From Coco Chanel to SPF: A brief history of sunbathing

DRAGGING the sun loungers from their winter tomb and bouncing the dust off the weave with a flat hand, got me thinking about the whole backyard business of tanning. Baby oil and tin foil — you know who you are.
From Coco Chanel to SPF: A brief history of sunbathing

DRAGGING the sun loungers from their winter tomb and bouncing the dust off the weave with a flat hand, got me thinking about the whole backyard business of tanning. Baby oil and tin foil — you know who you are.

The WHO, the HSE and the Irish Cancer Society have done their level best to get us to wise up and cover-up, but bronzing, tangerine foundation and worst of all, frolicking on the beach in varying degrees of golden allure remains a staple of celebrity posturing. On the sly (hopefully) sheltering under SPF 30 — we’re still at it, and laud the woman with the sunshine kissed puss when she rolls in from the Costa.

Right into the 1920s, having any seasonal colour was regarded as déclassé, reflecting a life of enforced, outdoor labour. Perhaps (clutches pearls) — you were grubbing in the allotment.

Coco Chanel in the 1920s, feted as bringing the tan to popularity with applications of the sun in foreign climes (or Bovril if you couldn’t afford it!).
Coco Chanel in the 1920s, feted as bringing the tan to popularity with applications of the sun in foreign climes (or Bovril if you couldn’t afford it!).

What was desired above all else, was the pallor of privilege. Georgian ladies might sit in the garden nipping at Earl Grey, but a lacy armour of gloves well over the wrist, a wide brimmed summer bonnet and parasol were absolutely vital to guard that porcelain perfection. Oddly, men out hunting, shooting and fishing before dressing for dinner, were not judged as harshly. From Roman times the practice of "apricatio" an early form of upper-class sunbathing, was widely practised — but only by men.

Public gardens like Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens in Chelsea, became big business form the 1750s, allowing men and women to parade. Faces and décolletage were always well-shaded— attending any alfresco spectacle, against any ingress of sunshine (or vitamin D — something that would lead to a range of problems across society including rickets).

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818) Sir Walter Elliot recommends the application of Gowland’s Lotion to the simpering Mrs Clay to reduce the appearance of freckles. Freckles holding hands could add up to a perceptible weathering on the face, hurling you down a whole rung of society.

A contemporary newspaper ad’ for Gowland’s intoned: “Eruptive humours fly before its power, pimples and freckles die within an hour, Dread foe to beauty, thy disgusting harms, No more shall prey upon the lady’s charms, No more shall scrophula with horror creep, and steal the beauty from the blooming cheek.”

There was a lot of poetic flourish about “restoring roses” amongst the beauty alchemists of the times. Gowland’s as facial fertiliser, was infused with oxymuriate of mercury and superacetate of lead.

In sufficient quantity used over time it would hoe a rather impolite area straight out of your face. Sheltering under a heavy haze of lavender and other blossomy scent, they could potentially kill you and your girlish blossom.

There was enormous pressure on women across society to stay OMO white and free of "sallowness" throughout the revealed areas of their bodies in the 1900s. The hideous American 1874 publication, first serialised in Harper's Bazaar, The Ugly Girl Papers: Or, Hints for the Toilet by S.D Powers, is unequivocal. You can find the whole text online at forgottenbooks.com, where it truly belongs.

“Madame Recamier,” Powers writes, “exercised more power by beauty than any woman of modern times – never going out except in her carriage and scarcely knowing what it was to set foot on the ground.”

She goes on (quite weirdly) about the ideal of the “electric, marble flush” — a brightening that should come and go quickly to signal passion. So, women were expected to summon a "lustrous, elevated expression" even when blushing? Freckles, she tells us, “indicate an excess of iron.” You naughty thing you, do you want to present yourself at the breakfast table “blousy and burned” after a day’s yachting?

Back in the British Empire, designed for ladies of ‘distinction’ Warren and Rosser's Milk of Roses, or the various dewy titled products kept the skins soft and above all else - pearlescent.

Milk of Roses was rather delicious stuff without the lethal bleaching of many older skin creams and lotions. A couple of ounces of rose water, a tea-spoonful of oil of sweet almonds, and oil of tartar shaken in a bottle, it could be made up in a household kitchen.

Milk of Roses was also free of actual milk or other fresh dairy ingredients, which must have stunk up the dressing table of fashionable ladies within a couple of weeks of use. Glass bottles with stoppers and lined tins and jars, refilled from the chemist and brought home with their decanted perfumes – were one way of overcoming the short shelf life of these cosmetics.

Women still had a lot of faith in powder to protect their skin from the sun, and used a considerable amount of make-up, deftly applied. Arsenic was still popular in the late 1800s, as it delivered what was regarded as a more natural beauty – white, make-up free skin without the corrosive dangers of mercury ‘enamels’.

This was after all the same era where your green wallpaper could poison your entire family over a few years, and the consumptive TB sufferer was romanticised in gothic novels as rather lovely, even in her death throes. An outright blue translucent glaze was highly prized.

By the 1940s, working-class women would be out in the garden, basking and painting on a tan with Bovril. In 1923, a small but dynamic French woman had stepped onto a pier in the south of France and changed the perception of the tan forever.

Coco Chanel had been sailing with friends around the azure waters of Cannes and had picked up a pretty severe burn which mellowed to a striking tan on her melatonin rich skin. Exposure to sun had been verified by the scientific community as efficacious for a range of physical and mental problems, but nothing hit home, like Chanel’s confident glow back in Paris.

Now the upper classes swung wildly the other way, showing off a deep tan, signalled you could afford to holiday, play tennis and travel for sheer unbridled pleasure.

Soon, we were on the spit on the lawn, upended on a choice of skeletal deckchairs and loungers. Sprawled over the new outdoor necessity of the patio – we became victims to our new vanity for the better part of a century.

To find out more about the history of deckchairs and loungers, look up my archived feature here: irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/homeandinteriors/set-sail-on-the-history-of-the-deckchair-930603.html

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