A brief history of tanning

To mark our latest feature – a tried and tested of the latest fake tans – which goes live today, I asked health and beauty journalist Sharon Walker to explain where our tan obsession started.

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Fashions come and go, but our dedication to a honey-coloured hue is something of a perennial. It doesn’t matter how many times the fashion magazines wheel out Dita Von Teese, Nicole Kidman and Scarlett Johannsen in an attempt to persuade us that pale really is more interesting, a tan remains one of summer’s guilty pleasures, chiefly because it hides a multitude of sins and makes us look so damn hot.

Of course, that wasn’t always considered the case. In the nineteenth century, a suntan was thought horribly déclassé. Bronzed skins were for farm labourers who toiled under the elements, while upper class ladies shaded beneath parasols and hats. When Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, broke out a freckle or two after a shade-less walk, she caused a mild scandal among her fictional peers.

The Victorians weren’t the first to shun the sun. In Greek and Roman times, women whitened their skin with lead paint and chalk to a literally deathly pallor that would make Nicola Roberts look positively glowing, while Elizabethan ladies painted blue veins to affect translucent skin.

The original St Tropez

It wasn’t until iconic French designer Coco Chanel skipped off a yacht on the Cote d’Azure, as brown as a berry in 1923, after mistakenly catching a few rays, that a tan was suddenly ‘the thing’. So you have more than just trousers to thank this lady for.

By the mid 1920s, with pallid workers now toiling in dingy factories and mines, a suntan signalled wealth and privilege. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel Tender is The Night depicted celebrities sunning themselves on the French Riviera, and the fashion elite embraced the golden-look with gusto. But apart from being fashionable, they realised how incredibly flattering it was.

From the thirties onwards, tanning entered the mainstream, then with the arrival of the first bikinis in the fifties, came the first (near) all-over tan.

Around the same time, the first self-tanning products came on the market. Little more than brown dye, they weren’t exactly what we’re used to today, and it wasn’t until the boom in tanning salons and booths in the eighties, that a year-long tan became a real possibility for those who couldn’t afford to winter in the Caribbean.

An inconvenient truth

By this time, the links between tanning and skin cancer had begun to emerge but were conveniently buried under an onslaught of sexy adverts promoting the allure of bronzed, healthy skin. Ironically the eighties were all about the strong healthy physique, and tans came hand-in-hand with this look.

In 1980, Bergasol famously launched a series of ads for their sun oil: two girls sitting side-by-side, the more toned and slender of the two sporting a deeply tanned back. The tagline, ‘I wouldn’t dream of spending £4 for a suntan oil’/ ‘I can see that’, left us in little doubt as to the colour we should aspire to.

Despite the dangers, tanning is still something of a national past time (though for most us the days of frazzling in Baby Oil are long gone). ‘People still want a tan,’ says Dr Geoff Mullan, founder of leading skin clinic Medicetics and the brains behind The Sun Clinic, a new on-line service, which helps you find exactly the right suntan lotion for your skin type. ‘It makes us feel healthy.’ More importantly, perhaps, tanned thighs look thinner.

No wonder we love faking it. The fake tanning market is now worth a whopping £41m in Britain alone and $675m globally. Perhaps not surprisingly, given our devotion to the cause, the credit crunch has done little to dampen our enthusiasm.

Sales of lotions such as St Tropez and Fake Bake have shot up 51% at John Lewis beauty counters in the last year, as we forego our summer holidays and opt for cheaper luxuries. Now, five bottles of St Tropez bronzing lotion are sold every minute worldwide, while 40 bottles of St Tropez Bronzing Mousse sell ever hour.

The new rules

Despite soaring sales of fake tan, however, beauty influencers have noticed a move away from what was till recently the most coveted shade for summer – a deep, dark bronze. ‘What looks fresh right now is a paler, more natural glow,’ says fake-tanning Queen Cindy Barshop who has several celebrity clients on her books. Even dedicated beach girls like Cameron Diaz and Kate Hudson are looking much lighter these days.

To embrace 2009’s new aesthetic, try cutting your usual fake tan with a little body lotion and use two very thin layers rather than one thicker one. For your face, pick a shade of bronzer one shade paler than you did last year – and don’t forget to add pink blush to give the look some dimension and keep it looking natural.

Click here to read ELLE's pick of the best new fake tans...

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