Hue and cry over pursuit of golden look

Why sun tans have a fatal attraction
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The Independent Online
In the Seventies, a dark bronze suntan was as essential to a fashionable woman's wardrobe as a cheesecloth maxi dress, shiny lip gloss, or the skimpiest of string bikinis.

That was the decade of the all-over tan; the first time women basked in nothing but a layer of baby oil (plain old chip fat was considered an effective suntan lotion in the innocent Seventies) and the tiniest G-string.

The post-war history of the suntan moves hand in hand with that of the bikini, which was named after the atomic bomb that was exploded near Bikini Atoll in 1946. The bikini and radiation are still inexorably linked as millions of women hook up their straps in search of the deep tan feelgood factor.

But golden hasn't always been the required shade for a fashionable skin. Elizabeth I looked positively alabaster-like compared with modern-day royals like the Princess of Wales or the Duchess of York. But then, you would never have seen Queen Bess sailing off to hotter climes with Walter Raleigh.

And while the Victorians loved spas for medicinal reasons, a pale complexion was considered more tasteful and upper crust than the ruddy, sun-kissed cheeks associated with peasant girls or railway navvies.

Indeed, well-heeled Victorians, who were the first to really discover travelling overseas for pleasure, would insist on sailing in the shade, port out, starboard home - thought to be the origin of the word posh.

The working people could go burn themselves all they liked in the new resorts of Blackpool and Brighton, but for toffs, parasols, panama hats and the chalky white skin of a Japanese Geisha girl were much more fashionable than a freckled nose.

The French Riviera is to blame for the tan as we know it today. The fast set took to motoring down to Deauville and, by the steaming summer of 1928, sunbathing and tanning was de rigeur. It was not until the Sixties, however, that package holidays in Spain became accessible to the masses and the novelty of a Mediterranean suntan was something to be flaunted.

By the Seventies, things began to get out of hand. Men and women would use hair lightening products to make their hair look blonde and sun-soaked. Lotions were used to speed up a tan, rather than the sun screens, used nowadays to slow down the process. A deep tan also became the symbol of the downmarket package holiday-maker.

Bo Derek had the sun-drenched look to die for, as did Jerry Hall, Rod Stewart and the Bee Gees. Tom Jones has been building on his tan ever since.

Despite all the health scares that dog sun worshippers, people still believe a tan, however light, is fashionable. The all-year round tan has become the norm, with people topping up their skin colour between trips abroad with the aid of sunbeds.

At The Tanning Shop, which has branches nation-wide, more than 750,000 customers book in for 2.5 million stand-up sunbed sessions each year.

Lisa Armstrong, associate editor of Vogue, says: "It's definitely not fashionable to be too well-done. Mahogany is out. It looks very old-fashioned to look stained, like you've spilt beer over yourself." Ms Armstrong is a great fan of fake tan; she does not dispute the fact that a tan makes your teeth look whiter and the whites of your eyes look whiter.

Fake tans have become remarkably sophisticated in the mid-Nineties, with spray-on lotions that react with the skin to tan you the same colour as the sun would. According to Ms Armstrong: "It's not the threat of cancer, but the threat of wrinkles that scares people and that shows how vain we are.

"We're still stuck on the belief that bronzed skin looks better than pallid skin, although if you have perfect skin, there is nothing more beautiful than the English rose."