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.
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.
As Lady from her Door
Emerged—a Summer Afternoon—
… Her pretty Parasol be seen
Contracting in a Field
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.
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.
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.
Parasol Pines are native to Southern Europe and the Middle East, their shape resembling a parasol.
Parasols came in many shapes, sizes, designs, and colors—most were personal hand-held devices, others were larger for sharing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.