Sunlight and Mankind
 – A Brief History

With the introduction of a class system to societies around the world, religious beliefs related to the sun often gave way to social distinctions between those with a tan and those without: possession of a tan was for a long time associated with the labouring classes. Ancient Greek and Roman women used chalks and lead-based paints to whiten their skin, often with fatal results from the resulting lead poisoning. In the 10th Century arsenic was used as a skin whitener, with similarly fatal results.

18th to Early 20th Centuries

The fashion for white skin, particularly among women of the ruling classes, continued through the Elizabethan and on into the Georgian and Victorian periods. Tanned skin was considered unsightly; porcelain skin was envied. White face powder was considered essential, as was the use of full-length clothing and parasols.

The development of railways in the mid-Victorian period made travel easier, especially visits to the coast. By the end of the Victorian period sea bathing was becoming popular, for its supposed medicinal benefits, and although the bathing suits of the time still covered a lot of skin, tanning became inevitable.

In 1903 Niels Finsen was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine, for his ‘Finsen Light Therapy’ which used exposure to artificial sunlight to cure several diseases, including rickets and lupus vulgaris, and worked by stimulating production of vitamin D.

In the same year Dr Auguste Rollier opened the first sun clinic, at Leysin in the Swiss Alps. His heliotherapy used exposure to a combination of pure air and sunlight to combat diseases, including some forms of tuberculosis. The use of the sun bath had returned, and with it the concept of the ‘healthy tan’.

Huldschinsky is credited with, in 1919, demonstrating natural sunlight as a cure for rickets, although others had suggested the link before.

Sun exposure for health gradually spread beyond the sanatorium, and sunbathing as a health fad and leisure activity became more popular, along with sea bathing with which it was often linked.

The industrial revolution, with the massive migration of rural populations into towns and cities, and from outdoor agricultural work to factory and office jobs, meant that a tanned skin became less prevalent among the poorer classes, and therefore gradually lost its social stigma.

1920s and 1930s

By the early 1920s, fashions and lifestyles were changing; women in particular were beginning to enjoy the benefits of an outdoor lifestyle, including activities such as hiking, picnics and lawn tennis. The European artistic community also began inhabiting the French Riviera in the summer months – previously only fashionable in winter – and it became the place to be by the late 1920s.

One year Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel, who was famous for her ‘maison de couture’ and beautifully tailored suits for women, returned from holiday, cruising on the Duke of Westminster’s yacht off the French Riviera, with a tan. Although probably acquired accidentally, this lead to fashion headlines around the world, and by the following summer a tan had become the symbol of leisurely days, carefree lifestyle and social status that it still has today.

About the same time, Josephine Baker, a caramel-skinned singer in Paris was popular with Parisians and many of her fans wanted a darker skin to be more like her.

These two French women have been credited with (or blamed for) the popularization of the fashionable tan. A tan has been marketed as fashionable, luxurious and healthy ever since.

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