Rainy Day Fashion
Jul 21, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I adore a rainy day. It’s the perfect backdrop for snuggles and reading. (And there are so many good books to choose from!) Downpours are also the perfect excuse to throw on a cute pair of boots, grab an umbrella, and play in a puddle. Nothing quite captures the joy of a drizzly play day like hearing the pitter patter of rain against your umbrella. So allow me to present a quick primer on the cornerstone of rainy day fashion: the vintage umbrella. This personal protective device dates back to ancient times and was originally used as a portable sun shade, rather than a deflector of raindrops. We can thank the Chinese for first waterproofing their umbrellas (by way of wax and lacquer layers). For centuries the umbrella was a household staple, humbly serving those caught in a storm. But all that changed in 16th century France, when fashion-forward ladies elevated this worker bee to fashion plate status. To learn just how this transformation unfolded we have to travel back in time.
Imagine you’re strolling the promenade and enjoying some people watching. As your eyes linger on each passerby, I guarantee one word will come to mind: decadence. You see in this day and age, Paris was the biggest city in all of Europe and everyone who was anyone was in town. The Renaissance was in full-swing, the royal family was gaining strength and flashy was the order of the day. This vibe translated into big gowns, big attitudes and big hair. When I say hair I really mean massive powdered wigs. In modern times hairstyles have become a fashion statement, but in this age it was a status symbol. The more extravagant the wig, the richer you were. Because hair was your calling card, women were spending countless francs and hours on their looks. Consequently, they were eager to try anything that could protect this precious investment. And that’s where Jean Marius saw an opportunity.
Jean was a purse-maker, serving the Parisian upper crust. His wealthy clientele were ladies who had it all – except a wig that would survive the rain. The humble umbrella, patiently waiting in the background, hadn’t experienced much development since its early days in the Far East. But Jean, the perennial craftsman, thoughtfully transformed it from a clunky machine into the effervescent “pocket parasol.” This light-weight, easy-to-use creation was a revelation. Jean poured his artistry into each parasol, incorporating beautiful hues and details that complemented his clients’ sense of style. This was well before social media, but Jean’s parasols went viral! The King even issued an order that every umbrella for the next five years needed to bear his mark. With his royal privilege in tow, Jean single-handedly redefined fashion history. The parasol proved that weather-related accessories could be more than utilitarian.
It would take almost five more decades for men to fully embrace the look. The brave ambassador for mankind was a British gent by the name of Jonas Hanway. Hanway, returning from a visit across the pond, came back to his home country with an umbrella by his side. It’s hard to imagine this, because umbrellas are now ubiquitous, but they were a taboo subject in the Queen’s England. Using an umbrella was seen as weakness and a lack of moral fiber. And it was also considered much too French – another “no no” for a Brit. Coach drivers would refuse to pick up Hanway (for fear that his umbrella signaled the end to their lucrative rainy day fares). People even threw trash at him! But thankfully Jonas was a stubborn man and by the time of his death, umbrellas were becoming a common sight on the cobblestone streets of London.
As the demand for umbrellas grew and manufacturing techniques evolved, inventors began to play with materials and mechanisms. Detailed grips, with stunning reliefs, are a good sign of an antique umbrella. Steel ribs were first introduced in the early 1800s, as an alternative to the popular trio of cane ribbing, whale bone or wooden frames. Also at this time, silk or cotton became the preferred fabrics. You may find tassels or ribbons accenting higher-end models from this era. By the 1920s umbrellas went back to their roots with Asian-inspired designs. You’ll find bamboo handles, a flatter profile, and colorful fabric on the cuties from this time period. During the next couple decades grips were often carved from bakelite or any of the wonder plastics from the post-war era.
Check out this guide for finding & caring for your vintage umbrella!
When you are assessing an older umbrella there are a few things to consider: most of the value is stored in the handle (so be sure to carefully inspect it); an umbrella in working order will retain its value better over time; look for fabric that isn’t brittle to the touch; and if a manufacturer’s information is listed it will be either on the frame itself or on a cloth label. The number one tip for collectors is simple: buy what you love. Because umbrellas provide such a big canvas, designers really stretched their legs and made colorful, unique creations. There are so many delightful patterns to explore, so you’re sure to find something you love!
One of the preeminent umbrella manufacturers to come from Victorian era is Fox Umbrellas. They opened their doors in 1868 London and while this was nearly 100 years since Jonas Hanway’s passing, I would like to think it would have been his kind of shop. Fox was dedicated to making umbrellas for the distinguished gentleman. But the company had a bit of a bumpy start, changing hands in the early 1900s. But thankfully the new owner (also by the name of Fox) was gifted with bending steel to his will. His light-weight steel frames set the industry standard, providing elegant silhouettes on the gray London streets. Like Jean Marius before him, Samuel Fox sold his wares to royalty. It makes my heart happy to know that Jonas Hanway’s unwavering confidence helped pave the way for a company that’s still thriving all these generations later. I applaud Jonas and his determination to normalize staying dry in a rainstorm. What was once a symbol of meek character is now seen as a sign of preparedness. Tell me dear reader, what other vintage icons do you admire for flipping the script?