Sun tan side-effect

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Before the health-conscious 1980s, when the sun came out it made people act strangely. They removed their clothes, lay down and fried like chips in baby oil. Often they fell asleep. Hours later they woke up to burnt bodies, sunstroke and an increased risk of skin cancer. One woman is to blame for this odd behaviour - Coco Chanel.

Born in 1883, the French fashion designer tore the gloves off the prissy 19th century in favour of practical trousers and plain blouses. Her soft comfortable clothes caught on and she made sportswear, little black dresses and short easy-to-wear suits must-have items.

She accidentally did the same for sun tans. Chanel, who grew up in poverty, had a weakness for rich, powerful men, one of whom was the Duke of Westminster. The couple met in Monte Carlo in the 1920s, when Coco was 45.

She plundered his wardrobes for ideas. In London, the designer was inspired by his tweeds and cardigans. On his yacht on the Med she thrilled to sailors' caps and striped t-shirts. It was presumably while she was on deck, dreaming up a knock-out nautical outfit, that she caught the sun and, shock, her skin went brown. This was pretty outrageous even for Coco. An affair with a divorced English aristo was OK, but tanning was taboo. It meant manual labour, toiling in the fields, the life of poor people. But Chanel was influential enough to change all that.

By the 1940s, film stars such as Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth were sleek and brown. Everyone wanted a tan. People talked of radiant complexions and healthy glows - the jargon of the nuclear industry was unfortunate but presumably subconscious.

And so it went on until the long-term health risks of tanning became clear. Now we are much more sensible. We don't fry in the sun any more, do we? We don't spend a fortune on ointments with strange names, such as Puiz Buin or Ambre Solaire, do we? Not even for the sake of a pair of brown legs that would look so good in a little black dress.

Stephanie Northen

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