As America Modernized, Sun Exposure Soared

Step back in time to a beach day in the early 1900’s. The men are wearing trousers, overcoats, and wide-brimmed straw boaters. The women are in floor-skimming skirts and wraparound bonnets, holding parasols. Showing too much skin or tanning is taboo.

As America modernized over the past century, however, clothing and swimwear styles evolved to show more and more skin.

In a recent study in the American Journal of Public Health, David Polsky, MD, PhD, the Alfred W. Kopf, MD, Professor of Dermatologic Oncology at New York University School of Medicine, and colleagues explored the social and cultural changes that increased daily sun exposure and very possibly the rising melanoma rates.

Dr. Polsky and coauthors mathematically charted the decreasing coverage provided by swimsuits and sportswear, while also gathering data from the Connecticut Tumor Registry, starting in 1935. From the 1930’s to the 1960’s, melanoma incidence increased by more than 300 percent in men and 400 percent in women.

Tanning Was Lowbrow

In the early 1900’s, tanned skin among the well-to-do was frowned upon because it was associated with working class people who toiled outdoors. Swim fashions kept people sun-protected: men’s and women’s swimwear showed a mere 23 percent and 18 percent, respectively, of total skin surface area. Even so, the medical profession had yet to understand the dangerous effects of ultraviolet radiation: sunlight therapy was used to treat medical conditions such as rickets and tuberculosis, and going in the sun was encouraged as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Coco’s Lamentable Legacy

In the 1920’s, popular culture embraced tanned skin as a beauty ideal.  An early champion was fashion designer Coco Chanel.  Upon returning from the French Riviera bronze- hued in 1929, the style icon declared in Vogue that “a golden tan is the index of chic.” As the century progressed, celebrities like Bridgette Bardot reveled in the sun, and fashion magazines endorsed tanning as symbol of youth, beauty and wealth.  By the early 1980’s, indoor tanning centers were opening up nationwide, expediting this dangerous practice.

Simultaneously, fashions showed more and more skin. During World War II, the government issued a fabric ration reducing the material in women’s swimwear by 10 percent.  “This resulted in elimination of the midsection and introduction of the two-piece bathing suit,” wrote Polsky, et al.  By the 1960’s, showing vast swaths of skin at the beach had become the norm; men’s and women’s swimwear were respectively exposing 80 percent and 89 percent of the skin. By the late 20th century, with the popularity of the bikini, women’s swimwear revealed 92 percent of the skin.  

Other developments added to this sun exposure. With the ease of air and car travel, tourism to sunny destinations greatly increased, and as Americans’ wealth increased, so did our leisure time.

Now, well into the 21st century, though science has established the link between melanoma and UV exposure, melanoma incidence keeps rising. One big problem, notes Dr. Polsky, is the continuing perception that tanned skin looks better. “It’s something the glamour industry and celebrities need to help us turn this around. We don’t have to dress like it’s the turn of the 20th century, but I’m a big fan of sun-protective clothing.”

Published on July 20, 2015