Three centuries after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, American women still believed that beautiful skin should be pale.
“Fair and tender ladies” with “peaches and cream” complexions — that was the fashion ideal promulgated for thousands of years, and not just in Europe. (Click here for the disturbing “White Skin: A Chinese Obsession.”
Then came the nineteen twenties…. When chic American and European women wanted to be sun-tanned.
One of the many bizarre ideals of beauty — one that has given pain to as many women as the fashions for impossibly thin bodies or bound feet — is the crazy idea that beauty requires a light or pale skin tone. The Ancient Egyptians and Etruscans often portrayed women in a lighter shade of paint than men. “The feminine ideal during the Han period (2000 years ago) for women of the court was almost unearthly white, white skin. Moon-like roundish faces, long black hair,” writes Ann Rose Kitagawa. Cosmetics that were supposed to lighten your skin have been around for thousands of years. For women of color, there are plenty of depressing vintage ads for preparations that are supposed to lighten or bleach your skin. (And plenty of modern ones, too….)
“The Greeks favored light complexions, which they maintained using white lead. This was later replaced by chalk powder (around 1000 BCE) due to the many deaths caused by slow lead poisoning.” [White lead, which was also used in cosmetics by the Elizabethans, is a form of arsenic.]— read more at annmariegianni.com.
At a time when almost all people worked out of doors (that is, for most of human history,) tanned skin was the mark of a peasant, and lighter skin the mark of higher social status: the educated, the administrators, and the aristocrats. This idea was turned upside down between the 1920’s and the 1930’s, when more people worked indoors, and only wealthy people could afford to vacation at beach resorts during the winter months. Suddenly, a winter tan became a status symbol for Americans and Europeans, influencing dress, as explained in this 1929 magazine article:
This article even mentions artificial tanning: “Last summer’s tan, acquired on the Lido or American Beaches, conserved during the winter months with a sun machine and ready to deepen now at Palm Beach or Bermuda…,” could be maintained with a tanning lamp like this one.
To be fair, the “health” claims were related to the relatively recent discovery of Vitamin D, its part in calcium absorption, and the need for sunshine to prevent the bone-deforming disease, rickets, in children. But the sunlamp was undoubtedly as much a fashion item as a health item in 1929.
It’s not surprising that women were confused in the late twenties and early thirties — To tan, or not to tan? [Personal note: I am very pale, as California girls go, but my mother, who prized her extremely white skin, was terribly disappointed that her little girl was not as fair-skinned as she was. Apparently, some women who lived through this “tan/not tan” era were never enthusiastic about the new fashion.]
I was amused to find these two ads facing each other in the pages of Delineator in 1924, before tanning became chic.
Nadinola “whitens the skin to milky purity. It bleaches freckles, sun-tan and wind-tan.”
Absorbine, Jr. promised that “the next day,” users would have “only a slightly deeper coat of tan as a reminder of the day’s sport.” In 1924, getting a tan was an accident that called for a remedy like Nadinola Bleaching Cream, which promised “The Lure of Southern Loveliness.” [Hmmmm.]
In 1928, the unlucky girl who accidentally got a tan could buy Gouraud’s Oriental Cream to cover it up:
Apparently a liquid body makeup, Oriental Cream was available in “White, Flesh and Rachel.” “Rachel” was a dark-ish makeup color for olive or tanned complexions. Here is a “don’t fear the beach, use Apex Bleach” ad aimed at women of color in the 1920’s.
[I can’t read “Flesh” color without thinking about comedian and civil rights leader Dick Gregory‘s sixties’ joke (I’m paraphrasing from memory) that he really thought we were making progress towards racial equality — until he “tried to buy a flesh colored bandaid.” Dick Gregory opened some windows in my little, white world. And guess what? — that joke is still valid.]
However, by 1929 suntanned faces and bodies were in style, according to fashion magazines:
Notice the references to American and European resorts: Palm Beach, Antibes, the Lido (Venice), Bermuda…. French resorts like Deauville and Biarritz– where Chanel started her rise to eminence — were part of the phenomenon. “It has become smart to look healthy, smart to go in for tan, and smart to dress expressly for it.”
“Even the southern evening frock is deliberately more decollete than ever so as to reveal the extent of the day’s tan.”
“The necessity of being true to your tan and its outline,” e.g., U shaped, V shaped or square-shaped, is important, since your bathing suit line would dictate the other clothes you could wear to show off your tan. “Tan is truly the maker of fashion.”
Low-cut evening gowns also exposed your tan, front and back.
That’s not to say that women were not conflicted by contradictory advertising.
Note that these skin bleach ads from Delineator magazine were primarily aimed at women with Caucasian/European ancestry. Many other products that claimed to bleach or lighten skin were advertised to women with naturally dark complexions.
B. Vikki Vintage has written a well-illustrated review of Style & Status: Selling Beauty to African-American Women, 1920-1975 by Susannah Walker. Visit her blog here.
“To prevent that fiery sunscorch in the first place, — before going on the beach, smooth on Hinds Cream, and powder over it.”
“Powder over it?” In 1931, Dorothy Gray offered a product that claimed to prevent sunburn by “absorbing ultra-violet rays.” (It probably did work better than powder over moisturizer):
The fashion for tanning was not necessarily long, or universal, and like all fads … It faded.
“News” seems to suggest that very deep tans were losing their cachet by 1934. But this cartoon from 1936 contradicts it — at least for an English humorist:
I’m afraid, from the dismay on the dark-suited girl’s face, that the cartoonist did not agree that a dark tan was “respectable.” The old “peasants versus aristocrats” stereotype had not died.
Sadly, millions of women in third-world countries are still using skin bleach products that contain mercury and other toxic ingredients in the quest for lighter skin. Click here to read The Global Phenomenon of Skin Bleaching: A Crisis in Public Health.
16 responses to “To Tan or Not to Tan 1920s – 1930s”
I still see asian woman walking around with umbrellas to keep the sun off! In my teens and 20s I was at the beach a lot and was very tanned, which was fashionable then in the 50s and 60s. I was lucky, it didn’t damage my skin. If you didn’t have a tan it was unfortunate. Gosh, I can’t decide between skin cancer and lead poisoning …..
I used to think the parasols in 1920s fashion illustrations were just a symbol for “wear this in summer.” But I find a lot of photos of women actually using parasols. This one is from The Vintage Traveler.
Parasols make a lot of sense in a time before effective sunscreen. I forgot to make sure that my back was properly protected once last summer and spent an hour or two sitting in a bathing suit on a jetty, getting the first real sunburn I’ve had since I was a kid – the red and sore sun damage sort. That was all it took, in Sweden, and I tan pretty easily. Sunburn must have been a very real concern for people back in the day, not just for vanity reasons.
Ouch! I didn’t know the northern sun could be so burning! I did learn the hard way (on a visit to Greece) that the angle of the sun means that it’s easy for travelers to underestimate how much protection they need closer to the equator. Being born with pale skin has its disadvantages — even in a eurocentric world. But it’s more disturbing to me that generations of young women have been taught to think they are “ugly” because their skin is dark. That has got to stop.
Oh, of course. They are completely different problems on different levels, one practical and fairly easy to deal with by using sun protection, the other structural, complex and difficult to deal with. Not really comparable. I didn’t at all mean to derail discussion about the larger issue, I’m very sorry if I did.
No wonder we poor women are confused! I regret every minute I spent baking in the sun trying to get my poor pale skin to tan.
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