For us Brits, the umbrella is a necessary accessory if you want to stay protected from the elements. With more than ten million pounds spent a year on the weather prop, it’s been well and truly adopted into the British household of 2018. However, this hasn’t always been the case.
Previously, only the elite carried the accessory — and certainly not for rain protection. From where the umbrella originated to the unusual transformations it’s taken to reach the design and use we recognise today, read all about the odd evolution of the umbrella…
400-300 BC: parasols and high-ranking figures
Going back thousands of years ago, umbrellas were very much part of civilisation — albeit for a different reason to why we use the accessory today. A brolly around the 4th century BC was used solely to protect our ancestors from the sun — otherwise known today as a parasol. In fact, the term parasol is derived from the Spanish words for stop (para) and sun (sol). Similarly, the world ‘umbrella’ comes from the Latin word for shade — umbra — which shows that previous generations found them handier for sun safeguarding than water resistance.
So, who used the parasol or umbrella? Some argue that the accessory was actually a part of ancient Chinese society as far back as 2,000 BC, however, this has never been confirmed. What we do know is that the ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Egyptians, and civilizations in India and the Middle East all used a parasol, and sculptures have even been found depicting the use of the prop in various locations across ancient Egypt. Most commonly, parasols were used by high-ranking women, members of the clergy, and other powerful public figures. Unlike today, it was a clear symbol of rank and superiority.
But what did the umbrella of the ancient world look like? Of course, we don’t know for certain, but many predict that the design of the parasol canopy was influenced by large, shady, overhanging tree branches. Early umbrellas and parasols were often made from leaves, feathers and branches — but the overall form appears very similar to modern designs.
As time passed, the umbrella started to spread across continental Europe and the known world. Some people think that the brolly came to the UK with the Norman Invasion of 1066, while others claim it was introduced to our society by King Charles II’s wife, the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, bringing it with her after the wedding in the mid-1600s. Unfortunately, nobody knows for sure.
1600s: using your umbrella in the rain
Clearly, the brolly has been a staple part of society for thousands of years, but when did humans begin using it to protect them from rain? Most people place the date that we started using the umbrella to keep us dry in the 1600s, and according to accounts, England, Italy and France pioneered the trend.
The umbrella of the 1600s had a clear obstacle to overcome before it could effectively be used for moisture protection — at this time, most umbrellas were made from silk. Of course, this limited its use, but, apart from the difference in fabric and the fact that only privileged people owned one, the outline of the 17th-century umbrella mirrors what we see today. Thankfully, by the very end of this century, designers were beginning to hone waterproofing techniques…
1700s: introducing the men’s brolly
Strangely, carriages and coffee houses encouraged the need for the umbrella throughout the 18th century. During this era, coffee houses were extremely popular and the wealthy in society would often need a brolly to keep them dry as they walked from their mode of transport into the social venue.
Between 1700 and 1750, the use of umbrellas rocketed — although they were still a female-only fashion accessory. In the latter half of the 18th century, Jonas Hanway took it upon himself to launch a trend in men’s umbrellas, protecting himself with a rain umbrella as he traversed the streets of London. He put up with intense ridicule for his daring style at first, but eventually, men came around and the trend took off. By the turn of the 19th century, the rain umbrella became a common accessory for both men and women. It was also during this era that the term ‘Hanway’ was used as another name for an umbrella!
Evidently, the trend for the brolly was picking up pace for both men and women, but what did the umbrella of the 1700s look like? The answer is: very similar in structure, but extremely different in material. Throughout the 1700s, umbrellas were created from whalebone mounted atop a long stick and then covered in a heavy cotton fabric doused in oil or wax to ensure a more waterproof product. It would take a few more years yet before improved fabrics and materials would be used in umbrella construction.
1800s: men’s vs. women’s umbrellas
Throughout the 19th century, the increase of men using umbrellas brought with it a stark contrast in style and structure. For example, men’s umbrellas were much heavier than women’s — weighing around four pounds — while ladies umbrellas were smaller and still often made using silk.
The demand for brollies boosted the need to create more cost-effective designs for the less wealthy, which helped more people afford what were once luxury umbrellas. For example, there was an option to have your umbrella made from split cane rather than whale bone; the former material being much cheaper in price than the latter, although lower in quality. The umbrellas of the Victorian Era were sometimes made from wood — which were hard to fold — until the 1850s, when Samuel Fox created the steel-ribbed brolly.
1900s: the launch of the pocket brolly
Despite the fact that it had been a staple fashion accessory and symbol of superiority for privileged ladies for thousands of years, by the turn of the 1900s, rich women lost interest in using stylish parasols. Eventually, these disappeared from fashion around the 1930s, as more women became inclined to favour tanned skin over the powder-white complexions of the past.
As for the size and weight of the umbrella in the early 20th century, German Hans Haupt helped make a compact, easy-to-hold version in 1928 with the world’s first pocket umbrella. Soon, the foldable umbrella market took off!
Today: the rise of the tech umbrella
In present times, using umbrellas as accessories has no gender, and we can find as many for men as we can for women. Although today, umbrella brands do a great job in balancing fashionable designs with technical and weather-ready features to create a product fit for style and utility — which has taken a while to master.
From patio umbrellas large enough to protect a garden table, to compact brollies we can fit perfectly in our handbags, the umbrella is now available in a multitude of sizes. Today, you can find windproof umbrellas designed to withstand intense rain and gusts without turning inside out — a major bugbear of the brolly user — as well as tech umbrellas enhanced with gadgets, like GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth!
So, what’s next for the umbrella? From the bones and feathers of the past to the treated nylon and fibreglass of today, umbrellas have had an interesting evolution. But with the advances in technology and the demand for fashion, who knows what we can expect for the former parasol in the future.