Parasols and Flirting Language

A young woman who flirted in the 1700 and 1800s without serious intent was known as a coquette. This term was first used in 1611 and came from the French word coquet. Coquettes, similar to flirting women of today, used verbal and non-verbal clues when practicing the art of coquetry. However, in the 1700 and 1800s, flirting had to be done discretely, subtly, and sincerely to avoid the title of coquette. One way women were able to accomplish flirting in an acceptable way was with their accessories. They could signal their intentions and feelings with their fan, gloves, or handkerchief, as well as their parasol.

parasols and flirting

Woman with a parasol, by Édouard Manet, 1881. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1901, Agnes Morton claimed:

“[Because] a man enjoys the society of a charming woman, [or] that a woman delights in the conversation of a brilliant man, is no sign that either of them is a flirt. Few things are more vulgar than the readiness to infer a flirtation from every case of marked mutual interest between a man and a woman. The interchange of bright ideas, interspersed with the spontaneous sallies of gallantry and the instinctive repartee of innocent coquetry — an archery of wit and humor, grave and gay, — this is one of the salient features of civilized social life.”[1]

It was also a civilized society that invented the parasol and flirting signals that accompanied it.

Parasol on a Sunny Day, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Parasol on a Sunny Day. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

According to one historian, the history of “the parasol is wrapped in considerable obscurity.”[2] Some people believe the idea for it came from a tent, although a Dr. Morison, insisted the tradition existed in China and “the San, which signifies to shade off the sun, originated in … banners waving in the air.”[3] No matter where the idea for the parasol originated, the first parasols were unwieldy, composed of heavy materials or fabrics, and carried by attendants, as their use was initially reserved for monarchs and royalty. In Egypt and Persia paintings or carvings of parasols have been found that depict them as “a fan of palm-leaves, or colored feathers, fixed on a long handle … and ornamented at the summit with a flower, or some other decoration.”[4]

In case you did not know, an umbrella is not a parasol and a parasol is not an umbrella. In early times there was a distinction between the two: umbrellas protected users from rain and parasols protected users from the sun. The parasol came into general use in France and England sometime in the mid-1600s. John Evelyn, an English writer, gardener, and diarist, mentioned the parasol in his diary entry of 22 June 22 1664. He described a collection of rarities shown to him by a Roman Catholic priest, who had been sent to France by Jesuits from Japan and China.

“Among the curiosities were ‘fans like those our ladies use, but much larger, and with long handles, strangely carved and filled with Chinese characters,’ which is evidently a description of the parasol.”[5]

At the time, the parasol was seen more as a curiosity than a utilitarian tool, and, so, it took time before women began to carry them as protection from the sun.

Parasol of the 1780s, Author's Collection

Parasol of the 1780s. Author’s collection.

In 1777, the word “parasol” was first printed in the Westminster Magazine. The magazine also described this new contraption stating:

“[It is] a silk umbrella, or what the French call a Parisol [sic]. It is fastened on the middle of a long japanned walking cane with an ivory crook head. It opens by a spring, and is pushed up toward the head of the cane when expanded for use.”[6]

Umbrellas were fairly common in England by the late 1780s and women began using parasols after this time. However, umbrellas and parasols were still somewhat novel. The general public still thought them a thing of awe and at the time of London’s Great Exhibition in 1851, “umbrellas and parasols were worthily represented [because of the public’s interest in them].”[7]

By the late 1800s, parasols were commonly carried by fashionable women and regularly used to signal a woman’s intentions towards a man. Numerous books were also written that combined flirting tips with standardized parasol signals. Some of these parasol signals included the following:

  • Carrying it closed in the left hand — Meet on the first crossing.
  • Carrying it closed in the right hand by the side — Follow me.
  • Carrying it elevated in left hand — Desiring acquaintance.
  • Carrying it elevated in right hand — You are too willing.
  • Carrying in front of you — No more at present.
  • Carrying it over the right shoulder — You can speak to me.
  • Carrying it over the left shoulder — You are too cruel.
  • Closing it up — I wish to speak with you, love.
  • Dropping it — I love you.
  • End of tips to the lips — Do you love me?
  • Folding it up — Get rid of your company.
  • Letting it rest on the left cheek — No.
  • Letting it rest on the right cheek — Yes.
  • Putting it away — No more at present.
  • Striking it on the hand — I am much displeased.
  • Swinging it to and fro by the handle on left side — I am engaged.
  • Swinging it to and fro by the handle on the right side — I am married.
  • Tapping the chin gently — I am in love with another.
  • Twirling it around — Be careful! We are watched.
  • Using it as a fan — Introduce me to your company.
  • With handle to the lips — Kiss me.

References:

  • [1] Morton, Agnes H., Etiquette: Good Manners for All People, Especially for Those “Who Dwell within the Board Zone of the Average,” 1909, p. 201.
  • [2] Sangster, William, Umbrellas and Their History, 1855, p. 10.
  • [3] Ibid, p. 11.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 22.
  • [6] Fairholt, Frederick William, Costume in England, 1885, p. 403.
  • [7] Sangster, William, p. 63.

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