of Britons enjoy what is forecast to be the hottest day of the year, Julian Humphrys looks at the burning issue of the suntan...

A group of sunbathers, wearing protective goggles, on a sandy beach, circa 1925. (Photo by Henry Miller News Picture Service/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Have suntans always been sought after in Britain?

Not at all. Because suntans were associated with outdoor manual labour they were shunned by the wealthy for centuries in favour of pale skin, which suggested a life of leisure spent indoors. Indeed, cosmetics were often used to whiten complexions. Ceruse was a popular 16th-century skin whitener. Unfortunately it was lead based, so it was also rather dangerous.

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The desire for whiteness among the well-to-do began to change after the Industrial Revolution. As the working classes moved out of the fields and into towns, factories and mines, their suntans became a thing of the past. As paleness was now no longer exclusive, the wealthy gradually lost their passion for it.

What was the medical profession’s view of sunbathing?

As the 19th century drew to a close, an increasing number of people began to point out the health benefits of sunlight. These included Scottish medical missionary Theobald Palm, who in 1890 identified the role of sunlight in preventing rickets (but who was largely ignored by the medical world); future cornflake king John Harvey Kellogg, who was a passionate advocate of the therapeutic values of light, and Swiss physician Auguste Rollier, who introduced sunbaths (aka solaria – buildings designed to optimise exposure to the sun’s rays) at his Leysin tuberculosis sanatorium in 1903 and throughout Switzerland. These were later mimicked across Europe.

 

But what made a tan fashionable?

The fact that the rich and famous began sporting them. As places like the French Riviera grew in popularity as summer holiday destinations for the well-to-do, a suntan began to be seen as a sign of wealth as well as health. When Coco Chanel returned from a Mediterranean cruise in 1923 looking decidedly bronzed, the suntan’s place as the latest must-have fashion accessory was now well and truly secure. Brown was the new white.

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Fashion designer Coco Chanel with Duke Laurino of Rome on a beach at the lido, date unknown. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Pictures Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The British climate meant that for decades a deep tan was something that many could only dream of, but by the 1960s cheaper travel meant that Mediterranean sunshine and the tan that went with it was in reach of a growing number of Britons.

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What does the future hold for the suntan?

Although it’s widely known that overexposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun (or sunbeds) is the main cause of skin cancer, the allure of the so-called ‘healthy tan’ seems as strong as ever, even if it’s now increasingly acquired from a spray and not the sun.