History of the Umbrella
by Michelle Prima
Long an indispensable 19th century English fashion accessory, the umbrella actually has a history long preceding Queen Victoria's days. Origins can be traced back as far as 3000 years ago, although the umbrella was a religious symbol at that time, rather than a useful item. The Egyptians held umbrellas over their distinguished nobles to denote their higher plane of authority, and to symbolize the vault of heaven over a king.
The ancient Greeks also used the umbrella with their deity, beginning as an erotic symbol associated with Bacchus, but evolving into a means of providing shade. The costume parasol persisted as a fashion in Rome for many centuries, its use continuous to the present day.
By the middle ages, the umbrella was very popular in Asia and Africa, but not so much on the Continent. Perhaps this is because it was an important part of the regalia of the Roman Catholic Church, and therefore laymen were reluctant to adopt it because of its importance in religious ceremonies.
It wasn't until the early 16th century that the umbrella was used as a fashionable novelty as well as a religious object. Its popularity began in Portugal after colonists reported their use in Asia and Africa. The custom spread to France (Catherine de Medici brought a parasol with her to France to marry the Duke of Orleans) and England (Mary Queen of Scots owned a parasol of crimson satin trimmed with gold tassels.) Parasols were also used in hunting expeditions in France, but more for the wealthy than the commoner.
As travelers returned to England from abroad, the umbrella was slowly introduced to citizens. But even though Catherine of Braganza (wife of Charles II) brought an umbrella with her from Portugal, it wasn't until the late 1600s the waterproof umbrella came into its own in England. Until now, people scurried for cover when it began to rain. Both walking gentry and working-class citizens used waterproof umbrellas, although they were more common among women than men. Men relied more on the surtout (a long, loose overcoat) when it rained.
By this time, the umbrella was also being used and advertised as a sunshade. A Paris manufacturer even had a folding model for the pocket. The parasol provided a welcome alternative to protection from the sun than the veils and masks then in use. But although it was becoming more popular, it wasn't a common sight in Britain until the last half of the 18th century, as it was cumbersome and heavy. As designs improved, so did use. A typical umbrella would have as a stick a metal tube containing a spiral spring which acted upon and pressed upwards an inner rod. This frame was usually passed along to a milliner to cover it.
By 1800, the parasol and umbrella had achieved separate identities. The parasol had become a luxury item of fashion, and the umbrella was a functional protection against the rain. The parasol was light and elegant, constantly changing in style, material and colors. It served as a dress accessory, shade from the sun and could be used to hide from unwelcome advances. The umbrella was inelegant, and very few were considered suitable for persons of refinement. The umbrella steadily descended on the social scale, as the elegant sunshade began to increase as a fashionable dress accessory.
It is no wonder that women began to flaunt their latest parasol in an open carriage ride. They were used as much for protection as they were for flirting. Parasols for carriage rides were generally smaller than those for walking. Some models even came complete with a flask in the handle for the benefit of travelers. Towards the end of the 19th century, covers of chiffon and fancy silk on very long sticks became the fashion. Ladies carried their umbrellas closed more than open, and gentleman carried theirs tightly furled to resemble a walking stick. Popularity of the umbrella and parasol as a fashion accessory continued into the early years of the first world war.
For more references like these, see our Researching the Romance page.
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Copyright 2005, Michelle Jean Prima