Everything you know about skin tanning is a filthy lie, it turns out, and stems from this anonymous, uncited 1971 Mademoiselle piece: "Up until the '20s, tans carried about as much social cachet as calluses, then suddenly Coco Chanel dared to turn up with a deep... glow and voilà—the bronze age began." Reputable publications like Time and the New York Times Magazine swiftly recounted this terribly written story, and later it blew up the internet, but really, Coco "had nothing whatsoever to do with it." Prior to the article's publication, "her name had never been mentioned in connection with tanning, which was established as a fad before 1920," writes Kerry Segrave in Suntanning in 20th Century America.
Fashion history explores even more techniques from the just-make-some-shit-up school, with people anointing themselves in reverence to the accepted skin-care regimes of the time. Used for 1900s bleachings: ripe tomatoes, wet-burning borax pastes, or mercury-chloride/zinc-sulfate/lead-acetate potions, which were "efficacious, but painful" (Mrs. Henry Symes, LA Times). For sunblock: The '40s recommendation was a dark-red veterinary petroleum jelly, also effective in treating horses' sores, that "looked bad, smelled bad, and made a mess of clothing," writes Kerry. And with the emergence of '60s-era sunless tanning lotions came humiliation and failure. Good Housekeeping describes skin stains resembling "iodine residue," in colors ranging "from pinky orange to muddy yellow-orange." From the British Journal of Dermatology: "The user may induce a streaked and bizarre pattern which may detain him or her in the home for a week until normality [has] been regained."
The formula improved, and 2004 welcomed spray tans and color-tone names like "Exotic Dancer" and "WASP Housewife," Alex Kuczynski wrote in the New York Times. Around the same time, "Local Glow Goddess" and Divine Sunless Tanning owner Wendy Smith started her Seattle luxury mobile-airbrush service. Back then, her client group was much smaller, with "melanoma patients and ballroom dancers, mostly," though now it includes everyone. (Well, everyone with skin, anyway, and in enough abundance to cover a good portion of the body.)
Using a shadowing technique, Wendy can deepen cleavage or contour sharp-sloping foreheads. More commonly, she applies a uniform mist, taking care to avoid the typical problem-area trade mistakes causing underarm crescents, "orange-sausage toes," and high-contrast "mannequin hands." She's also spray-tanned glamorous celebrities. Paula Abdul, for instance, was "tiny" and "really nice," and she arrived in a hefty coat of full-body makeup that Wendy had to scrape away to begin: "It left orange residue on the hotel towel."
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