In Search of Lost Sand

Sun, Sea and Ambre Solaire. From trendsetting tanners on the Riviera in the twenties, to a SPF 50 lathered family package holiday. We celebrate the olfactory joy of the suntan.


In 1924 Jean Patou created a perfumed tanning oil: Huile de Chaldée (named after Chaldea, a state of ancient Mesopotamia that bordered the head of the Persian Gulf between the Arabian desert and the Euphrates delta.) It contained absolutely no protection from the sun but made the trendsetting tanners on the Riviera smell like a gorgeous bouqet of daffodils, orange blossom and lilac. It was so popular, Chanel rival and sportswear enthusiast Patou turned it into a perfume Chaldée so people would be reminded of their summer holiday all year round. How funny that Patou’s father was a leather tanner, as Huile de Chaldée paved the way for a century of suntan oils, lotions and creams.

In our Podcast Series The Beauty of Vanity Now, Karl Plewka speaks to Bella Freud about the enduring olfactory appeal of a summer holiday. Bella talks about a Bryan Ferry record sleeve (Another Time, Another Place) showing a group of slinkily dressed people around a pool: perfect informal holiday glamour.

I like the story behind 1970. That’s Formentera isn’t it? When you would go on a holiday in 1970…

Before anything was there! Sitting in the mud… and the smell of the sun, and a bottle of Coca Cola, with lemon. And that was… and the smell of Ambre Solaire.

Oh I love that smell!

It was just the best smell.


And the tension as the sun goes down and adults seem to be living up. And I wanted 1970 to smell like that.

What does your suntan smell like? Hot tarmac. Watermelon with feta and mint leaves. Duty free Mugler mixing with an airplane G&T. Grandad’s tomatoes in a 4×6 greenhouse. Coconut cream. A beach towel that has been dried on the washing line.

In 1929 Harpers Bazaar ran a story called ‘Shall We Gild the Lily?’ that opens “There is no doubt about it. If you haven’t a tanned look about you, you aren’t part of the rage of the moment.” One has to only look at the May magazine stands to see this Lily is still very much coated in a liberal layer of gilt. Although there were a few potions around in the vein of Patou’s Huile de Chaldée, they offered no actives or protection, until L’Oreal founder Eugene Schueller created Ambre Solaire (“The Most Beautiful Tan Under The Sun”) in 1935. The rest is bronzed, holiday-scented history.

This week I was sharing a villa in The Algarve with a gaggle of middle aged tanning experts, whose motto and pool-side matra is “brown fat is better than white fat!” (to be said with a Campari and cigarette in hand.) My end-of-day-one legs looked exactly like two generous rashers of streaky bacon. Sun-soaking Northerners Alison and Sandra showed me how to make sure your creams are even and the distribution of Factor 15 to 50 depending on your extremities. For any other tannovices out there make sure you take the time to get it nice and even or you’ll be looking at meat with the marbling one would expect at The Ginger Pig butchers. Alison remembers going to the Canaries in the late 70s, where rather than suncream she was taught to use equal measures of olive oil and vinegar “there weren’t even any showers, so we bloody stunk!” For a slightly chicer salad smell I’d go for Diptyque’s Philosykos, which has always reminded me of an expensive side-dish (it’s the fig and pepper notes.) *Beauty Papers does not recommend the use of actual salad dressing as SPF.

My colleague and tan fan, writer Leanne Cloudsdale shared some of her memories of suncream and sunburn.

“If you brought up the subject of SPFs in the 1970s, people in Hull would’ve presumed you were talking about a new acronym for venereal disease. My first dalliance with sun protection was in 1989, on my first foreign holiday – a fortnight in Tenerife with auntie Sandra and my cousins. She slathered us in Bergasol oil (Oil! Imagine the outcry these days!) and by day three we looked like a bunch of crabsticks. I spent the last few days wimpering in the apartment, covered in cold wet flannels in a bid to reduce the pain. These days I still find myself veering towards the brown bottled lower factors, whilst my female travel companions stick to saintly packaged factor 50. I recently tried that German P20 stuff, it smells like Castrol GTX but it really does work. No nice coconut smell, but at least I’m not sat on the RyanAir flight home looking like The Singing Detective.”


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