August 10, 2020 2 Comments
Garden Parasol, Frederick Carl Frieseke / Public domain
by Cynthia Anderson
Parasol and Umbrellas are sometimes thought of interchangeably. Depending on the culture, circumstance, and time period, the meaning of this instrument varies, but the purpose is consistent. It is fascinating to think that we continue to carry a personal-hand-held-portable-folding-canopy, over our heads to protect us from the sun and rain -- a design actually implemented thousands of years ago. The meaning and purpose of the parasol has radically changed with history, while its practicality has persisted. When you consider the origins of this retractable protective canopy, it seems some things can not be radically improved upon.
Parasol comes from the Latin "para-", to shield or protect, and "sol" which means “sun.” The parasol is generally smaller than the umbrella in size and considered a ladies accessory meant to protect skin from the sun, but this was not always the case.
The earliest parasol like device can be found depicted in the art of the Ancient Egyptians, from the 5th Dynasty around 2,450 BC. The sun protective device was made of palm leaves or feathers and looked something like the parasols carried in the Pope’s processions.
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain; Relief of the Persian king Xerxes (485-465 BC)
The parasol is thought to have begun its sun protective legacy in ancient Persia (and surrounding areas), then drifted to China and to Southeast Asia, eventually arriving on the subcontinent of India. From there the parasol would spread to the hot, dry climates of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The fall of the the Roman Empire would suspend the proliferation of the parasol for nearly a thousand years. During the middle ages the parasol would mostly disappear. A reappearance would occur sometime during the 14th to 16th century Italian Renaissance Revival.
It appears that from the very beginning of the parasol’s history, it was used as a protector from the harming rays of the sun, but only for a chosen few. This protection was reserved solely for those of high status, royalty, and the privileged. The parasol became a symbol of dignity and holiness. Pale skin undamaged by the sun also became a differentiator of those of high status. This trend would evolve from representing only the holy few, to a coveted ideal aesthetic only achieved by the wealthy of society. The poor had to work manual labor in the sun, which allowed a privileged few the status of undamaged complexions. Unfortunately, injustice and bias has a long and wide-reaching history. Even the parasol would evolve into a tool representing oppression of the most vulnerable.
Eventually in China, pale skin would translate into a symbol of purity of morality, an ideal bestowed upon women. Hence, the parasol would be accepted for all of society. Although the parasol of the common person would be constructed of paper, a less prestigious material. Common people were not allowed a parasol covered in fabric. Fabric and fine silk fabrics would be relegated strictly to the privileged. Once again, the parasol was used a symbol of exclusion in society.
Parasol Arrives in Europe
Europe was slow in adopting the parasol. By the 1620’s, the parasol did show up in a few French engravings. These parasols were large, heavy, and unwieldy even when carried by a sturdy male attendant, charged with protecting a wealthy patron. The heavy fabric canopy was made of oilcloth, barracan, which is made of camel hair or grogram, a blend of silk, mohair or wool. Less expensive models were made of straw. The stays or ribs of these parasols were made of whalebone measuring approximately 30 inches long and secured by a large metal ring, on handles made of solid wood.
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain; Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) painting of Le Chacelier Ségúier
By the late 1680’s the fashionable French were very sartorially aware and ripe for new and exotic trends. The French were enchanted by stories and tales depicted in art about the exotic world of the Far East. This previously unknown land and all its intrigues were unveiled by the opening of the Silk Road trade routes. Availability of fine materials would elevated the parasol to an elegant accessory for well-to-do women. The parasol, alongside the fan, would become popular items, in part due to the interest in the Asian aesthetic. These new trade routes would provide a plethora of materials that would enable elegant women to indulge their whims with fripperies of fine silk fringes, feather plumes, handles made of exotic woods and ivory, and colorful delicate silk and taffeta fabrics. The previously practical and dull parasols were left behind for those less trendy, which translated to mean those less wealthy women.
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain; 1872 Painting of the Ponte Nuef by Auguste Renoir depicts promenading parasols.
To coincide with the popularity and trendy sporting of the latest parasol concoctions, a tiny shop sprang up on the Pont Neuf in 1769. This shop’s sole purpose was to rent a coveted parasol to simply be paraded across the bridge where it was returned on the other side. It would seem frivolity was all the rage for those who could afford it.
The dainty quality of the parasol comes not only from its petite size, but from the more delicate and finer fabric from which it was originally made. Fine cotton lawn, calico, linen, and silk were the historical fabrics of choice. European ladies made the parasol a fashion statement when it became an accessory that coordinated with their clothes or activity. Most accessories become a canvas for decoration and the parasol became the perfect showy addition to women’s finery. Matching ensembles and parasols was a way of displaying wealth and status. However, these highly decorative shows of femininity failed miserably in wet weather and were only relegated to fair days.
A Rainy Island's Influence
At this point the practicality of the parasol to protect from the sun, but its failure to repel rain, became a turning point and the umbrella would begin to unfurl. Due to the obvious practicality of this accessory and technological advancements in fabric making in Europe, the parasol would eventually evolve into the umbrella. The modern word umbrella comes from the latin word "umbra" meaning “shade.” However, shade would not suffice. Most historians agree that the umbrella we associate with rainy days, came into being in the 1700s. The first patent that related to mass umbrella production was taken out in 1786, in England and the ribs were constructed of whalebone.
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain / Unnamed; Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy?
The first attempts at waterproof umbrellas were made from oiled silk, which were awkward, and did not open and close well when wet. This operational short coming, along with other prejudices may have been a contributing factor as to why European countries were a bit slower to adopt the umbrella. It would be the French, Italians, and the British that would not only eventually adopt the umbrella, but make it a status symbol of craftsmanship. It would be the British, more than any other country, that would make the umbrella a national symbol of British-ness.
However, this would take some time to come into being, due to prejudices that challenged manliness. In the UK the waterproof umbrella was perceived as an unfortunate emblem of not being able to afford a carriage. Initially the umbrella was considered a distinguished feminine accessory and men would have never been willing to face ridicule for sporting such an effeminate form of weather protection. Men would stubbornly continue to claim a hat and a cloak perfectly adequate masculine equipment, no matter how torrential the weather.
In the early 1750s, an English doctor by the name of Jonas Hanway, claimed this prejudice to be absurd and would end up changing the status of the British umbrella forever. But, not before he would face public ridicule in the streets of London for sporting an umbrella he had purchased while in France. Obviously, Hanway had witnessed the practical use of the umbrella while on his visit. His fellow Londoners would find themselves in an uproar over his audacity. The citizens of London took extreme offense to Hanway carrying a contraption they associated with being a "dirty Frenchman" (this was at a time leading up to war between British and French). And the umbrella was considered to be strictly of a woman’s domain. Hence, a man carrying an umbrella was no gentleman and committing a effeminate sin. Doctor Hanway would persist in the practical use of an umbrella in order to protect himself from the weather for all to witness, despite the outrage. He exclaimed he would not risk his heath over silly societal norms that considered carrying an umbrella a weakness of character. By the late 1700s and early 1800’s men had forfeited their reluctance concerning the umbrella and joined the women in their acclimation to its benefits. With this coming around of male sensibilities, the umbrella also became known as a "Hanway," due to the good doctor's common sense and persistence.
Even though the collapsible umbrella was developed around 1800, it would experience some developmental growing pains. The first collapsible design was not as reliable as needed, the ribs would break, the canopy material would tear or disintegrate. Many fabrics used for the canopy would mildew if not allowed to dry properly. The desire to develop a fully functioning umbrella was apparent, for 121 patents were filed in 1850 alone.
By The early Victorian Era, improvements in metallurgy arising from the Industrial Revolution lead to stronger alloys for umbrella ribs. Finally, the development of steel as a replacement for whalebone ribs would give the umbrella the staying power it needed. It would be Henry Holland of Birmingham England who secured the first patent for metal ribs, to be followed later by Samuel Fox.
The great exhibition of 1851 in Britain was proof that a thriving umbrella and parasol industry had been well established. Umbrellas were becoming more popular, but were still considered a novelty made of fine fabrics. However, the Great Exhibition would change the trajectory of the umbrella, due to the Sangster brothers who owned an umbrella manufacturing company. The brothers won a prize at the exhibition, for alpaca wool fabric-covered umbrellas. Fabric made of alpaca wool was inferior to the fine quality of silk, but was much cheaper and sturdier. Hence, this would lead to alpaca wool fabric becoming the sturdy material that wet weather umbrellas would be made of and become the protective salvation of the wet and blustery island. Alpaca wool became a highly popular textile in British umbrella manufacturing in the 1850s.
In addition to such practical strides the umbrella would make as a result of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the official catalog of the Great Exhibition of the Works of all Nations listed a new patent for a weaponized umbrella! It was described as a new patent for a traveling umbrella design, featuring a folding handle, and a stiletto for defense. Wonder if Sherlock Holmes placed an order?
The English and the French continued to love their parasols, which became popular and regular features in fashion magazines and newspapers. They remained light and elegant, and were sold in a wide range of styles and colors well into the early 19th century. Fine fabric such as silk chiffon, taffeta, and satin remained popular. Fringe, lace, and embroidery were commonly added details. Whether bought from an enticing store window or custom made to accompany a specific outfit, the variations and possible combinations were endless. With all the elaborate handle designs to chose from, a woman’s parasol could be a creative culmination of her personality, tastes and most importantly reflect her wealth. Insects and animals were carved into bone, ivory, or wood handles. Porcelain handles were painted with delicate flowers and flourishes. Shell such as abalone and mother-of-pearl were also inlaid into handles. Gimmicks such as watches being embedded in handles was a thing too.
A French Umbrella & Parasol combo called the en-tout-cas, became popular in the mid 1800’s. This adaptation had the function of protecting against the rain and the sun. “En-tout-cas” translated into “in any case.”
The most bizarre or remarkable parasol, depending on how you look at it, was owned by Queen Victoria herself. It is documented she had a parasol made consisting of chain mail layered between two layers of silk to hopefully protect her against an assassination attempt. It is rumored that this was Prince Albert's idea after John Francis had made two attempts at threatening her life.
Changing With The Times
By the end of the 19th century umbrellas were seen less of a novelty and more of a convenient practical device. During the 18th and 19th centuries quality parasol and umbrella makers had their own retail shops and often offered repair services along with their wares. The repair and refurbish trade flourished during this time. Less expensive and cheaper made umbrellas were sold on the street.
If there was a decline in the popularity of the umbrella at the turn of the 20th century, the automobile was considered the culprit. Umbrellas specifically designed for motoring were encouraged, but the truth was that people were inclined to walk less. One can only imagine the spectacle caused by wrestling a parasol due to an increase in wind and car speeds. The car provided protection from rain and weather, especially when the retractable roof was added as a feature. Even though the umbrella and parasol would take an inevitable back seat to the automobile, it would remain part of the symbolic uniform of a true British gentleman none the less. The notorious British weather and the umbrella would be eternally paired no matter future trends.
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain; Two ladies enjoying the beach with Asian-inspired paper parasols.
The end of the 20th century was a time in which all things Asian enjoyed a renewed spotlight in the fashion world of the West. The Asian inspired flat-paper-sunshades were all the parasol rage and continued to sustain in popularity even though a real storm was brewing!
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain; Vogue cover illustration from 1919.
The 1920’s, with all its radical changes and influences would alter women’s lives forever. These new changes would usher in a different fashion wave of sorts, which would alter the long standing position of the parasol as a female accouterment. Instead of protecting the fine complexions of women, the parasol became an impediment to the growing popularity of the status symbol of a leisure life spent outdoors. The sun tan became all the rage for white women. By the 1930s the parasol industry was in peril. The attitudes about tanned skin made a complete flip. Skin tanned by the sun became a symbol of wealth and pale skin came to suggest one was too poor to have the free time required to achieve a tan or afford a vacation. A tan came to represent a leisurely life, which in turn indicated wealth and status. The parasol would never regain its status.
Americans had never fully embraced the fashion of the parasol. Some how it was snubbed and considered ridiculous. One could deduct that Americans held a fervor to remain as isolationist and shift away from European influences even when it came to sun protection. As it would turn out, protection from the rain would continue to be universally desired. By 1950 Americans did embrace the “unisex” umbrella, which remains in use today.
Due to fluctuations and cosmic shifts alike and due to the changing of world of economics and fashion forces, the umbrella and the parasol remain, but they do not enjoy the status they once embodied. We have become accustomed to taking the umbrella for granted. It remains useful, yet due to cheap imports the umbrella could be treated as an after thought and its loss considered no big deal. Even worse, the umbrella is regarded as disposable. However, for those of us who value a sturdy and reliable umbrella, this loss is regrettable.
It would seem that our current society has adopted more of a nostalgic relationship with the umbrella, and in some circles even the parasol. It is not that we do not need or use umbrellas, but the casual hooded jacket has a lot to answer for.
For many, the parasol and umbrella are reoccurring old friends kept alive through period piece films and art. One can only ponder whether the impressionists painters became so popular to modern audiences, in part because of the images of romantic women sporting parasols in fields of poppies?
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain: James Smith & Sons est.1830
Luckily, a good quality umbrella can still find reverence. Europe’s oldest umbrella shop has been in continuous operation since it was established in 1830. James Smith & Sons continues to bridge the gap between the historical and modern needs of those requiring a well crafted umbrella. As history would have it, James Smith & Sons services continue to encourage creative umbrella designing, repair and refurbishment.
It has not been so terribly long ago that the parasol enjoyed celebrity status and certain indicators may suggest a revival. The internet is crammed with proof of a romantic connection, with offerings for “wedding parasols.” The historical costuming and historical bounding communities are making and sporting parasols as if their popularity never skipped a beat.
To coincide with global warming threats and concerns, the popularity of a multi-purpose parasol/umbrella combination with UV protectant that is also waterproof, is spreading beyond Japan's borders. The streets of Japan are a kaleidoscope of umbrellas no matter the weather, indicating that the Japanese still embrace their cultural ties with the parasol. The dual strategy of fashion and sun protection is proving to be more relevant than ever. One does not have to look far beyond the world news to find umbrellas shielding populations in underdeveloped countries already suffering the results of harsh weather changes. Hopefully, as we face future climate issues, we will have learned needed lessons in protecting each other.
Due to the current pandemic, restaurants are having to reconfigure their business where possible to accommodate for outdoor seating. Might this create an uptick in demand for sun protective brand fabrics to make more patio umbrellas? Other sun and rain protective fabric developments may follow. It is hard to predict the weather, but one can bet that the parasol and umbrella will endure.
It is worth considering that the even though the umbrella and parasol have experienced fluctuations in importance and status over the centuries, we have yet to develop a truly better method of shielding ourselves from the rain or sun.
Despite the parasols sometimes sorted history, it still remains a perfect device to do what it was originally designed to do... protect from the harmful rays of the sun. The beauty of history is that the construct can be re-written with mindful concern and application. Hopefully, with a better understanding of where we have come from, it will be apparent that sun protection should be equal for all.
With that thought I hope this blog on the History of the Parasol has unfurled a better appreciation for the retractable-personal-hand-held-portable-folding-canopy device that continues to serve us well. In order to encourage you to repair, refurbish, or make anew, your own parasol. A parasol pattern is coming soon!
So don't forget to make a parasol to go with your favorite Folkwear pattern! If you have not made that perfect parasol outfit yet, here are a few great patterns to get you inspired and beautifully turned out to enjoy a perfect fair weather day.
For a Victorian or Edwardian look the 205 Gibson Girl Blouse or the 210 Armistice Blouse paired with the 209 Walking skirt would be a fetching choice for an afternoon picnic tea or a slow float about in a punt. If you are dreaming of a truly romantic wedding, the 227 Edwardian Bridal Gown would be made even more enchanting if accompanied by an elegant lace or silk parasol... for the bride and her bridesmaids.
Folkwear's perfect parasol pairing at the moment has to be the 261 Paris Promenade Dress (which happens to be on sale this month). What promenade does not need a parasol?!
Of course, there are so many more Folkwear patterns to consider. This list should be enough to get you started daydreaming of your own parasol paired ensemble.