Up until the twentieth century, having tanned skin was something that most people considered unflattering. Women wore hats, head scarves and long-sleeved dresses to protect their fair skin from the sun. Sophisticated and aristocratic women often carried parasols to avoid sun exposure.
The reason why most people frowned upon the look of browned skin was because it was primarily worn by laborers, who were out in the hot sun on most days. Their skin aged faster and appeared weathered compared to those who stayed indoors. Therefore, fair skin was associated with affluence while tanned skin was associated with the working classes.
That all changed in 1923, when the stylish French fashion icon Coco Chanel took a leisurely ride on her yacht in the French Riviera. While relaxing on the boat, Coco Chanel “accidentally” stayed out in the sun too long, resulting in tanned skin.
A fad was born. Women loved the golden shade of Coco Chanel’s bronzed body, and so did men. Everyone from models to movie stars… politicians to teenage girls… rich to middle class… they all wanted to look like the world’s favorite French designer. “I may have stayed out in the sun a tad too long,” admitted Coco Chanel. But it was too late, for now a new look was derived out of what people had previously considered undesirable.
Not only did this inspire women and men to lie in the sun for hours or spend more time at the beach, an entire industry was derived in the tanning business. People who could afford it used sunlamps, which were an early version of tanning beds. People traveled more to sunny places on vacation. It was more than that. As their bodies bronzed to look golden and healthy, the clothes also got skimpier and women covered up less than ever before. Women ditched their long-sleeved dresses and wide hats in exchange for bikinis and short-sleeved blouses.
The marking of a new era
As profoundly true as it may be, Coco Chanel’s accidental tan started a new craze that still continues to this day. People realized other benefits of maintaining a tan, such as diminished skin imperfections, less noticeable cellulite, and camoflagued spider veins and blood vessels. Surprisingly, having a tan also made many people appear ten pounds slimmer.
The fad continued for many decades, until dermatologists realized the surge in skin cancer diagnoses and warned the public of the dangers of over tanning. Premature wrinkles and other undesirable side effects have also made the desire for tanning less prevalent, although many people who want to achieve that bronzed look can now achieve it through other ways, such as topical creams and spray tanning.
It just goes to show how one person’s influence can kick start an entire movement, as the legendary Coco Chanel did. The most interesting aspect was that she did this without intending to!