For millennia ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks and Incas embraced the sun’s warm rays as the giver of life. And then even before western society abandoned slavery it embraced distinct social ranking which manifested itself through a very simple means: light skin meant less time spent out in the sun, which was the destiny of workers of the fields and the low classes in general. Thus an Odyssey began for women around the world employing poisons such as lead or arsenic in their quest for the unattainable pale ideal. Until Niels Finsen, that is, who introduced his Light Therapy in 1903 with purported health benefits, creating a mini-revolution, at least amid the scientific community.
But it was Chanel’s finger on the pulse of fashion that brought things full circle. A 1920s accidental tan while cruising from Paris to Cannes aboard the Duke of Westminster's yacht was quickly transformed into a trend-setting fad that was unprecedented. Tanning became a sign of leisure, of wealth, the sign that someone was able to take a vacation, preferably in a warm sunny place. The idolatry angle of the golden sun’s effect was also to manifest itself through the adoration of Josephine Baker who, with her outré style of performance and caramel skin, mesmerized Parisians into wanting to emulate her. Famous fashion photographer Cecil Beaton describes the Duchess of Penaranda in the pages of Vogue magazine:
"She wore sunburn stockings with white satin shoes...the duchess's complexion matched her stockings, for she was burned by the sun to a deep shade of iodine."
Jean Patou could not let this new ideal slip through his grasp like grains of sand between a sunbather’s fingers: he acted fast with Huile de Chaldée, one of the first sun-tanning oils which Henri Alméras, then in-house perfumer to Patou, re-interpreted in fine fragrance simply named Chaldée in 1927. The chosen name was to recall an ancient Babylonian region famed for its amber-skinned beauties. Chaldée with its deap, oily-smelling ambery character bears no relation to modern aspirations to being a Bronze Goddess, no matter how pleasant those might be.
A terrible dawn is showing through the parapets of Chaldea and, as the initial darkness of the night ~heavy with the fatty smell of hyacinths~ lifts, slowly you see upon the ziggurat the woman, adorned in candied tones of orange blossoms; her warm, pulsating flesh offered as an oracle and sacrifice to the all consuming Shamash. Her skin deeply bronzed, emanating all the aromas of Arabia, resiny, intimate, fetid. You can see the furtive but excited looks of the common folk awaiting, smell their humanness. The great knife is raised and swoosh… there flows the blood; scarlet, young, full of life, spent to join Nergal.
Today we know better than to sacrifice our flesh on the altar of Sun almighty in order to achieve the bronze looks and feel of powdered warmth the sun gives us. Yet as author Naomi Wolf notes in her controversial book, "The Beauty Myth", in 1991
"the discovery of photo-aging has created a phobia of the sun entirely unrelated to the risk of skin cancer [...]turning nature into a fearsome enemy from the male tradition's point of view [...]which stimulates women's fears of lookingWorth pondering on...
older in order to drive us in the opposite direction: indoors once more...the
proper place for women in every culture that most oppresses us."
In the meantime slip out a bottle of Chaldée, immerse yourself into its golden nectar and imagine yourself a bloodless Sun-offer.
Notes for Chaldee: orange blossom, hyacinth, jasmine, daffodil, lily of the valley, vanilla, opopanax, amber.
Pic of carnelian stamp seal, Neo-Babylonian Dynasty, about 700-550 BC from Babylon, southern Iraq, courtesy of the British Museum. Pic of Chaldee courtesy of fragranceglobe.com