Bronze age: How the sun tan became a standard summer accessory

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The sun tan. Fake or natural, it has always caused a stir. Once a sign of poverty and vulgarity it is now the preserve of the rich and famous.

Fashions, and beauty trends in particular, are grounded in aspiration. Everything, from acne cures and women's magazines to cars and stripy toothpaste, is marketed with the premise that we're not good enough as we are, and that we ought to, in some minute way, be better. It's no surprise then, that the fashion and beauty trends that really take off are the ones that are nigh-on impossible to achieve. The perfect suntan is a prime exemple of such a fad.

For those of us with unforgivingly busy schedules, children or dwindling holiday funds, the perfect tan remains a logical impossibility. It is a very specific, very even shade of golden that speaks of weeks of inertia by the pool. The perfect tan takes hard work and an empty schedule – there are strap marks to worry about, after all.

We can try our hardest to make up for a lack of foreign holidays, or do battle with our predisposed pigmentation, but nothing comes close to that real mahogany magic. Fake tans don't cut it. And the undignified process of application – slathering it on, naked but for a pair of Marigolds, before adopting the John Wayne stance (knees bent, arms slightly out to the sides) in order to let it dry in front of the 10 o'clock news – is hardly what being glamorous and golden is all about.

But it was not always the case. The story of how the suntan became one of the most conspicuous cultural and social accessories is an interesting one, because once upon a time, a tan was the last thing anyone wanted.

In the days of true class distinction, the people with the tans were manual labourers, farm workers and villeins – rural serfs who toiled away for very little in return. The lords of the manors, and their ladies in particular, made it their business to avoid the ravaging rays – perhaps as assiduously as we now seek them out. The phrase "blue blood", used in reference to being well-bred or aristocratic, comes from the Spanish "sangre azul", which was once used to describe 15th-century Infantas. The Castillian princesses spent so much time indoors, in order to preserve their complexions, that their skin was pale enough to be almost translucent, and their veins were clearly visible. To your average Juan, they must have seemed a completely different race; it brings to mind the moment in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when a peasant identifies King Arthur simply because he is "the only one not covered in shit". And so the notion of pale skin representing wealth and status was born.

Things continued in the same (modishly visible) vein for the next 500 years, with a few cultural inputs along the way: via the Elizabethans, of course, who applied thick layers of leaded paint, which made them whiter and also eventually killed them, to the opulent Georgians, whose powder puffs, preening and pompadours are satirised so keenly in Alexander Pope's mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock. Had these generations of women not been so ravaged by smallpox, childbirth, patriarchy and bubonic plague, it would be interesting to see how many of them were affected by melanomas; given the brutally high mortality rates and an average lifespan of 35 years though, any available statistics are likely to be inconclusive.

It wasn't until the industrial Victorians – a whey-faced bunch of natural-light-deprived moralists if ever there was one – that the tide of tanning began to turn. With the feudal labourers now crammed into urban factories, the sun-dappled fields became a place of pastimes and good company. Well-to-do ladies remained in the pale though; throughout the works of Austen, for example, the female complexion is regularly held up as a measurement of refinement and good health. It is the subject of a snide jibe on the part of the snobbish Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice: "How very ill Eliza Bennett looks this morning, Mr Darcy," she cried. "She is grown so brown and coarse..."

The brooding hero to whom this is addressed, however, is unperturbed; perhaps he was ahead of his time in finding a healthy glow attractive. Although the genteel classes were never to be found outdoors without gloves, bonnet and parasol, there was a shift towards heartiness and athleticism near the end of the century, which meant that a tan soon became a symbol of health, and was inextricably linked to those who were living well, rather than those who were not.

In 1891, the American doctor and eugenicist John Harvey Kellogg invented his "Incandescent Light Bath". Although a po-faced Victorian of the highest order (he advocated life-long celibacy, as well as carbolic acid and electric shock treatments to discourage masturbation in teenage boys), he also invented the electric blanket and the cornflake, so clearly recognised the finer things in life. His light baths were a prototype sunbed – they were marketed to cure gout using infra-red and visible light to stimulate circulation, but Kellogg noted a coincidental side-effect: "When the application is repeated many times, the parts become pigmented or brownish in colour, just as when the surface is exposed to the sun's rays." Edward VII had these early sunbeds installed in Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, and Wilhelm II was also a fan. (One can't help wondering if, had Wilhelm continued his tanning sessions, the First World War could have been averted; a hippy-ish tan – as opposed to a Teutonic pallor – is often the sign of a peaceful individual.)

Investigating similar areas was Icelandic-Danish doctor Niels R Finsen, whose ultraviolet lights were installed in the London Hospital in 1900 and who won the 1903 Nobel Prize for his work with the lights to cure tuberculosis. Health resorts began to spring up across Britain and the rest of Europe, notably in those paradisal areas of Switzerland and the south of France which even now lure the pallid sun-worshipper; the medical consensus that the epidemic could be cured by exposure to sunshine consolidated their growing appeal. Those who could afford to take the trip did, and unsurprisingly the tipping point came when peaky-looking consumptive types were turned away in favour of the moneyed casino crowd.

As social mores became less rigid and women were encouraged to take up sports and outdoor pursuits, the notion of leisure time and health became linked to work (or a lack of it) and wealth. Sunshine became the preserve of those who could afford it, and several social agitators called for the introduction of sunlamps for workers into the factories. Sunshine was no longer just a cure but a cause worth fighting for: in 1924 a group of well-regarded physicians formed the Sunlight League, and lobbied for public health policy to take into account the need for sunlight. This may seem anathema now – as we smother our children in factor 80 – but it took place against the backdrop of a growing public health crisis among the poor, where rickets (a condition of the bones caused by the deprivation of Vitamin D, which is found in sunlight) and worse had become rife.

True to form, Vogue catered to the more aesthetically pleasing sun-bather, rather than the bow-legged one: in 1927 the English edition featured a tanned model; following issues spoke of "the deep bronze hue which is part of the life of the moment at Cap d'Antibes". Around the same time, Coco Chanel's accidental sunburn, so the story goes, inspired cohorts of French women to follow her into the light. It was the ultimate social pronouncement of self-improvement and unattainability: two weeks in Antibes meant the perfect tan – those who had to settle for two weeks in Blackpool no doubt came away with a muddier complexion.

In F Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, the Divers, arbiters of style and good taste, hire a house in the south of France in which to entertain their similarly louche friends. Symbolically, the sophisticated Mrs Diver is tanned to perfection while young Rosemary Hoyt gets sunburnt, and this becomes emblematic of her status as wide-eyed ingénue. A suntan here is the decadent preserve of selfish hedonists and the idle rich.

Tanning continued apace for most of the 20th century – during the excess of the Seventies and Eighties, the perfect tan was close to the colour of treacle and the truly adamant used tanning oil, even vegetable oil and kitchen foil, to enhance their burnishments. Tropically bronzed models became poster-girls for the look, which owed much to the exoticism of the Fry's Turkish Delight advert. Those at the forefront of fashion then are conspicuous now – they're the ones who look like leather handbags close up.

Indeed, while the tan began its true fashion life as a new take on French chic, it has ended up as a symbol of Italian excess – the main tan-tagonists these days are Italian designers, taking up the Fitzgeraldian mantle and turning themselves walnut-brown on their yachts and by their infinity pools. Just think of the countless pictures of Valentino Garavani or Roberto Cavalli aboard their catamarans, of Donatella Versace arm in arm with a pale-faced Courtney Love, and of Giorgio Armani biking around Ravello. There was a certain vein of catwalk fashion in the mid-Nineties, fronted by the equally nut-coloured and well-oiled Tom Ford, that played on greasy, bronzed torsos and techno-stretch trousers. A tan is the language of sex, which is why when people stray beyond the realm of the perfect, they start to look a bit deliquescent and seedy.

But the tan-fad is far from over, even if we are wiser to the dangers of sun exposure these days. The fact of the matter is, people look and feel better with a tan. Although whiter-than-white models and actresses like Karen Elson, Lily Cole and Anne Hathaway have gone some way to proving that pale is still interesting, they are still marketed as ethereally "other", while the Kate Mosses and Gisele Bundchens remind us how exotically flattering and well-received a tan is. Then there are the likes of Jordan and Jodie Marsh, who seem to exist only to prove the dangers of going fake-tan orange, or worse. It's simply further ammunition for the argument that, if it isn't an all-over golden glow acquired somewhere between Cannes and Nice, it's just a pale imitation.

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