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Fair Weather Friends: 19th Century Parasols

Parasols, 19th and 20th Centuries
Possibly Paul Poiret (French, 1879-1944) and Unknown Makers; France and England
Wood, metal, silk, cotton and pigments; Various dimensions
32172C, 7992D and 7992A
Gift of Mrs. G. W. Pike (32172C) and Irene P. Cutter Memorial Doll Collection (7992D and 7992A)

Parasols for Paris Souls

The science of selecting the proper parasol was an exact and complicated one. Parasols could neither be too heavy nor too light, the circumference of the shaft could neither be bulky nor too dainty to be comfortably held, and of course, the selection of color was paramount as the wrong canopy could make a woman look positively ghastly when the sun shining through a parasol turned it into a great, parabolic lens. This week the blog features an assortment of European parasols, explaining a little about one of the makers, and looking at the greater context in which they were used.
Alternate view of 7992D
Sunshade Inspector Poiret
Despite the distinctly Japanese aesthetic of the brilliantly red parasol, it was likely created by the designer Paul Poiret (French, 1879-1944), and was certainly not from Japan. Poiret began his career in fashion apprenticed to an umbrella maker. Rather than repeatedly craft monotone rain guards, Poiret took small fragments of silk and made colorful clothes for his sisters’ dolls. This degree of innovation followed Poiret his entire life. He earned his American title of, “The King of Fashion,” with a number of fashion feats—not the least of which has been described as liberating women from the bone corset—but most relevant here, he introduced African, Asian and Middle Eastern styles to western fashion. Returning to his earliest profession as an umbrella maker around 1911, this parasol would have been made by Poiret to complement the Japanese kimonos he first introduced to France. The frame of this parasol is made of wood and remarkably, when closed hides the entirety of the silk canopy.
History of Held Shade
Historically, the parasol has treaded a fine line between utilitarian object and accessory. Records show that they were used in Mediterranean societies as far back as 2000 BC to keep women’s skin from bronzing. Their relative popularity has ebbed and flowed in the 4000 some odd years since as there was always the issue of their cumbersome nature. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, the problems of parasols’ weight and the awkward prospect of what to do with one when entering a building were diminished by the advent of lighter materials and number of clever innovations. The system of runners and stretchers and the folding handle—usually a hinge which could be secured by a sliding metal cover as seen here in the black parasol—can be seen in both the white and black parasols. Of course, the parasol was still important for its utility as a sunshade, but now it also became a fashion accessory so intrinsic to the popular culture of the time it was said that a silhouette of a woman was more complete when she carried a parasol. The impressionistic greats like Singer Sargent, Renoir and countless others painted outdoor scenes of women holding their colorful sunshades. As with so many other things, the parasols one could afford to own were a symbol of their status. Worse-to-do women might only own one white or black parasol for Sunday mass, while the daughters and wives of wealthy aristocrats could own a veritable rainbow of flamboyant colors, with different varieties reserved for different occasions such as carriage parasols.
Alternate view of 7992A
Parasol, 19th Century
Unknown Maker
Ivory, metal and silk; 28 in.
Gift of Mrs. Margaret C. Kirkpatrick
Wilting Blossoms, Enduring Stems
Silk, which all three of the parasols in this post are made of, did not have the prerequisite elasticity to survive the tension of the fully expanded stretchers for long periods of time. Constant use over the period of a year or more dealt considerable damage to the material and generally umbrella and parasol makers only guaranteed that their creations would last through the first year of purchase. This problem was not solved until the 20th Century when nylon and plastics were used for the canvas. Lace was popularized during the Victorian period and helped to elongate the life of parasols by diffusing some of the direct sunlight which parasols received. Often lace additions took the form of a removable cover, but a band of lace around both the above white and black and black parasols was also quite characteristic. Unfortunately, this is to say that 19th Century parasols have not survived well into the 21st Century. Few quality examples still remain in excellent condition. The only component which has consistently survived in an unaffected state is the handles. Many finer parasols have beautiful handles carved from ivory. These elegant grips took countless forms, each capturing the fancy of potential buyers as they considered what they might hold most gracefully while basking in the sun.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.

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