In an interview with the victorious British Olympic men’s coxed eight rowing team earlier this week, it appeared that several were showing the effects of the Brazilian sunshine in their pinkened faces and necks. The women’s eight, who were successful in achieving the silver medal in their race, come away with a gold in the sunsmart stakes for apparently avoiding the same fate. There will no doubt be many other athletes and spectators who will unfortunately succumb to sunburn over the event, which aside from temporary pain and irritation can have severe long-term consequences, especially increased cancer risk which can lead to scarring from treatment. Judith Swaddling says that rubbing olive oil over the skin before exercise may have helped the ancient Olympians avoid sunburn, but the modern Slip Slop Slap Seek & Slide guidelines are probably a safer bet.
A fashionable association of sunburn today is tanning, but this is historically a recent and contingent phenomena in the West. Pre-twentieth-century European sources generally associate tanned faces without outdoor labour and thus the lower classes, while poets praise their lovers’ fair complexions as ‘the’ model of beauty, such as Tarquin’s lusting after Lucrece in Shakespeare’s poem:
With more than admiration he admired
Her azure veins, her alabaster skin,
Her coral lips, her snow-white dimpled chin.
With this ideal in mind, we see people (and perhaps more women?) donning face protection before spending time outdoors. This will be something to explore further as we look at material cultures of disfigurement, but a few early modern examples have popped up recently. The shepherdess heroine in Martin Parker’s ballad, ‘The Countrey Lasse’ (1628), presents herself as a model of “modest honest innocence”, decently working for her father. Her “chiefest Iewell,” at “which your City-Damsels scorne”, is “Without, to worke at Hay and Corne, / within to Bake and Brew well, / To keepe the Dayrie decently, / and all things cleane and neatly”. Moreover, in her labour she is “shrewd[ed]… from the Sunne” by “A garland of the fairest flowers”, or “A homely Hat… which well my face protecteth”. But she reassures herself that any tan will not have a detrimental effect on her overall health, and will only be temporary: “If Summers heat my beauty staine, / it makes me nere the sicker” and will fade in the dark winter.
Another image forms the title page of Johann Sibmacher’s pattern book (1604), which was reused along with several patterns by James Boler for The Needle’s Excellency (1631). This shows three women in a garden, with ‘Industry’ embroidering under a tree while dressed plainly and in a sensible broad-brimmed hat (1640 edition below from EEBO). Hilda Amphlett in Hats: A History of Fashion in Headwear lists a number of hat styles as associated with working people on account of their greater practicality, such as the sun bonnet, which was “always associated with women field-workers, farmers’ wives and the country” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It will be interesting to see where and how these hats and other sorts of face protection appear in our future digging.
 Swaddling, Judith. The Ancient Olympic Games, 1980 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), p. 48.
 Beck, Thomasina. Gardening with Silk and Gold: A History of Gardens in Embroidery (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1997), p. 44.
 Amphlette, Hilda. Hats: A History of Fashion in Headwear, 1974 (Mineola: Dover, 2003), p. 164.