So what goes down a chimney down but not up a chimney up?
From top: Babylonian & Assyrian 1500 BD-550 BC Ancient Greek 1500 BC – 1st Century BC Ancient Persian 550 BC- Crusade.
From top: English 1790-1813 Silk tilting parasol 1796 Silk with galloon & gauze ruffle 1810 Pale blue silk with fringe 1813 Silk parasol with ivory and ebony handle 1813
Unadorned silk taffeta 1836
Silk with lacey net trim1856 Throughout history the umbrella has had its ups and downs! Its biggest competitors were the fan, face masque and sunglasses. But in the end, this shady device rose to top them all.
As early as 3000 BC the Egyptians used the parasol as protection against the sun. This was strictly a royal privilege and bearers did the carrying. Ditto this mode up to 550 BC for Babylonian and Syrian nobility.
Louis XIV 1680-1700s hinged silk parasol (left) silk parasol (right)
lady’s silk mask, late 17th C.
Sometime between 1500 BC and the 1st century BC some clever ancient Greek women got the brilliant idea to use the parasol for shade also, so bearers began working double time. From the 1st century BC to around 5 AD the parasol spread to ancient Rome where it was used by women to shield them from the sun.
It was later copied by the men who probably needed some cool relief from overgraping at the local atrium boy’s night out. Meanwhile over in Persia from 550 BC through the Crusades, bearers were hoisting parasols over their masters who thought this was the niftiest idea since the harem canopy. Medieval Europe and Byzantium weren’t interested but then considering their elaborate and weighty costumes and mile-high headwear they probably didn’t have the strength to lift parasols above their towering heads.
It took the Italian renaissance to introduce parasols to European soil. By the middle of the 16th century Italians were juggling sunshades in one hand while riding horses. By 1610 someone figured out how to make parasols fold and the umbrella was born. It was leather, fastened to the hip when on horseback and used up to 1643 for shade only.
France, England and northern Europe had no comment on this contraption. Good old Louis XIV got things going in France. By the middle of the 17th century parasols [but not umbrellas] began bobbling about. They were Chinese pagoda-shaped with fringed edges and carried by pages.
From 1670 to 1715 it was fashionable to have small Negro boy servants brilliantly dressed to do the toting.
From 1715 to 1775 as the parasol became smaller, French ladies began carrying their own.
Folding umbrellas were reserved for rainy days only. The face masque, long popular for shade and sun protection, vanished. The English were still not convinced and not much is recorded until 1787 when Britain manufactured its first batch. From that time on most anywhere in the world, the parasol gained ground, especially the small tilting one which was for walking and made in many styles.
About 1830 a small hinged version was de rigueur when riding in a carriage. As sporting events, railroad and traveling changed lifestyles, umbrellas and parasols continued to be part of the common street scene.
From 1848 to 1870 silk and lace creations with ruffles and fringe were vogue; 1880, chiffon, embroidery and spangles were added; 1890, more ruffles with ribbons on the handles; by 1900 umbrellas were as essential to milady’s costume as her corset.
Between 1910 -20, the pencil umbrella emerged, long and slim of black silk.
Then parasols disappeared by 1930. The umbrella grew smaller, gave up its long handle and when closed was a stubby 20″ long. It was used mostly with the new fashion rage – raincoats, making it a truly useful shelter from pelting skies. The New Look in 1947-58 attempted to revive the long handle, but stubby proved stubborn.
Today’s modern umbrella is automatic, comes in all shapes and sizes and ruffles are back! Certainly a variety of fabrics have been used for parasol, sunshade and umbrella coverings throughout history. Linen, cotton, leather, silk — especially taffeta, lace and for the past century a light but durable cloth called gloria.
In the early 1900s it was a soft twilled fabric of silk warp and wool filling, gradually giving way to cotton, then treated rayon and acetate, then nylon and now today’s microfibers with new water repellent finishes. But regardless of fiber it is referred to as gloria by the textile industry.
Now there’s a real umbrella term! Sources: Delineator 1909; Costume & Fashion, Cassin-Scott, 1971; and Mode In Costume, Wilcox, 1958
1870s: fawn silk with fluted trim [l] and scalloped corn silk A trio from
1885: silk windowpane, beribboned lace and embroidered silk with fringe.
Silk stripe from 1892 A heavy lace from 1909 From France: brown & beige silk with amber & wood handle, 1922 [l]. Colored silk, 1930 The New Look 1947-58.
- Top: silk umbrella with cobra handle, case & shoulder strap.
- Bottom: Silk with leather-covered handle.
The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960. To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time. Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.