From “Bronze” to Gold: When Having a Tan Became Beautiful

Tan

These days, a killer tan is as much a sign of success as nice shoes or a fancy car. But that hasn’t always been the case, according to NYU Medical School dermatologist and author of From Pale to Bronze and Back Again Deborah Sarnoff. In fact, “having a tan wasn’t considered fashionable until the last century,” Sarnoff says. And she took us through history—from Ancient Egypt to now—to prove it.

Ancient Egypt: “Everyone wanted to be pale in Ancient Egypt, and the more aristocratic you were, the paler you were supposed to be,” Sarnoff explains. “Take the Egyptian princess Nofret, for instance. She maintained her fair complexion with powders and lotions made from tree resins like myrrh and frankincense, and used pigments like yellow ochre to make her skin look pale and clear.”

17th Century Europe: “You see paintings of 17th century Europeans who always had this milky white, flawless skin,” Sarnoff explains. “That white complexion is what was trendy at the time. To them, it symbolized aristocracy and the freedom to pursue leisure and virtue. In fact, they would cover their faces with whitening cosmetics made of mercury and white lead to be as pale as possible.”

Modern Times: “The idea of tanning as vogue is a really recent thing. The story goes that Coco Chanel fell asleep on a boat in the 1920s and came back with a tan. She was such a fashion icon that everyone wanted to copy her,” Sarnoff says. “Then the bikini was invented in the 1940s, which continued the trend. We started showing off our bodies more, and suddenly a tan became the symbol of leisure—you had the time and money to just lay in the sun and tan.”