We are often told that ideas of beauty have changed over the years (the figures of Rubens are of course the classic example), but our modern taste for tanned skin is an especially peculiar deviation from the western norm. There is, to start with, Homer's "white armed Hera," and I recently ran across this passage in Mantuan's First Eclogue:
Farra legens ibat mea per vestigia virgo
Nuda pedem, discincta sinum, spoliata lacertos,
Ut decet aestatem quae solibus ardet iniquis
Tecta caput fronde intorta, quia sole perusta
Fusca fit et voto facies non servit amantum.
She came upon my steps plucking the grain,
With naked feet, a bosom loosely robed,
And arms uncovered. For the summer sun
She clothed her head, for by the sun once burnt
She darkens, and no lover’s prayer obliges.
There is also the testimony of sacred pastoral that this is not merely a phenomenon of the Hellenistic tradition:
I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.
Look not upon me, because I am black,
because the sun hath looked upon me:
My mother's children were angry with me;
they made me the keeper of the vineyards;
but mine own vineyard have I not kept. (Song of Songs 1:5-6)
It would be interesting to hear some speculation as to why we began to prefer tanned to fair skin. I would throw my lot in with changing views towards work and class, but I would probably be liable to speculate in that direction on most social phenomena; perhaps it has something to do with tanned skin being now more rare, with more people working inside, whereas earlier only a few would spent most of their days indoors. Whatever its causes, it is a trend, vampires notwithstanding, which shows no signs of passing out of fashion, however at odds it may be with historical tastes.