That IS the question.

At least it is today.

A couple of days of sunshine have meant I’ve seen that very question being discussed around the interweb by vintage ladies everywhere. Miss Matilda wrote a couple of posts with some lovely photographs of ladies in the 1930s and 40s sporting sun tans. So why do vintage loving ladies these days go to such lengths to stay pale and interesting?

Lets have a little history lesson.

Prior to the 20th Century anyone who could stayed as far out of the sun as possible. Having a sun tan meant you probably worked out doors a lot, and were therefore probably poor. Smart ladies would apply lead based products to their skin to look even whiter (covering yourself in lead being, obviously, far more healthy than a sun tan.) they wore gloves and carried parasols to protect their delicate doll like pallor.

Then, in the late 19th and early 20th century, research started to indicate that sun light could have health giving effects. In 1903 Niels Finsen won a Nobel Prize for his β€œFinsen Light Therapy” using artificial sunlight, and Dr Auguste Rollier opened the first “sun clinic” in the Swiss Alps. Both of these therapies were designed to cure infectious skin diseases.

In the 1920s and 30s lower class work increasingly became indoor work, in factories and mines, and the upper classes increasingly began to take exotic overseas holidays. Tanned skin started to become a sign of prosperity, and, so the story goes, when Coco Chanel accidentally got sunburnt whilst on holiday on a yacht the look really took off. Suddenly a tan signified “sporty”, “fashionable” and “rich”.

The fact is, that in the 1930s and 40s a sun tan was most definitely a desirable look. Magazines carried advice on tanning and a variety of products were available to sooth sun burn and help you get a deeper tan. By the 50s and 60s it was a positive art form with women basting themselves in oil and using reflective screens to obtain a deep, even tan.

Sooooo, why do today’s retro ladies shun the sun?

Of course, we all know now that too much sun is BAD for your skin, but there are a huge number of safe, effective and easy to use self tanning products on the market these days, most of which won’t turn you orange if used sparingly.

My thoughts are that it creates a point of difference. Choosing a vintage look for many people is about more than just liking those clothes. You might not think about it in these terms, but somewhere in there it’s often about a rejection of mainstream popular culture. A rejection of the “look” that in it’s worst excesses gives us this:

Vintage ladies also often come to the style from a background of teenage dabblings in sub cultures like Goth and Indie, and they therefore arrive with a preference for paler skin already programmed in.

Like the ubiquitous red lipstick and black eyeliner, pale skin is a signifier. Human beings love to belong to a “tribe” they want to connect with other human beings with similar views that will reinforce their own, and to identify those people we use out outward appearance. Pale skin, red lips and elaborate hair have become those signifiers of a “vintage” outlook on life and style. Even in a perfectly business like pencil skirt and jumper those things can be used to set yourself apart.

Of course, this lady probably has something to do with it too. As the worlds most famous modern burlesque performer and pin up her look has become inextricably linked with vintage style.

Personally, I lean towards a *light* tan in Summer. I often use a product with a hint of self tan to take some of the whiteness off my skin, what I don’t like are tan lines, and avoiding those often leads to avoiding a tan completely! To keep your skin smooth, glowing and free from patchy tan lines check out my Top Tips for Perfect Summer Skin.

What are YOUR thoughts?

Do you like to stay as pale and interesting as humanly possible? Do you deliberately cultivate a tan? Or do you just go with the flow and make no effort either way?