Whilst Catherine de’ Medici brought parasols into vogue in France in the late-sixteenth century, it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that they entered mainstream English fashion as the latest ‘must-have’ accessory. Parasols had in fact been employed for many hundreds of centuries before this as a means of sheltering the wealthy from the sun. As far back as ancient Egypt right through until the nineteenth century, a pale complexion, very much in contrast to today’s customary preference for a tanned skin, had been a prized asset and long associated with rank and gentility. Thus Miss Bingley’s views on the subject in Pride and Prejudice:
“How very ill Eliza Bennet looks this morning, Mr Darcy,” she cried: “I never in my life saw anyone so altered as she is since the winter. She is grown so brown and coarse! Louisa and I were agreeing that we should not have known her again.”
The parasol allowed for women to venture forth into the daylight while protecting both their skin and their reputations as gentile, dainty creatures.
As with the fan, the parasol was by no means simply a utilitarian object. It became part of a Georgian lady’s arsenal of manners, taste and fashion sensibility. It was soon considered to be necessary for a complete outfit and a key item in a lady’s wardrobe. The parasol, held at just the right angle or twirled coquettishly, could be used to attract attention. It was very much a feminine accessory and eschewed by men. It was essential in the posturing promenades of fashionable young ladies as seen on New Walk Terrace.
Parasols also offered another opportunity for the show of opulence, as they were made from delicate materials and employed intricate rococo designs. Gold, silver and ivory were often used to make handles while the shafts were usually made from wood. Handles were long and straight, with sometimes only a slight curve at the end. They never featured the deeply curved handles associated with umbrellas.