The cult of sunbathing
Nowadays, despite health scares, most of us yearn to lounge on a beach in the summer, wear skimpy beachwear, dowse ourselves in delicious smelling oils and sprays and acquire a gorgeous dark tan designed to become the envy of our friends. But it is strange to think that sunbathing is a relatively recent pastime, so when did it really become fashionable and why?
For over two thousand years, pale skin has been something that the elite of many societies such as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans desired. In European society through Elizabethan to Victorian times having fair skin was a measure of status and wealth whereas being tanned was indicative of the working class who laboured outdoors. The rich and privileged stayed indoors and even whitened their skin with cosmetics to accentuate their appearance. With the industrial revolution the lines became a little blurred and many ordinary folk left the fields for working indoors in factories; they too did not bask in the sun and became pale.
However, it was in the mid to late 19th century that bathing in the sea, seaside resorts and the concept of the holiday blossomed to improve the quality of life of these workers and the population at large. Although the fashion was to cover up and bathing attire revealed little, it was an outdoor summer activity that relished the sunshine and the warmth.
By the turn of the 20th century, the benefits of sunlight and air that had been a central part of Hippocrates’ theories were being rediscovered. The connection between exposure to the sun and vitamin D had been discovered and sunshine was being advocated to help avoid diseases such as rickets and numerous skin conditions. For the first time there were social and medical reasons to be in out in the sun.
One early advocate of the benefits of sunlight was John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), of Corn Flake fame who was also a renowned surgeon, an early advocate of holistic medicine, and the inventor of the electric blanket and the sun bed. His first ‘Incandescent Light Bath’ was constructed in 1891 and helped relieve many medical conditions including gout, eczema, rheumatism and certain forms of tuberculosis. Kellogg was a firm believer in the tonic effects of the general exposure to the sun, and prescribed sunbaths broadly as part of his holistic health regime at his own Sanatorium.
Another pioneer in the emergent disciplines of helio and phototherapy was the Danish physician Niels R. Finsen who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his use of ultra-violet light to cure lupus vulgaris (tuberculosis of the skin) in 1903. At the same time Dr Auguste Rollier opened the world’s first dedicated sun clinic in the Swiss Alps in 1903 with the firm belief and proof that the pure air and bright sunlight cured diseases, most particularly forms of external tuberculosis.
Of course there was also the naturist and nudist movement in Scandinavia and Germany that thrived before the First World War and also extolled the virtues of fitness, the great outdoors and the sun.
The debate over the health benefits of sunshine has never been more intense than in recent times with scares about overexposure causing cancer and some even suggesting that the health benefits are a myth. However, careful sunbathing does allow your body to generate vitamin D that is crucial to a healthy immune system and sunlight has other beneficial effects that sufferers from SAD will confirm.
During the Jazz Age, and by the mid-1920s, sunbathing had become the new cult. Sun tanning became a health fad and the phrase a ‘healthy tan’ caught on as being tanned became associated with being healthy. Soon instead of pale skin being indicative of status and wealth, the reverse was the case and a tan became a defining factor. Being able to sunbathe became a luxury that only the well-off could afford. And further, the rich could escape the wintry, sunless months and vacation in warmer climes returning with a tan out of season.
Legend maintains that it was Coco Chanel who made a tan the “must-have” fashion accessory. One summer day in 1923 it is claimed she stunned and enchanted French society by stepping off the Duke of Westminster’s yacht with a definite suntan. Chanel may have indeed sported a suntan but she certainly was not the first to do so and many others in society had already unveiled their dark side.
Sporting celebrities were some of the first to show off a suntan and none more so that the French tennis star Suzanne Lenglen. In 1919, she caused a sensation by playing in short sleeves and hatless, revealing her deep tan. She always wore a white ermine coat for her warm-ups before matches as it looked great against her bronzed physique. By the summer of 1921 getting ready for a trip to America, she was described as having dark hair and dark complexion tanned by exposure to sun and wind on the tennis courts. ‘With deeply tanned skin, bobbed brown hair, vivacious eyes and an ever-ready smile, she gives the impression of free, unfettered joyous youth.’
That summer of 1921 a strange colony was observed on the beach at Deauville. A group of over a dozen women including a Russian princess and several Americans formed a colony on the beach where they devoted themselves to rhythmical dancing patterned after the rites of the Temple of Isis. Wearing very little they lounged on the sand near their tents where they read and wrote poetry and coveted an all over tan.
Elsewhere another phenomena arose. In the early 1920s a group of Americans began to spend the summer on the Riviera. This was considered daring and very strange at the time since the Riviera season was a winter one and all the hotels on the Cote d’Azur closed from late spring all through the summer. Cole Porter decided to rent the Chateau de la Garoupe in Antibes for the summer of 1921 and invited friends to visit and had a grand time. The next the summer (in 1922) Gerald and Sara Murphy rented a whole floor in the Grand Hotel at Cap d’Antibes. Outside they created a beach by removing the seaweed to reveal the sand and dowsed themselves in banana oil and sunbathed. The Murphy’s enjoyed themselves so much they bought a villa at Antibes and numerous visitors dropped by, and in 1925 for example, guests included the famous novelist Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the film star Rudolf Valentino and Mistinguett. Within a few years the whole character of the Riviera had changed and it became an all year round destination.
The opera singer Mary Garden was also fond of spending the summer on the Riviera at the same time and was considered something of an eccentric for doing so. Mary was almost the sole occupant of the Park Palace Hotel in Monte Carlo for several seasons and spent a lot of time swimming to places ‘where bathing costumes are not necessary’. Needless to say she also developed a rather nice tan as a result.
At the height of the Deauville season in 1923, one male journalist solved the mystery of how women manage to get sunburnt all over as revealed at night through their lavish décolleté gowns seen in the Casino. Prowling the beach to uncover the secret he stumbled across ‘a dozen charmers’ tanning themselves in a secluded spot half a mile from the bathing place, presumably wearing very little. Amidst screams of surprise there was a great scurry to button up shoulder straps on the bathing suits and don bathrobes.
By the summer of 1925 sunbathing was perfectly acceptable on the Lido, Venice a location described as being the seventh heaven of the followers of the sun cults. ‘You lie on the velvety yellow sand bronzing in the sunshine. Nothing matters except to remember when you have bronzed nicely and evenly on one side to turn over and give the other side a chance.’ It was also noted that bathing wear was becoming increasingly scanty as the idea was to get as much sun as possible ‘for current thinking is that the direct rays of the sun are the greatest cure-all in the world.’
Like the concept of the flapper and the wild Charleston dance, the suntan can be seen as another icon representing the new freedoms following the restrictions of the Victorian era. From the mid 1920s magazines featured women with glorious suntans. The concept of undressing instead of overdressing became favoured. Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, rivals in the beauty business, introduced tanning oils and lotions to help people tan faster and to sooth the skin. Beauty salons assisted the sun-tanning process because some smart women deemed it necessary to be bronzed before a vacation. Couture gowns were unveiled designed to reveal the tanned body. Swimwear started decreasing in coverage and by the summer of 1924, for example, new bathing suits were introduced that were backless and had the arms and legs exposed.
A new age had arrived where being as brown as a berry was an attractive virtue.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
New York Times, the Sketch, Eve Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Illustrated Sunday Herald, Ellensburg Daily Record, Southeast Missourian,
Cole Porter by William McBrien
And Everybody Was So Young by Amana Vaill
RSVP Elsa Maxwell’s story
Mary Garden by Michael Turnball
The Longest Party by Stella Margetson
Sunshine: One Man’s Search for Happiness by Robert Mighall
Healing Sun, Sunshine and Health in the 21st Century by Richard Hobday
Americans and the Making of the Riviera by Michael Nelson