Under the Umbrella



1782 Parasols or umbrellas?
You be the judge

Consider that vexing question — was the umbrella manly or unmanly during the Regency? Can my hero carry one for his own use? For his lady’s?  To, y’know, keep dry?

Is it reasonable for him to knock some attackers galley west with a two-handed swing of the trusty umbrella in Chapter Twelve? They were heavy contraptions in those days and would probably account handily for a Regency ruffian.

Which brings us, by a roundabout way to parasols and umbrellas and the distinction between these two which is doubtless one of the troubling issues of our time.

A parasol (Italian para, protecting against. Latin sol, sun) or sunshade varies from a fixed shade over a bench, to a big thingum held out over mistress’s head by a servant, to a trivial, flirty, rufflely toy to be twirled in a playful manner while saving that white complexion from the harsh glare of England. (Those of you who actually live in England are probably giving me an eyeroll over that “harsh glare” bit. But then, the car I owned in London had one of those retractable sunroofs which had to be the most perfect example of hope over reality I've come across.) 

The defining character of those silk and lace parasols was that they weren’t useful. They weren’t waterproof. When it starts to rain you fold ‘em up and run inside.

Drawing by j elwood 1790 to 1800 brit mus

1790-ish Two umbrellas held by men, one by a woman


An umbrella, (Latin umbra, shade,) on the other hand, is an altogether more serious, heavy, and substantial affair. In the Regency period they often came in pretty soft colors, but the cloth was oiled to keep the rain away and they were meant to stand up against rough winds and weathers. I image they were only moderately successful at that.

When did these parasols and umbrellas turn up in England?

Parasols came first. In the 1600s and up to the early 1700s it was parasols, parasols, parasols under the skies of

RANC  Jean French painter (b. 1674  Montpellier  d. 1735

A 1790 parasol. French

England, valiantly defending complexions from the scorching rays. Parasols continue right to the present, being a fashion accessory. They were and are woman’s territory. Men did not shelter under them.



Umbrella c18

roughly 1800. Bit of a caricature as to size of umbrella. That might be a clergyman

The considerably more useful, rainproof umbrella showed up 1700-ish it having taken that long for folks to hit upon the bright idea of waterproofing them. Kersey's Dictionary (1708) describes an Umbrella as a "screen commonly used by women to keep off rain."


As Gay offers us:

 "Good housewives all the winter's rage despise
Defended by the riding-hood's disguise:
Or underneath the umbrella's oily shed
Safe through the wet on clinking pattens tread."
                  Gay, Trivia, 1712

Though I'm going to say that "oily shed" wouldn't sell me on the idea just right off, so it's just as well Gay didn't earn a living writing ad copy.

In 1710, the umbrella was so well established even the veriest shop girl carried one.

Parasol 1803 with bending stem

parasol 1803 with a bendy stem


"The tucked up Semptress walks with hasty Strides
While Streams run down her oil’d Umbrella’s sides"

                Jonathan Swift,  Description of a City Shower, 1710

So we see women staying dry and safe from the storm. Good for them. Meanwhile, men …

What can one say?

Shall we count the example of Robinson Crusoe who constructed his umbrella in imitation of those he’d seen in Brazil? "I covered it with skins," he says, "the hair outwards, so that it cast off the rain like a pent-house, and kept off the sun so effectually, that I could walk out in the hottest of the weather with greater advantage than I could before in the coolest."

Problematic as social history, I guess.

So. Back on topic after a brief detour to desert islands.

It's mid-century 1700s in England and only women seem bright enough to get under umbrellas. Exceptions were male servants who are carrying the dreaded unmasculine things to cover their mistresses from carriage to door or along the streets, doubtless getting wet themselves, and the odd clergyman who kept one on hand for funerals held out in the open in the rain.

Mr hanway walks out

Mr Hanway, carrier of umbrellas, founder of hospitals, mistruster of tea

When did this change? When did men raise the umbrella overhead in pride?

Social changes sometimes come with dates, and it is possible we have a date.

The index case is Jonas Hanway, friend of chimney-sweeps and sworn foe to tea. He founded Magdalen Hospital. He is said to be the first man who braved reproach and ridicule by carrying an umbrella in public. It was about 1751 and we got images. All Englishmen afterwards follow, brolly in hand, in his footsteps.

You want more umbrella sightings?
Of course you want more:


"For some time Umbrellas were objects of derision, especially from the hackney coachmen, who saw in their use an invasion on the vested rights of the fraternity … John Macdonald, perhaps the only footman … who ever wrote a memoir of himself, relates that in 1770, he used to be greeted with the shout, "Frenchman, Frenchman! why don't you call a coach?" whenever he went out with his "fine silk umbrella, newly brought from Spain."

…  it is said that an old lady was living in Taunton who recollected when there were only two Umbrellas in the town, one of which belonged to the clergyman. When he went to church, he used to hang the Umbrella up in the porch, to the edification and delight of his parishioners.

Horace Walpole tells how Dr. Shebbeare (who was prosecuted for seditious writings in 1758) "stood in the pillory, having a footman holding an umbrella to keep off the rain." For permitting this indulgence to a malefactor, Beardman, the under-sheriff, was punished."



1820 late Regency period caricature. See the man in the background with his umbrella?


Is it worth pointing out that women had been squelching through the London streets under umbrellas for thirty or forty years at this point?

No. I don’t think we need to mention this.

And umbrellas in the snow? What is it with umbrellas in the snow? Victorian Christmas cards are full of this, as are Japanese prints. Who carries an umbrella in the snow?

Snow umbrella 1825 b Kitagawa Utamaro (Japanese  1753?–1806). Geisha Walking through the Snow


Anyhow. Returning to the original question … Did our Regency hero carry an umbrella?

I think we can say,  "Yes. He did. or, at least, he could have."  Probably — being a hero — he flaunted it. He gloried in it. And he whacked villains over the noggin with it when the occasion was right.


And you? Any fashion statements you’ve made? Wonderful, mad clothing choices? Stubborn traditions? Practical but weird old comfortable clothes? Anything you cling onto after years and still love?

Some lucky reader will win a copy of a book of mine. Any book, of their choosing.