March 1, 2009

The fashion for suntanning began decades before Coco Chanel

Particular individuals may be able to affect the course of history at the political or economic level, or the genetic level -- see Genghiz Khan. But most of what we call culture is a bottom-up process. Typically the individuals who we believe started a trend, which the masses then followed, were just jumping on the bandwagon. This is not surprising, since most high-profile celebrity types are part of a larger parasitic elite, namely the unproductive priestly castes. They're not in the business of innovating.

Mathematical models of culture often look like models of how a contagious disease spreads, and these agree with the big picture that cultural change doesn't happen from the top-down, as though a cultural cabal abducted all of us in our sleep and infected us with a fad. Rather, fads are like epidemics that, sooner or later, end up claiming even famous people. Also like epidemics, we almost never know who the Typhoid Mary is who introduced the very first instance of the fad -- we only pay attention when it has already begun to surge.

Stanley Lieberson reviews plenty of data in support of this picture in A Matter of Taste, including data on the decline in men's hats that began at least as early as the 1920's -- long before JFK allegedly "killed the hat." Even worse for this stupid theory, JFK did wear a hat at his inauguration.

My hatred of ideas like these stems from a distaste for patronizing theories of human nature, and the most popular of them is that famous people blow their nose a different way, and before too long the sheep are all blowing their nose that way. Only a group of insulated upper-crusters, or a bunch of autistic academics could take this belief seriously. When you walk into Wal-Mart, you hardly see the masses striving to copy the cultural markers of the elite, even those that are cheap to copy, such as buying Bach rather than Limp Bizkit, or wearing pants rather than jeans. Our view of social and cultural processes would not be so pathetic if we lived back in pre-industrial times, when people smart enough to notice patterns would have been exposed to all ranks of society, and so have plenty of data to draw on. Thomas Malthus comes to mind.

Lest you think I'm joking, many people believe that Spaniards use a lisp because some long-dead king did, which caught on as a fashionable way of speaking, and has become fossilized in today's Castilian Spanish. They seem to be split over whether the king was one of the Alfonso's or one of the Ferdinand's, but it doesn't matter, because it's stupid and obviously wrong -- Spaniards do use the "s" sound, in addition to the "th" sound, just like in English, whereas a lisp is an inability to produce any "s"-like sounds at all. And besides, commoners hate the royalty and seek to distinguish themselves using their own dialects, clothing, songs, and so on, so they never would have copied the king's pronunciation in the first place.

Another one of these moronic ideas that is dogma among arts majors is that Coco Chanel started the fashion for tanning. She went for a cruise in 1923, came back burnt, and suntanning spread out in a wave from her elite circle, to the next lowest rung, to the next lowest, and so on, until finally lower-class girls in New Jersey are spending most of their leisure time in tanning beds. I've always found talk about tans to be particularly idiotic, even accounting for the fact that it's mostly from incurious and lazy humanities people.

While doing research on an unrelated topic, I stumbled upon a three-part social history of suntanning that was published in a dermatology journal. Part one, then part two, and part three. The upshot is that the popularity of suntanning began in the late 1800's and first two decades of the 1900's, partly as a fashion statement among young people, in contrast to the older style of parasols and other sun-shields. But the trend was probably more due to the claimed health benefits. This is when doctors figured out that ultraviolet exposure could treat psoriasis, and that vitamin D, which we mainly produce after UV exposure, prevented rickets.

So, this would not be unlike the current fashion for high-carb diets being due more to the public's adhering to the new dietary guidelines that say fat is bad and carbs are good for health, as opposed to emulating yuppies who went vegetarian and Mediterranean in the '80s. Public health experts have more of an influence on our culture than le haut monde. That's not surprising: doctors at least have the appearance of credibility and special knowledge.

In any case, here are some quotes from the first article:

A writer in 1894 remarked: "Most girls of the period recklessly defy wind and weather and are very proud of being tanned, but there are others who hesitate at so much exposure to the sun."


A physician writing in Harper's Bazar observed: "The summer girl of 1900 is ready to take a spin in an automobile; or to speed forth on her bicycle; or to hold her own with a racquet in her hand at the tennis nets; or with her sticks to speed her ball over the short or long course of the golflinks; or to take her ocean bath, and with sturdy strokes to swim and disport herself like a mermaid in her abbreviated bathing costume; or to row and sail and yacht from early morn until late at night, letting the sun leave what impress upon her it can or may."


One writer commented derisively in 1900: "[N]owadays the average summer girl, in order to acquire a coat of tan, makes efforts that horrify those persons who still think that a young lady's complexion should differ from that of a member of the varsity crew. The girl of today goes hatless, rolls up her sleeves to the elbow or higher, washes her hands and face in salt water, and holds them in the sun, and is not content unless she is freckled like a turkey egg, and burned an Indian red or a coffee brown."

Although suntanning reached epidemic levels in the late 1920s and 1930s, we see that the trend started out several decades before Coco Chanel's famous 1923 cruise. We conclude that she had nothing to do with starting the trend, or even of giving it a boost -- the momentum was already there, so even if she never existed, it would have continued to grow during the 1920s. Instead, she was merely jumping on the bandwagon, in much the same way that Norma Jeane Mortenson changed her first name to Marilyn (Monroe) after that name had already begun to surge in popularity among the masses. (See Lieberson's book.)

Another ugly theory slain by beautiful facts.


  1. Care to comment on the idea that the bottom button on a suit is left unbuttoned because Prince George was too fat to button it?

  2. Even without knowing any of the details, I'd say it's horeshit. For example, why didn't they just do away with the bottom button, or make a larger / reshaped suit so he could button the bottom one?

    These ideas are worse than folk etymologies.

  3. FWDM
    If women are less pigmented because their subcutaneous fat decreases their skin's exposure to androgen, one would have to conclude that the scientific literature has underestimated the sex difference in skin color. Most studies use the upper inner arm for measurements, to reduce the effects of tanning. This site, however, is only slightly dimorphic for subcutaneous fat and it might be expected that male and female reflectance values would differ more at the breasts and the waist. In fact, they do — five to ten times more than at the upper inner arm. But it has always been assumed that differences in sun exposure were responsible.

    "But what about suntanning?"

  4. It seems very possible that nobles would copy the speech patterns of the king, similar to the way that children copy their parents and peers. These speech patterns would then have been considered upper class and could have spread down from there. An extremely important person, like the king, is just the person who would most easily start such trends. Do you have any evidence that the Spanish used to hate the King of Spain? I would imagine that if people see their king as being divinely appointed they would like and try to emulate him.

    It is possible that the king of Spain had nothing to do with the lisping that is prevalent in parts of Spain; however, it is not a ridiculous hypothesis regardless of how "patronizing" you find it.

    The fact that trends have been misattributed in the past doesn't mean that some trends don't actually start with an individual.


  5. You're sure living up to your name, numbnuts. Did Spanish commoners dislike the king vs. cherish him so much to emulate his speech? Dude, pick up just about any history book. Or google "peasant revolts" or something.

    Spain is one of the most fiercely anti-clerical and anti-centralist areas of the developed world.

    And as I said, Spaniard do *not* lisp. There is no observation to account for.


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