The Great Parasol Mystery – or Which Way Is Up?

I have a large collection of original fashion prints 1795-1825. All right, I admit it, an indulgently large collection and a bit of a fashion print habit. But having so many does allow me to notice trends I wouldn’t normally spot – how the way long evening gloves are held up changed, how fans were held – and, something that has mystified me ever since I first saw it – the way parasols were carried.

These days we carry our umbrellas (and parasols, if we have them) by the curved handle which finishes the long shaft. At the other end, protruding from the top, is a short extension of the shaft ending in a metal ferrule to protect it when it touches the ground.  The lady wearing a Walking Dress in this print of July 1819 (Ackermann’s Repository) is holding her parasol in this way (Note the ring around it to keep the folds under control).

1819But before about 1816 the vast majority of the prints I own show the parasol being held either at its body like the pair of prints below, or by the short length of shaft at the top.


Ladies' Monthly Museum 1804 (pair to the left) and detail from 1805

I’ve included a variety of prints below to illustrate the ‘upside down’ way closed parasols (and I can only assume umbrellas also) were held.

From The Ladies Own Memorandum Book 1806

From The Ladies Own Memorandum Book 1806

London Walking Dresses July 1807 for La Belle Assemblee

London Walking Dresses July 1807 for La Belle Assemblee

Promenade Dresses Ackermann's Repository August 1809

Promenade Dresses Ackermann’s Repository August 1809

The 1807 print shows a carrying loop at the top of the open parasol and the tasselled design for 1809 shows an opening mechanism just like a modern umbrella. Even when a hooked handle appears (1812 & 1813 prints) it is at the top end.

Then gradually I find them being shown the ‘right’ way up from 1814 onwards, although not exclusively – it doesn’t seem to settle down to the modern way of doing things until about 1817.

But what I can’t understand is why the upside down way of holding the closed parasol persisted for so long. Surely this method meant that the lady risked soiling her gloves with dust, mud or grass when she carried the parasol/umbrella open? None of the books I’ve looked at even mentions this. What do you think?

Promenade Costume Ackermann's Repository September 1811

Promenade Costume Ackermann’s Repository September 1811

Promenade Dress Ackermann's Repository 1812

Promenade Dress Ackermann’s Repository 1812

Morning Walking Dress Ackermann's Repository 1813

Morning Walking Dress Ackermann’s Repository 1813

Journal des Dames et des Modes 1816

Journal des Dames et des Modes 1816

Walking Dress July 1818 La Belle Assemblee

Walking Dress July 1818 La Belle Assemblee




Filed under Fashions, Women

16 responses to “The Great Parasol Mystery – or Which Way Is Up?

  1. How fascinating, Louise. I wonder whether the parasols might originally have had the fabric covering the centre hub, and it was a way of protecting that from the dirt? No doubt you have seen enough original parasols to know if that was the case though?

  2. Well, Louise, having had practical experience of walking about in regency costume carrying a parasol, I wonder if it was because a) they hadn’t included one of those little button/tag things to keep the furled parasol um, furled, and it flapped annoyingly against the full skirts. Or b) because the handles were made of something so delicate that you risked snapping it on the way back to the car (sorry, getting back into one’s carriage) like I did.

  3. Looking at the pictures it appears they didn’t have curved handles and possibly hadn’t figured out the rings or ties to keep them furled.

    • Thanks for the suggestions, Nadine and Annie. I’ve got prints showing that they had rings that would slide up the closed parasol, trapping the folds, and also one with a ribbon tied round. There are also some that do have a curved handle, and some with a right-angled one – and those are being placed on the ground too! They must have realized how comfortable it was to hold the thing with the ‘proper’ handle when it was open and yet, with it closed, down goes that end to the ground (getting dirty).
      The only thing that does occur to me is that the mechanism for holding the thing in the shut position might not have been very effective, so it would open up if you held it the way we do. Then, when the mechanism was improved they could use it the modern way. But that doesn’t explain why they would do it when they had rings or ties to keep it closed…

  4. What a great question to ponder! Well, I think we hold an umbrella the way we do so the rain falls off the tip, and sadly today the parasol is a neglected accessory so it doesn’t have it’s own style of handling. Do you think the old parasol tops had the nice ground protective spikey bit that we get on the tops of umbrellas today? Without that part you could easily damage the top of your parasol and even the silk as it touched the ground, so perhaps having the handle end hitting the ground was to maintain the longevity of your parasol. Replacing the handle would be relatively simple compared to replacing the top of the shaft or the silk I would have thought.

    • Could be… But I’m still baffled as to why you would hold the open parasol/umbrella with the part that had been on the ground and risk making your lovely gloves filthy!

  5. Fascinating question, Louise! Here’s a link I found to Candice Hern’s blog which suggests a couple of ideas: they had collapsible handles, and the loop at the top was to hang from the wrist to keep hands free:

    • I’ve got that print too – isn’t it lovely? The trouble is, virtually none of the others that I have show a loop and most of the parasols are shown full length and ‘upside down’. The tilting ones are interesting though – and very useful.

      • Hi Louise. I actually have several that show a loop at the top of the parasol, some being carried by that loop. But I confess that the different ways parasols are depicted in the prints has always baffled me.

      • Yes, I’ve got some with loops at the top, some with little hooked handles as well. There’s a long-established umbrella maker/seller near the British Museum… I might get in touch and see if they have any suggestions!

  6. Heidi Hamburg

    Perhaps it has more to do with some artist or art director wanting more variety in poses and props. It caught on, impractical as it was, and resulted in a brief mini-fad.

  7. Heidi, I like the way your mind works. Doesn’t it all make you wish you could time travel? Then we would know.

  8. Richard

    Heidi. Just bumped into this thread:
    The reason for the upside down carrying could be that no one had invented the slot in the runner (slider) to retain the mechanism when closed, probably because the runners are quite slim and maybe tricky to engineer.
    The Ivory/Brass retaining ring was attached by ribbon/cord to the rib end and rode on top of the Umbrella (mainly the Pagoda style) when open, being available to slide up to retain the fabric when furled.
    Hope that makes some sense.

  9. Pingback: Historical Costume 1800-1820 : Parasols Up and Down - Liberta Books

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