Parasols, the most romantic accessories
under the sun
Though the difference between a parasol and an umbrella may seem
confusing today, it was absolutely clear and unquestionable to Victorian
society. A woman who carried an umbrella was admitting publicly that she
could not afford to own or hire a carriage for transportation when it
was raining. But a woman with a parasol was most assuredly a LADY, she
carried it in fair weather not in foul; and if she happened to be riding
in a carriage, she made sure her driver pulled down its convertible top,
so that her parasol was conspicuously exposed, clearly indicating her
dress and position to everyone she passed.
Perhaps the chief reason for the popularity of the parasol was the
Victorian admiration for a fair complexion. It was more than a sign of
beauty, it proved to the world that a woman was a lady, who didn't have
to work outdoors like "common" females did. Bonnets helped
protect delicate skin, but after the 1860's smaller hats were
fashionable and bonnets were shunned as dowdy accessories for matrons
and elderly ladies. Something else was needed to save a pretty face from
the rays of the sun -- and that something was the parasol.
Although, for the times, parasols were far from cheap, nonetheless, a
truly fashionable lady carried a different one for each outfit. Because
they were so precious and so expensive, parasols became one of the most
popular gifts for a lover to give his sweetheart. Like jewelry, they
were not a proper present from a young man unless his intentions were
serious, and would not be accepted by a lady unless she intended to
accept the giver, as well.
In 1740, a fashionable lady appeared on the street corner in Windsor,
Connecticut, carrying what may have been the first parasol ever seen in
North America. It had been brought all the way from the West Indies --
but her neighbors were anything but impressed. As she strolled around
town, propping her open parasol on one shoulder, they mimicked and
taunted her, mocking her dainty footsteps as they followed her around
town, carrying colanders perched on top of broomsticks.
A century later, no one would have noticed, much less parodied, a lady
carrying a sunshade, for wealthy women thought America and Europe
considered parasols an essential part of any well-dressed woman's
outfit. "Our gloves, shoes and stockings always matched and we
carried dainty parasols of brushed chiffon, feather or lace, with the
most beautiful handles of carved ivory, mother-of-pearl or hand-painted porcelain", a society woman recalled in her memoirs. "We were
indeed the cynosure of all eyes "Even middle-class, and poorer,
women coveted at least two -- one in black silk, another in white.
Like the fan and the lacy handkerchief, the parasol was both an object
with a practical purpose and an indispensable aid to the subtle art of
flirtation. In the hands of a skilled practitioner, it could
mysteriously shadow a lady's expression, disguise the direction of her
glance from a chaperone, coyly indicate her changing moods, dramatize
her sparkling eyes and smile, even camouflage her imperfections. Lady
Hamilton, Lord Nelson's notorious, no-longer-young mistress, always favored
pink and pink-lined parasols, because the rosy light they cast on her
face made her look more youthful.
A change in the social climate doomed the parasol, making it seem
first quaint, then outmoded, and finally preposterous. In the 1920's, a
tanned complexion replaced pale skin as a status symbol, indicating that
the owner didn't have to work and could be around on the beach all day.
During that decade when flappers wore rolled stockings and cloche hats,
when hems rose and inhibitions fell -- parasols disappeared. The most romantic
accessories under the sun were relegated to the attic of
history, with wasp waists and high-button shoes.
Flirtatious Fashions, by Kristina Harris (Victorian
Decorating & Lifestyles, June/July 1998)
Seleshanko is the author of 14 books, many about antique and vintage fashions.
Please view her website
for more information about her books, or go to
http://www.vintageconnection.net for many more articles written by
Kristina on the subject of historic fashions