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)

Kristina (Harris) 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 for many more articles written by Kristina on the subject of historic fashions







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