Parasol Fashions in the 19th Century

Parasol Fashions: A Variety of Parasols, Author's Collection

A variety of parasols. Author’s collection.

Parasols are different from umbrellas in that umbrellas protect a person from the rain and parasols shade a person from the sun. Before sunscreen was invented, the parasol was the primary way a woman maintained her creamy, spot-free complexion. Parasols were used everywhere and at all times: Women carried them when riding in an open carriage, walking down a city street, admiring a garden, enjoying the seashore, or visiting country relatives. To demonstrate the popularity of parasols Punch wrote an article in 1850 complaining about them being ubiquitous and stating:

“I have noticed that every lady who enters an omnibus is sure to bring in a parasol with her. She may not carry a bundle, either dead or alive, in the shape of a baby, … she may, by some curious chance, be free from everything in the shape of luggage … [only having] a small reticule no bigger than a gentleman’s carpetbag, — but I have never yet seen the phenomenon of a lady invading an omnibus without her being duly armed with a parasol!

Now the parasol, Sir, is the most formidable weapon of defence (and offence too) …Why the nuisance obtrudes itself every where; you cannot sit down, but a lady is sure to exclaim, ‘Oh! Please, Sir, take care of my parasol!’ You cannot arrange your legs … without an overgrown umbrella … finding itself between them; and … you cannot turn to the right or to the left, but there is certain to be at either turn the point of a parasol ready to dot your eye. If you are sitting at the end of the seat it is fifty times worse. You are then sitting in a prickly bush of parasols; or, to come nearer the mark, your head seems to be revolving inside a large wheel, of which the ladies’ parasols are the spokes, and your nose the axle.”[1]

The parasols women carried came in all shapes and sizes and could be found in a rainbow of colors. Just like dress fashions, parasol fashions suffered the same whims of popularity. For instance, in the mid-1800s, an eccentric, square-shaped parasol of two colors was presented to the public. It was so unique and remarkable every woman wanted one, and they were soon seen everywhere. But the square, two-colored sun protectors proved impractical and were highly ineffective in shading a woman’s face from the sun. Moreover, one critic described them as “stiff and ugly.” The following season they were out of fashion, and tradesmen who invested heavily in them found they had to almost give them away.*

There were several styles of parasols that were popular in the 1800s. One style was known as a parachute and described as a small umbrella, with a long, unbending handle, created from gingham, tussore silk, or holland (a fine, plain-woven linen imported primarily from the Netherlands). Parachute parasols of tussore silk in pink and white were often used for carriage rides. Yet, the most lady-like parasol was claimed to be “a plain white silk parasol, unlined or lined with white.”[2] Women liked it because it was “fit for any occasion — for the street, the carriage, a fete, or a flower-show.”[3] Perhaps, the most popular parasols on London streets were plain ones. That was because they did not compete with the color or pattern of a woman’s toilette. Moreover, if a woman’s toilette was dark, the parasol might be brown, whereas if the toilette was light, a light-colored parasol would be carried.

Woman on a Donkey with her Parasol Early 1800s, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Woman on a donkey with her parasol in early 1800s. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Parasols were also carried for different reasons. Steel-gray or dove-gray parasols were claimed to be acceptable with almost any color outfit worn, and they also possessed the advantage in that they were less likely to get soiled than a white parasol. A white parasol, however, offered at least three advantages: It didn’t fade from the sun; it could be worn with any dress or any bonnet; and, perhaps, the most important reason for having one was, it reflected the light and kept the carrier cooler than other colors. In the mid-1800s, French gray or lavender were popular colors too.

Sometimes there were issues with colored parasols. For instance, carrying a colored parasol limited what could a woman could wear. A woman needed to also think about the hue that a colored parasol might cast upon her face. For instance, a violet parasol was claimed to cast a “corpse-like hue on nearly every face that ventured beneath it.”[4] Bright blues, violets, and greens were stated to be “not pretty for parasols … [and] should only [be worn] … with costumes that introduced the same colors.”[5] Another issue was the parasol itself: It was suggested that a white parasol should have a bending handle because a straight handle was too stiff and created “a disagreeable line and divided the dress.”[6] Thus, the idea that a parasol affected the overlook of woman was considered.

Woman with Closed Parasol from Early 1800s, Author's Collection

Woman with closed parasol from early 1800s. Author’s collection.

Women carried different parasols for different reasons. For instance, if a woman attended a fete or a flower show, an elaborate parasol could be carried “without criticism,” as long as it was consistent with the rest of a woman’s toilette. Women were told “a very magnificent costume would render a plain parasol nearly as absurd, by contrast, as the assumption of something highly ornamental with an otherwise simple and unpretending ensemble.”[7] An economical woman of social standing, was told she could not go wrong with a black parasol. Mourning also called for certain colored parasol. For instance, half-mourning permitted a gray parasol to be carried whereas black was the required color when a woman was in full mourning. Black mourning parasols were also to be plain, although they could be “trimmed with a whalebone fringe.”[8]

Parasols covers added another dimension to the parasol, and a black-lace parasol cover was said to be “always a useful article.”[9] This was because a black-lace cover could easily transfer from one parasol to another, thereby giving a parasol a completely different look. Black-lace was also the best color to hide a lightly soiled parasol without anyone realizing it had a problem. Moreover, a black-lace cover could be used with “perfect propriety,” whereas white lace covers were considered fit only for carriage rides or fetes.

Parasols from 1875, Author's Collection

Parasols from 1875. Author’s collection.

When a woman bought a new parasol, there were certain considerations she needed to think about before making a purchase. Utility was one of the most important aspects, and besides, the color and fabric, another important factor was the handle. A handle was not supposed to be too thick or too thin. When too thick, it made the parasol clumsy to carry, and, when too thin, the parasol tended to slip out of the user’s hand. The weight of a parasol was also important. If a parasol was too heavy a woman would find it cumbersome and quickly tire of carrying it. So, it was considered best to purchase a light-weight one. The parasol’s tip could also vary. It could be plated or made from a variety of materials, such as bone, horn, ivory, or brass.

There were other things that a parasol buyer might want to know. For instance, after purchasing a parasol, an owner could have her initials, name, or even her address engraved on a little plate at the handle’s termination or on the “inside of one of the gores.”[10] This type of identification came in handy if the parasol was lost. Another important considerations was cost. Good quality parasols could easily be recovered if a woman really liked her parasol and recovering a good quality parasol was said to be well worth the cost.

*The same phenomenon happened again in the late 1800s when square parasols once again gained popularity.

References:

  • [1] Punch, 1850, Volumes 18-19, p. 110.
  • [2] Cassell’s Household Guide, 1869, p. 318.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Leslie, Eliza, Miss Leslie’s Behaviour Book, 1839, p. 228.

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