PARIS — For a superficial observer, it is one of the lesser-known cultural revolutions and a rather trivial one at that: the dramatic shift in the Western physical ideal, in just over a generation, from one skin ideal to another, from one tone to another. It is what we in French call “bronzage,” similar in other Latin languages — indeed a far more aesthetically appealing term than the English “tan.”

“The deepest thing about a man is his skin,” French philosopher and poet Paul Valéry rightly noted in 1931, unaware of the phenomenon was unfolding around him. Chronologically, it all was happening then, between the two world wars, as can be seen in beauty-care manuals, which shifted over three decades from an outright phobia of the sun, freckles included, to its exalted worship. Geographically, it all happened in France, a country that was at the time the world reference for feminine elegance. And indeed, everything revolved around one space: the woman’s body.

Factory workers were condemned to paleness

This is where the shift began, first in the 1920s, through women’s magazines for the elite (the French edition of Vogue), at first very cautiously, before gaining popularity in the 1930s. Then you can see the difference between the reticence of the magazine Petit Echo de la Mode, for older women, and the enthusiasm of Marie Claire, the new magazine for their modern daughters.

But how can such a radical reversal in customs and aesthetics be explained? Certainly not in pure business terms: cosmetic company founders like Helena Rubinstein or Elisabeth Arden, were caught off-guard by the developments and took time to catch up with the new trend. The first sun products, such as the elitist "Huile de Chaldée" by Jean Patou and the more widespread "Ambre Solaire" by Eugène Schueller, accompanied and amplified a phenomenon that had started before and without them.

"Huile de Chaldée", the first sun product in 1930 Photo: nuitdesatin.com via Pinterest

The key to the mystery also cannot be traced to the chic avant-garde crowd (Coco Chanel), or from a vast popular movement (paid leave). No, it happened where it had to happen: deep in the heart of society, in the culture.

Three trends would result. The most explicit one was medical. It reflected the extension of a new concept of “naturalism” in relation to the human physical and mental health, which encouraged outdoor exercise (Patou was the first sportswear designer), and sun bathing, with the touting of numerous therapeutic qualities of the sun (against tuberculosis, mainly).

The second trend was purely social: henceforth the distinction of the elites, anxious to prove their capacity for leisure in the face of common mortals, would no longer be compared to sunburnt peasants, but to poor factory workers, condemned to paleness.

The third was fundamentally political: tanning meant the gradual unveiling of the female body, until then condemned to be covered by thousands of years of puritanism. Tanning was the contemporary of shorter hair, shorter skirts and freedom from the corset.

A good tan still has a bright future.

But where are we today, at a time when we are fighting skin cancer and the hegemony of white people, who are most affected, at least in appearance, by this managed tanning. Is the white person who tans somehow a reversible "black person"? What does this mean as we debate the wearing of the headscarf and the burkini by Muslim women? Clearly, this revolution is not over yet.

Le Havre, circa 1930 — Photo: Olivier Sydney

In fact, from the 1970s onward, the total dominance of tanning was challenged by a new punk avant-garde and later by a new, widespread awareness of the health risks, which had already been cited in the 1930s.

We haven't gone back to the situation before 1914: Here and elsewhere, postmodern society juxtaposes contradictory cultures, collections of individuals bound to grow ever more individualistic.

Meanwhile, we have magazine covers, along with the success of tanning salons and city beaches, there to remind us that a good tan still has a bright future. It still appears to us as an outward sign of health and beauty, making each one of its believers a golden work of art.

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