The Upside of Umbrellas

Marilyn monroe used umbrella 376 eb43bbbdc531e38536780c71e9073e58 1
If only all umbrellas were as valuable as this one! Because Marilyn Monroe used it, this umbrella sold for over $20,000.

April showers may bring May flowers, but those showers also bring us plenty of reasons to pop open our umbrellas. We use umbrellas, of course, to stay dry when it rains, but I think they can also be seen as a bit of a fashion statement.

While umbrellas come in one shape, they come in different sizes and colors—from the no-nonsense, all-business black umbrellas to the bold, colorful, designer-themed ones. I believe many people look at umbrellas as one more fun wardrobe accessory. They welcome a rainy day because it gives them the perfect excuse to use the device to stay dry and let them stand out in a crowd.

Here’s a look and the history of umbrellas and a few fun facts about them, too:

What’s in a Name

The word “umbrella” is one of those funny-sounding words that make you smile. It reminds me of that scene from the movie The Sunshine Boys when Walter Matthau’s character discusses with his nephew which words are funny. I’m not sure if umbrella was one of those words, but I think it should be.

The word “umbrella” is derived from the Latin word “umbra,” which means shade or shadow. Another word associated with umbrella is “parasol,” derived from the French words “parare” and “sol,” which means “shield from the sun.”

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The writer Jonas Hanway made it fashionable for me to use umbrellas.

Umbrellas in Ancient Civilizations and Europe

The use of umbrellas can be traced back thousands of years. The first ones are attributed to the ancient Egyptians. Umbrellas made of palm leaves and other natural materials were used to block the sun, not rain. Servants held the umbrellas over the heads of pharaohs and people of wealth to protect their skin from the hot sun. In ancient Greece and Rome, women used umbrellas as a fashion accessory in addition to protection from the sun. (It was considered a sign of effeminacy for a man to use an umbrella.)

It seems the ancient Chinese were the first to use umbrellas as protection against rain and the sun. But, again, it was the wealthier class of people who used umbrellas—servants and slaves were often the ones holding and carrying the umbrellas. (There are records of the Chinese inventing the earliest collapsible umbrellas.)

Umbrellas grew increasingly popular in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, they were still seen as something only wealthy women used. Their canvas canopies were wax-covered—which meant they could repel rain—and the rods were wooden. Then, in Paris, a merchant named Jean Marius made a popular style of umbrellas that folded, much like umbrellas today.

Men and Umbrellas

It wasn’t until the late 18th century, when English writer Jonas Hanway started carrying an umbrella around, that it became acceptable for gentlemen to use them. He used an umbrella every day. Umbrellas eventually became a popular fashion accessory for men as well as women. Wealthy men often commissioned custom umbrellas with large handles that could store such items as flasks and daggers.

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A gentlemen’s umbrella.

Today’s Umbrellas

Over the years, materials have changed from whalebone to wood to fiberglass and from oilcloth canvas to nylon. However, the basic shape and design of the umbrellas have remained the same. Hans Haupt is credited with creating the first telescopic or foldable umbrella in 1928. Still, it wasn’t until 1969 that Bradford Philips patented his invention of the foldable umbrella.

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A vintage clear polka-dot bubble umbrella from the 1960s.

While many of today’s umbrellas have gotten smaller and more compact, plenty of other styles are still available. I remember getting one of those clear bubble umbrellas when I was a kid in the late 60s/early 70s. My grandfather bought one for his granddaughters, and we all thought we were pretty cool. I didn’t realize these umbrellas were popular again until my daughters asked for one for Christmas last year!

Singing in the Rain

Umbrellas have had ‘starring roles’ in quite a few movies through the years. Singin’ in the Rain is the first one that pops into my mind. That scene when Gene Kelly dances with the umbrella is iconic. One of my all-time favorite movies, Mary Poppins, featured a great scene where nannies with open umbrellas are swept away by the wind. Then, Mary gracefully floats down from the sky with her umbrella wide open. And, who can forget Audrey Hepburn’s white parasol that coordinates with her gorgeous outfit in the Ascot race scene in My Fair Lady—talk about a fashion statement! Oh, and my daughter reminded me that Dumbledore in Harry Potter used an umbrella instead of a wand to perform his wizardly feats.

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Audrey Hepburn’s white parasol was a fashion standout in the racing scene in My Fair Lady!

Ironically, it’s been pouring outside for the last two days as I’ve been working on this article. The forecast is for the April showers to continue most of the week. Good thing I’ve got my umbrella handy!

Lisa Mancuso has an associate’s degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree from Stony Brook University. She has worked as the Associate Director for Creative Marketing at McCall’s Magazine. As a staff writer at the National Association of Professional Women, Lisa wrote feature articles for the bi-monthly online newsletter. She has served as a reporter for the Northshore News Group and ICD Publications.

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