Articles on Vintage Swimwear > Sun Worshipers - Attitudes of Skin Color and the History of Tanning


7 Oct 2008



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October 2008 Newsletter


Sun Worshipers


Germaine Monteil Sun tan oil, bronze beauty balm, tan-proof lotion, eau de cologne and dusting powder

Throughout history, the human race has had a special relationship with the sun. Primitive societies in every continent have worshiped the sun as the god that provided warmth and made the crops grow.




Helios The Sun God


Helios was believed to be the Roman God of Sun. The ancient Greeks were among the first people to adopt a tradition of sunbathing or sun tanning, which they referred to as helio therapy.  For centuries man valued the sun as a source of healing.  In other ancient societies many cultures identified skin color with status, and occasionally avoided the sun to avoid pigmentation.




Changing Attitudes of Skin Color


Women of ancient Greece and Rome used lead paints and chalks to whiten their faces. Unfortunately this beauty treatment could cause death through slow lead poisoning. By the mid-10th century, arsenic became the preferred skin whitener, once again with sometimes deadly results. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, women painted thin blue lines of their foreheads to give their skin a translucent look, and carried parasols or wore masks whenever they ventured outdoors.



Skin color became that visible definer - one that separated working classes from the ruling classes. Pale skin belonged to the leisure upper classes, while darker skin indicated a life of outdoor labor. The paler one's skin the higher the class, and men and women went to great lengths to be pale.



Before the Industrial Revolution - bronzed bodies belonged to manual laborers. To be brown in those days was a symbol of low social class. Pale, porcelain skin was in vogue - mainly because rich people stayed indoors. But as machines began to appear, the working classes left the fields for the factories. The working class began to get paler from working indoors while the rich turned progressively browner because sporting a sun tan meant you had money and could afford a leisurely outdoor life.




The Tan Gains Popularity                                                                                1947


By the early 1920's, helio therapy was all the rage. Daily exposure to sunlight was touted as a cure for everything from acne to tuberculosis. But it wasn't until Coco Chanel came back from the Mediterranean sporting a deep golden tan, that bronzed skin become a truly desirable item. Jean Patou manufactured "Huile de Caldee" the first sunscreen in 1928. Brown and beige-tinted powders and creams were created to be brushed on the places the sun had missed. The fashion world featured clothes for women who wanted to flaunt their new tans; shoes were worn without stockings and sleeveless dresses became stylish. Bathing costumes that had covered women's legs with bloomers and stockings, now bared the leg, and swimming became an acceptable sport for women. 



By the 1930's a sun tan stood for health, wealth and style. Before long, skimpier swim wear appeared, with slim shoulder straps which could be lowered to keep an even tan. The halter was introduced into swim wear design, allowing the shoulders to be exposed for tanning.



By the 1940's, two piece bathing suits were being worn and the world would see tanned legs, exposed midriffs and bare feet in public for the first time. Coppertone suntan cream, launched in 1944, was the first consumer mass-produced product. Pinups images became popular featuring tanned women in two-piece bathing suits. Stocking manufacturers also began using 'suntan' as a coined name for stocking colors. Then, in the 1960's the sun lamp brought the Tenerife tan to your living room - even in the middle of winter. In the 1970's the thong and the tan thru swimsuits were introduced and a suntan was virtually compulsory for any stylish woman. Models were photographed with tans in summer issues of the top fashion magazines, the darker the better. Tanning lotions were all about getting darker, with the idea of sun-protection low down on the list of prerequisites. The 1980's heralded in a fitness craze. Bodybuilders began to use tanning beds, so not to have any tan lines on the body. Spray on tans and self tanning creams were also popular.




1972 CoppertoneThroughout the 70's and 80's, the fashion press promoted the sun tan as something to make you look and feel healthier and younger, in the face of a growing body of scientific evidence that it not only leads to deeper-etched wrinkles, but reduces life expectancy too. Increasing awareness of the link between exposure to the sun and skin cancer crept in slowly - aided by growing concern over damage to the ozone layer. It wasn’t until around 1972, that labeling of the sun protection factor, or SPF, was introduced in the U.S. In 1979, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared that wearing sunscreen could help prevent skin cancer. In 1980, Coppertone developed the first UVA/UVB sunscreen.



Today, people continue to tan, both indoors and out.  Though there are many more safety precautions regarding sun exposure, bronzed skin is still preferred and achieved by many.  Sun block is recommended for any amount of time spent out in the sun but you can still get a tan while you’re wearing it. 



We all need some sun exposure; it's our primary source of vitamin D, which helps us absorb calcium for stronger, healthier bones. But it doesn't take much time in the sun for most people to get the vitamin D they need.



Finally, if you choose to go out in the sun:



  • Use sun block rather than sunscreen. Sunblock lies on top of the skin rather than getting absorbed by it.

  • Don't use micronised titanium products. Smaller particles of titanium tend to enter the skin and cause damage. Stick with the un-micronised products.

  • Use broad spectrum sunblocks.

  • Use sunblock if exposure to the sun is going to be in excess of 20 minutes.

  • Use sunblock on cloudy days as well: 80% of UV rays come though in spite of the clouds.

  • Apply sunblock 30 minutes before sun exposure, reapplying every two hours. Reapply more often if swimming or perspiring excessively. Ensure that all exposed portions of the body are well covered.

  • Eat for sun protection: load up on natural anti-oxidants in your diet. Include fresh berries, green tea, spirulina and as many other natural anti-oxidants as you can.

  • Cover up in the sun: parasols, hats and glasses will afford lots of protection.

Celebrate your inner bombshell!


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