Parasols—the Essential Accessory for a Lady

On a windy summer’s day in 1875, Claude Monet painted his wife Camille with their son Jean out for a stroll in Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris.

Splashes of color and Monet’s use of light help capture a moment of spontaneity.

Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son by Claude Monet, 1875
Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son by Claude Monet, 1875

Holding her parasol tightly against the wind, Camille is set against an azure sky with wispy white clouds, looking down at Monet from a rise in the meadow.

Camille was modeling for a theme that Victorians loved—”Lady With a Parasol”.

Victorian poet Emily Dickinson likened a lady opening a parasol to a butterfly spreading its wings in the warmth of the sun.

Painted Lady butterfly. Credit SD Dirk, flickr
Painted Lady butterfly. Credit SD Dirk, flickr
From Cocoon forth a Butterfly
As Lady from her Door
Emerged—a Summer Afternoon—
… Her pretty Parasol be seen
Contracting in a Field
—Emily Dickinson.
Young Woman with a Parasol by Winslow Homer, 1880
Young Woman with a Parasol by Winslow Homer, 1880

We most often associate the beautiful image of a lady with a parasol with the Victorian and Edwardian Eras. But as far back as the 5th century BC, the Ancient Greeks thought parasols were an indispensable accessory for a lady of fashion.

Morning Walk by John Singer Sargent, 1888
Morning Walk by John Singer Sargent, 1888
Woman and Parasol by Albert Edelfelt, 1886
Woman and Parasol by Albert Edelfelt, 1886
A Walk by the River by Andre Brouillet (1857 - 1914)
A Walk by the River by Andre Brouillet (1857 – 1914)
The White Parasol by Robert Lewis Reid, 1907
The White Parasol by Robert Lewis Reid, 1907
Summer by Colin Campbell Cooper, 1918
Summer by Colin Campbell Cooper, 1918

The Ancient Chinese attached collapsible parasols to their ceremonial carriages and the Ancient Egyptians used a fan of palm-leaves on a long handle, similar to those now carried ceremoniously in papal processions.

Terracotta Army. Exhibition. Credit Tomasz Sienicki
Terracotta Army. Exhibition. Credit Tomasz Sienicki

Roman maid-servants saw it as a post of honour to carry a parasol over their mistresses.

According to Ancient Indian legend, in around the 4th century BC, a skilled bowman named Jamadagni practiced shooting arrows and his wife Renuka helped recover them so that he could continue practicing and become the best bowman in all India. Jamadagni fired one arrow so far that it took Renuka a whole day to find it, the heat of the sun exhausting her. In anger, Jamadagni fired an arrow at the sun. Begging for mercy, the sun gave Renuka the gift of a beautiful parasol.

Nature has been providing us with parasols since the dawn of mankind. Tree canopies absorb the sun’s ultraviolet rays, providing natural shade.

Woman Sitting with a Parasol by Aristide Maillol, 1895
Woman Sitting with a Parasol by Aristide Maillol, 1895

Parasol Pines are native to Southern Europe and the Middle East, their shape resembling a parasol.

View of Cannes with Parasol Pines by William Stanley Haseltine, 1869
View of Cannes with Parasol Pines by William Stanley Haseltine, 1869

Parasols came in many shapes, sizes, designs, and colors—most were personal hand-held devices, others were larger for sharing.

Woman with Parasol by Frederick Carl Frieseke, c. 1912
Woman with Parasol by Frederick Carl Frieseke, c. 1912
The Green Parasol by Guy Orlando Rose, c. 1909
The Green Parasol by Guy Orlando Rose, c. 1909
Lady with a Parasol by Hamilton Hamilton
Lady with a Parasol by Hamilton Hamilton
The Garden Parasol by Frederick Carl Frieseke, c. 1910
The Garden Parasol by Frederick Carl Frieseke, c. 1910

Whatever shape or size, they are beautiful objects that are still admired today. Let’s take a closer look at some from the Victorian era.

1850s. American. Silk, metal, wood, ivory
1850s. American. Silk, metal, wood, ivory

The above parasol is typical of the 1850s, with its tiered canopy echoing the shape of the skirt. The fabric was woven à la disposition—specifically for the shape of the parasol.

1860s. American. Silk, ivory, metal
1860s. American. Silk, ivory, metal

The “marquise parasol” above was originally designed for Madame de Pompadour—the chief mistress of King Louis XV at Versailles. With its tilting top that could be angled for flirtatious effect and its embossed floral motif lining the edge, it was the perfect accessory for the art of coquetry.

1868. French. Silk, icory, metal
1868. French. Silk, icory, metal

Made for the wife of a prominent Civil War general from New York, the parasol above features an exquisitely carved ivory handle depicting the idealized Greek female form and the shell-like curves typical of Rococo.

1905. American. Cotton, wood. metal
1905. American. Cotton, wood. metal

Parasols were often matched to the attire of the wearer. This Edwardian-era example was made of eyelet fabric—popular for a number of summer garments.

Often seen at the races, this type of parasol not only showcased the latest fashion but also displayed the wealth and social status of the owner.

At the Races by Louis Anquetin, c. 1895
At the Races by Louis Anquetin, c. 1895

Parasol covers could be patterned with complex forms—usually floral with curvilinear scrolling. The chain link motif shown below was unusual for covers, being found more often on handle designs in the last quarter of the 19th century.

1880s. French. Silk
1880s. French. Silk

The Belgian appliqué net lace shown below would have been used on a very expensive parasol. Attaching the separately-made covers was the last stage of the manufacturing process.

c. 1885. Belgian Net Lace Parasol
c. 1885. Belgian Net Lace Parasol

The marbleized handle tip of the beautiful French-made parasol below has intricate metal and enamel accents. Luxury parasols had fine quality finishes on the inside. Each rib and stretcher has been individually covered with fabric. The shank is as beautifully made as the handle, with a high-quality polished wood finish.

1895. French. Silk, sood, metal, marble, enamel
1895. French. Silk, sood, metal, marble, enamel

To Victorians and Edwardians, parasols were very special accessories that not only performed an important function but were also an expression of personal taste, wealth, and social class.

Loving Flower Care by Victor Gabriel Gilbert, 1933
Loving Flower Care by Victor Gabriel Gilbert, 1933
A Solitary Ramble by Julian Ashton, 1888
A Solitary Ramble by Julian Ashton, 1888
The green parasol by Emanuel Phillips Fox, 1912
The green parasol by Emanuel Phillips Fox, 1912
Group with Parasols by John Singer Sargent, 1905
Group with Parasols by John Singer Sargent, 1905
Woman with Parasol by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi, 1883
Woman with Parasol by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi, 1883
Lady with a Parasol by Tom Roberts, c. 1893
Lady with a Parasol by Tom Roberts, c. 1893
An Elegant Lady with a Parasol by Jules-Alexandre Grun, 1905
An Elegant Lady with a Parasol by Jules-Alexandre Grun, 1905
Woman with a parasol by Édouard Manet, 1881
Woman with a parasol by Édouard Manet, 1881

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