HISTORY OF PARASOLS (SUNSHADES), AND UMBRELLAS
AS FASHION ACCESSORIES
coquette is a woman who likes to flirt to attract a man’s attention. There are many ways for a woman to flirt. She can, for instance, use her parasol to romantically entice a male. Walton (2014), lists approximately 20 ways a woman can signal her intentions towards a man by the way she carries, holds, folds, or tips her parasol. For example: if she carries her parasol elevated in her left hand, it signifies she desires to make the man’s acquaintance; if she drops her parasol, it means I love you; and, if she wants a man to kiss her, she will touch the handle to her lips. Visit Geri Walton’s blog to learn how to use a parasol to signal your intentions to a man.
OOPS! Maybe you don’t have a parasol as they are no longer fashionable!
This article provides a brief summary of the history of parasols, sunshades, and umbrellas, but its main focus is to highlight the development of parasols and umbrellas as fashion accessories. There are many similarities in the structure of the parasol, sunshade, and umbrella. They all have a central stick, shaft or pole with an attached framework of tubular or stretcher ribs forming a dome or canopy covered with cloth or other materials. The enormous size and bulkiness of the large sunshades or canopies excluded them from ever becoming a costume accompaniment, whereas the smaller and lighter parasols and umbrellas became stylish fashion accessories. Parasols and umbrellas have a long history of shielding individuals from the elements and of being associated with symbolism, status, wealth, and vanity. Before the 1900s, the high costs involved in the craftsmanship of hand-made sun and rain protectors limited their accessibility to the nobility, elites, and wealthy classes.
The early sun and rain protectors
Parasols, sunshades, and umbrellas date back 3,000 to 4000 years. In early Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, and other societies where pale skin was a distinctive feature of the royalty, nobility, and of high ranking men and women, sunshades and parasols were created to protect them from the sunlight (Evans, 1938, p. 25, 283; König; Umbrella History). Images on Greek vases dating from 700 BC to 53 BC show women carrying parasols or being shielded from the sun by large sunshades carried by their servants (Hope, 1962, p. xxxiv, Plate 137; Kybalova, et al., 1968, p. 472; Lester, 1956, p. 65). Originally, umbrellas were used by sovereigns, priests, and high ranking men as mythological, symbolic, and religious devices (König; Umbrella History).
Following the end of the Roman Empire, the practice of servants carrying sunshades to shield the wealthy from the sun was maintained. In the sixteenth century, Marie de Medici brought a sunshade to France that was made out of waxed material with a horn handle (Kybalova, et al., 1968, p. 474). A painting of an idyllic summer scene on the centerpiece of a Japanese lacquer encoignure (cabinet) in the Louis XVI style shows a person holding a large sunshade over two adults and a child (Litchfield, 2011, p. 254). According to McClellan (1977), in 1806 sunshades weighed around ten pounds (Vol II, p. 82). Thus, making them too bulky as a dress accessory. They were, however, a suitable apparatus to shade people from the sun when they were sitting in their gardens or spending time at the beach. In the 1950 movie, To Catch a Thief, Grace Kelly is pictured sunbathing on a beach and in the background there are three large beach umbrellas decorated with flounces (Young, 2012, p. 151). Today’s beach umbrellas and large patio umbrellas or canopies are adaptations of the early sunshades.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, parasols lost their appeal for several centuries. Small sunshades and parasols made a comeback in Italy in the late sixteenth century, and they were gradually adopted as a fashion accessory by upper class women in France and England (Fleming, 2011; Laver, 2002, p. 168). The early parasols were unwieldy and needed to be improved. By the 1850s, the redesigned shields were much lighter in weight, and could be folded, collapsed, or tilted. They therefore became popular with high-stature women in Europe and in America who used them to protect the paleness of their skin from the sun, and to beautify their mode of dress and enhance their silhouette. When bustles were in vogue between 1870 and 1886, women carried their parasol unopened to accentuate a curving or S-shaped silhouette (Dorner, 1974, p. 57; Kybalova, et al., 1968, p. 543; Lester, 1956, p. 194; McClellan, 1977, Vol. I, p. 230; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 340).
Parasols remained exclusively female paraphernalia. Style-conscious women owned several types of sun protector’s adjunct to their wardrobe. Simple parasols would be used for church wear, practical ones for morning wear, fancy ones that matched the plain or patterned fabric and color tone of their promenade dresses and walking suits, and ornate ones to complement their elegant gowns. Seldom did classy ladies emerge for a promenade or carriage ride without a parasol (Kybalova, et al., 1965, p. 281, 474; Kyoto Costume Institute, 1980, Vol I, p. 228-237, 244; Lester 1956, p. 194; Peacock, 1994, p. 77-79, 82, 89, 110-111, 163-168; Victoria & Albert Museum, 1984, p. 110, 134-136).
In the early 1900s, a number of females were still carrying fancy sun shields when wearing their pretty spring and summer dresses (Laver, 2002, p. 217-218, 221). During that same period of time, the predominantly active modern women who enjoyed outdoor activities and riding in an automobile were shedding their constricting corsets and discarding their sun protectors. By the 1930s, the majority of women had abandoned their parasols (Dorner, 1974, p. 57; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 454, 474, 478). Nowadays, it is possible to purchase cheap paper and cotton shields with bamboo poles in the range of $5.00 to $10.00. The fancier lace or hand-painted ones, advertised as parasols for weddings, are available for under $50.00 (Amazon.ca; Luna Bazaar).
In early European society, church umbrellas were supposedly used in the conduct of ritualistic and religious ceremonies by popes and members of the clergy. These early umbrellas were likely covered with leather, feathers, and linen (König; Umbrella History). Durant & Durant (1965) state that men’s umbrellas appeared in the late seventeenth century and did not enter the stream of fashion until the end of the eighteenth century (Part IX, Chap. II, p. 75). According to McClellan (1977), the rain shields in use around 1773 were clumsy items supported by rattan sticks and covered with oiled linen or leather, materials that were not necessarily waterproof (Vol. I, p. 320). As a result, the high-class gentlemen and ladies were slow in adapting them as a dress item. Before the 1800s, gentlemen regarded the umbrella as too effeminate to include in their wardrobe. They preferred to use a walking stick or cane, and to ride in a carriage when it rained (Gernsheim, 1981, p. 26; Peacock, 1994, p. 49-63, 96, 104, 117-118).
When Jonas Hanway, a philanthropist and traveller made his appearance in London in 1770 clutching an umbrella, he was laughed at, but he unexpectedly set a trend that would be copied by the nobility and status conscious gentlemen (Cunnington, 1964, p. 105; Schirm Oertel). In 1830, when Louis-Philippe went out walking in Paris carrying his big bourgeois umbrella, some of the snobs snickered and said they preferred “risking a wetting than be looked upon as one who possesses no carriage” (Gernshein, 1981, p. 26). In the early 1800s, British officers started to protect their uniforms from the rain with rain shields, and by the mid-1800s aristocratic and true-bred gentlemen, particularly in London, were carrying umbrellas in lieu of a walking cane (Cunnington, 1964, p. 105; Dorner, 1974, p. 56, 75; Kybalova, et al., 1968, p. 474; McClellan, 1977, Vol. 1, p. 320). According to Dorner (1974), Londoners who could not afford a rain shield, “could hire an umbrella from one of a series of umbrella stations for an average of four pence for three hours” (p. 52).
Upper-class women did not fancy the early umbrellas as they found them to be too hefty and awkward to handle. Although, some women did use them as a closed walking stick or cane (Gernsheim, 1981, p. 157). By the mid-1850s, the lighter oiled silk umbrellas with decorative stems were viewed as a novelty by the stylish ladies (Dorner, 1974, p. 57; Gernsheim, 1981, p. 157, 165; Peacock, 1994, p. 104-105, 112; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 278).
The Victoria & Albert Museum (1984) have in their holdings numerous period umbrellas. There is, for example, a striking late nineteenth century brown umbrella with a blond tortoise shell diamond set handle with a silver lever, and an attractive 1911 English blue-black silk covered umbrella with a grained cane handle trimmed with silver, enamel, and quartz (p. 141, 160). In the early 1900s, Parisian fashion designers were including rain shields in their collections. Paul Poiret, for instance, showed a fancy umbrella in his 1915 collection (Carter, 1977, p. 30).
Since the mid-1900s, the cost of constructing umbrellas has been greatly reduced by mechanization and mass production. Men and women of all social classes can now afford the cheap rain protectors that are offered for sale in department stores, drugstores, grocery stores, etc. The problem with many of today’s cheap rain shields is that they are poorly made compared to the high-quality umbrellas of the past. On a windy and rainy day, it is not unusual to see people struggling to hold-on to their umbrellas with flipping domes, or with bent metal ribs.
THE STRUCTURE OF FASHION PARASOLS AND UMBRELLAS
At the peak of their popularity, hand-made parasols and umbrellas were crafted out of premium materials and fabrics, and were artistically decorated. The elite prided themselves in the ownership of these attractive fashion accessories. Most sun and rain shields were designed and assembled to suit the whims’ of the buyer and to reflect the dominant fashion trends (Kybalova, et al. 1968, p. 472; Lester, 1956, p. 51, 65).
Originally, parasol and umbrella shafts and their system of ribs were constructed out of weighty materials, but in the mid-1800s, with the advances in metallurgy, craftsmen were able to use the new metals in the construction of lightweight ribs and poles. Other improvements in the fabrication of sun and rain shields included the addition of handles or knobs at the end of the shaft for gripping and holding on to the apparatus, and the insertion of hinges or levers to the shaft and the system of ribbing so that the parasol or umbrella dome could be folded, collapsed, or tilted backwards, as in the case of the parasol, for better protection from the sun (Evans, 1938, p. 103; Lester, 1956, p. 196; McClellan, 1977, Vol. II, p. 248; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 396; Victoria & Albert Museum, 1984, p. 110).
Parasol and Umbrella Sticks
The major component of a parasol or umbrella is the stick, pole, or shaft as it provides the foothold for fastening the shielding structure. The wood, cane and bamboo sticks used to support parasols and umbrellas between 500 BC and AD 400 were rigid and did not fold (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 90). Prior to, and during the 1800s, the shafts supporting the sun and rain shields were made out of weighty materials such as straight woods, turned wood, ivory, and coral. The shafts would often be richly carved with intricate patterns, and some were even adorned with gems. The size and length of the shafts varied with the predominant trends. By the mid-1850s, poles made from polished steel were introduced in the design of light weight and easier to handle sun and rain shields (Evans, 1938, p. 99; Fleming, 2011; McClellan, 1977, Vol. II, p. 248; Victoria & Albert Museum, 1984, p. 110). In her history of dress in America, McClellan (1977) refers to a beautiful umbrella whose stem is wrought in polished steel with a handle formed like the leaf of the acanthus (Vol. II, p. 152).
Around the 1800s, hinges and levers were introduced in the construction of sun and rain shields. By placing these pieces of hardware at certain points along the shaft or on the handle, a person could fold the stick or pull a lever to minimize the size of the parasol or umbrella when travelling in a carriage. In 1846, the folding parasols were in vogue (Dorner, 1974, p. 57; Fleming, 2011; McClellan, 1977, Vol. II, p. 248; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 181, 278; Victoria & Albert Museum, 1984, p. 110).
The stick or shaft used to support the sun and rain protectors would often protrude beyond the top center part of the dome. These extended tips were usually covered with a knob of plain or sculpted wood, and in the case of the more lavish shields, with a knob of carved ivory, agate, carnelian, coral, and even gold (Evans, 1938, p. 82, 99; Victoria & Albert Museum, 1984, p. 110, 29 fig. 13). The tip of a sun or rain protector could be modified into a weapon. Fleming (2011), points out that in the 1851 Official Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, there is a reference on page 145 to a new patent for a stiletto tip that can be used on parasols and travelling umbrellas as a defensive weapon.
Parasol and Umbrella Ribs
A system of intertwined ribs affixed at the center of a pole, stick or shaft, provides the underpinning for shaping the dome of a parasol or umbrella. Originally, the ribs were constructed out of heavy strips of cane, sandalwood, or whalebone. In the case of the umbrella, when the ribs were saturated with rain they lost their elasticity and collapsed. In the early 1800s, attempts were made to construct collapsible parasols and umbrellas, but the ribs would usually break and tear the dome’s paper or fabric covering.
In the 1840s, when lightweight metal alloys such as nickel and silver became available, craftsmen would cut the metal into thin bendable strips or ribs which they then linked together to form the shape of a dome. These metal ribs were flexible enough to create foldable and collapsible sun and rain shields (Fleming, 2011; König; Lester, 1956, p. 196). König states that the most significant structural change made in the construction of umbrellas since the nineteenth century occurred in 1930, with the development of the Hans Haupt’s telescopic umbrella, an improvement that allows the automatic opening of its dome.
Parasol and Umbrella Handgrips
Since the introduction of parasols and umbrellas, two main types of handgrips have been devised for holding on to the pole in order to keep the shield upright: the attachment of large knobs at the end of the stick; and, the addition of straight or hooked handles at the end of the shaft.
The hand gripping knobs were made of plain or ornately carved wood, ivory, carnelian, coral, or agate (Evans, 1938, p. 99; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 396). The straight or hooked handles were oftentimes crafted out of turned wood, cane, bone, or ivory, or out of turned polished steel. Some of the more elaborate handles had bands of silver or gold filigree, and others were inlaid with mother of pearl, tortoise shell, coral, or precious stones (Dorner, 1974, p. 57; Lester, 1956, p. 196; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 479; Victoria & Albert Museum, 1984, p. 110, 131, 141, 160). An attractive nineteenth century English umbrella in the Victoria & Albert Museum (1984) collection has a silver finished swan’s neck handle (p. 110), and a 1905 French parasol of embroidered cream muslin trimmed with lace has a carved ivory handle (p. 157, T205-2917).
In 1715, carriage parasols with folding handles were introduced, and in the 1800s, with the addition of levers and cranks to the handgrips or handles it became possible for the carrier of a sun or rain protector to collapse the dome for carriage travelling (Fleming, 2011; Kybalova et al, 1968, p. 474; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 278, 340, 478).
Parasol and Umbrella Coverings
The fundamental part of a parasol and umbrella that shields a person from the elements is the dome-shaped cover or casing. The early parasols were covered with paper, feathers, linen, and silk, and the umbrella casings usually consisted of leather, oiled linen or oiled silk (König). From the 1800s to the early 1900s, a period of time when parasols formed an integral part of the dress of stylish ladies, the ostentatiousness of their parasol covers reflected their status and vanity. With respect to umbrellas, their casings were usually more practical and sombre than showy as they had to be waterproofed to safeguard a person from the rain.
Fleming (2011) explains that parasol adornments were “a matter of taste, and ladies selected modest or extravagant versions for different circumstances, and based on what their income would allow.” The well-crafted parasol covers created an aura of beauty through the usage of soft and delicate textures, colors, and adornments. These covers were created out of the finest of fabrics such as plain silk, woven silk, painted and printed silks, India muslin, moiré, batiste, quilted fabrics, and black and white lace. The covers would often be lined with silk and satin. The most sought after colors were white, ivory, apricot, azure blue, rose, green, red, brown, pistachio nut, roasted coffee, and black. Fashionable ladies were quite particular about matching the fabrics and colors of their parasols to those of their costumes, dresses, and gowns (Evans, 1938, p. 9; Kyoto Costume Institute, 1980, Vol. I, p. 247-249; McClellan, 1977, Vol. II, p. 151-152, 225; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 278; Victoria & Albert Museum, 1984, p. 110, 131).
To add a touch of artistry to a parasol, the fabrics used for the covers would frequently be embellished with lovely needlework such as white silk borders, fancywork, embroidery, appliqués, painted flowers, and beadwork of glass, pearls, or gemstones. Furthermore, other ornaments would occasionally be stitched to the dome cover such as tassels, frills, fringes, ribbons, decorative lace, feathers, and raffia (Fleming, 2011; Gernsheim, 1981, p. 26; Lester, 1956, p. 196; McClellan, 1977, Vol. II, p. 151-152; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 430; Victoria & Albert Museum, 1984, p. 110). According to McClellan (1977), the most elegant Parisian parasols popular in America were covered with India muslin and embroidered with a beautiful border in feather stitch, or with an edge finished with broad Michelin lace about four inches in breadth (Vol. II, p. 152).
Umbrella casings were somewhat dull in appearance compared to parasol covers. Black or darker hued oiled silk covers were popular in the 1800s, and eventually, oiled taffeta became available. In the early 1900s, see through plastic umbrellas were introduced. Since the 1950s, nylon covers have been popular. Nowadays, plain and fancy umbrella covers are available in different sizes and colors (Dorner, 1974, p. 57; Kybalova, et al., 1968, p. 472-474; Lester, 1956, p. 51, 65; McClellan, 1977, Vol. I, p. 320; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 430, 479).
STORAGE OF UMBRELLAS AND PARASOLS
The introduction of sun and rain shields as stylish accessories in the elite’s wardrobe required special ways of storing them to protect the dome, particularly if it became saturated with water. Fleming (2011) explains that in the 1850s many homes had racks for putting away open umbrellas and parasols. These racks consisted of two horizontal parallel arms that were placed high overhead in the front and back halls. The parasol and umbrella domes were usually left open to dry, or to safeguard their ribbed structure from being damaged. For present day umbrella owners, Fox Umbrellas (2012) has good advice and instructions on how to open and hold your umbrella when it is windy and raining, and how to upkeep it and store it when it is wet or not in use.
Parasols and umbrellas have a long history of protecting people from the elements, but over the centuries they became luxury items enjoyed by the stylish elites as an object to promote their identity and enhance their image. These accessories were expensive as they were hand-made by skilled craftsmen who used the finest of materials. Pictorial representations in history of fashion or costume books show ladies in period costumes, wearing fancy bonnets or hats, holding beautiful artistically designed parasols giving them a physical presence of being an elegant and striking lady who is socially prominent. Pictorial representations of men in period costumes, and top hats, holding an umbrella as a walking cane gives them a physical presence of being sophisticated, debonair, and well-bred gentlemen of decorum.
To appreciate the attractiveness of various types of parasols, sunshades, and umbrellas from modern times and some dating back a few centuries, Pinterest has over 800 colorful pictures of these items ranging from simple designs to elaborate styles. https://www.google.ca/search?q=pinterest+umbrellas+pictures&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi7tZnBlYDUAhUL82MKHQWFDnsQ7AkIOA&biw=1058&bih=650
Amazon.ca. Paper Parasols.
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Umbrella history. http://www.umbrellahistory.net/umbrella-history/parasol-history/
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