Fashion History Mythbusters: The Tan

Since Coco Chanel and her chums made sunbathing a trendy pastime in the 1920s, the sun tan has barely been out of fashion. - Channel4

Around the mid-1920s, the fashionable set did an about face on tanning. ... when legendary arbiter of style, Coco Chanel, got tan while vacationing on a friend's Mediterranean yacht, the sun worshipping frenzy really began.-

Coco Chanel popularized tanning in the 1920s, saying the tan was "in." -

This weekend, I purchased the August 1901 issue of McCall's Magazine at an antiques fair.  Early in the magazine, I came across an article titled "The Preservation of Beauty in Summer".

Poets have sung the charms of the "nut-brown maid," and it is not to be denied that a good coat of tan is very becoming to many people.  If our annual seaside jaunt had no worse effect on our tender skins than the transforming of a fair complexion to one of rich olive tone we should have very little to complain of.  Unfortunately, however, the effect of the sea breezes is not always so happy.  I have a vivid but uncomfortable recollection of a sweet girl friend who gaily departed for the seashore last year, laughingly ignoring my advice to "take care of your skin," and emphatically stating her intention of sitting on the sands every morning - "so the sun will nicely brown me, and everyone will know how much I've been enjoying myself!"  When that headstrong damsel returned to town, her woeful visage had much more the appearance of that of a boiled lobster than of a "nut-brown maid."  The sun and salt winds had unkindly reddened her skin in patches, her nose was a deep crimson, and her eyelids looked as if she had been daily indulging in what is known in feminine phraseology as "a good cry."  Added to this, the tips of her pretty shell-like ears were blistered, and the skin was gradually peeling from them, as if she had recently recovered from an attack of scarlet fever.  And all this for want of a little due care and precaution.
Some people's skins are so hardy that the elements have no more effect upon them than to give them a deeper or richer tone, rather becoming than otherwise; people with very dark or sallow complexions and dark hair are less likely to suffer from sunburn than those with fair skins and light hair, but there are few women who can afford to ignore ordinary precautions for preserving their complexions during the hot summer months.

Please do not imagine that I am going to advise you to hide away from the sunshine.  Go out into the sunlight as often as you can, open your windows, and let the sunshine stream into your rooms, sunlight is better for mental and physical health than any medicine in the world.  [Recipes for skin cream follow.]
Clearly, the 1920s didn't see a complete reversal in the perception of women's skin tone and sun exposure!  As early as 1901 (and probably from the rise of athleticism in the late nineteenth century), the tan was regarded as a status symbol and a desirable state for one's complexion, at least during the summer.  Just as today, tans were considered attractive, but sun damage was not.


  1. How interesting, because yes, all one ever hears is about Coco and her tan. Here is the link for the taxidermy tool:

    If you want to see better pics of it, see here:

    Cheers! C.

    1. I had figured that the attribution to Chanel was probably off, but I didn't think it would turn out to have been fashionable before the 1920s. Finding that article was a surprise.

      Thanks for the links! Looks like scalloped pinking tool are all expensive. :(

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