As old copies of fashion magazines make clear, upper-class women set the tone and the trend between the wars. When they first began to visit the French Riviera in the 1920s, they treated it as a formal social venue. They covered up for the beach with trousers, matelot jerseys – introduced by Chanel – silk beach robes and pyjamas. A hat was de rigueur; it could be one of the new Ballets Russes-inspired turbans or, more conventionally, a large picture hat.
This act of covering up wasn’t because the ladies were aware of the dangers of too much exposure to the sun. It was because they knew that, although a tan
sur la plage is fine, back in Bond Street or Fifth Avenue, they might be taken for peasants who had spent the summer labouring in the fields under a Mediterranean sun. Not a good look in those class-conscious days.
They also believed that gently glowing pale skin looked glamorous under the shade of a wide brim. They were right. Some years ago, I used to spend a lot of time on Capri, and I remember a tall Swedish woman who, no matter how hot it was, was always fully clothed and seen wearing a broad-brimmed sunhat and a pair of large Audrey Hepburn sunglasses. Surrounded by blackened bodies in the heat, she was a thoroughbred among pit ponies.
It is easy to imagine that elegance and glamour are gone – but it isn’t true. More women buy hats now than they did even five years ago, and most of them are well under 40. Even better, a lot of them choose broad-brimmed ones, destined for the beach. This is great news, because they look fabulous with a bikini. After all, being stylish doesn’t mean you can’t have fun on the beach.
(First published July 2005)

Picture. Sunhat by Patricia Underwood.