There has always been something very elegant about a man with an umbrella. Many vintage fashion ads from the 1930s showcase the London gentleman with an umbrella hanging off his arm and a pair of exquisite peccary gloves on his hands.
The beautiful canopy that is an umbrella or parasol is designed for practical use but has, since its development, been used to accessorize both the gentleman and ladies’ attire. Today, in much of the world, umbrellas are still used both as a practical tool for protection from the elements, but also as a way to enhance one’s business or formal attire.
The History of the Canopy
The first thing one must note when discussing umbrellas and parasols is the difference between the two. In recent years, the terms have become somewhat interchangeable, but for traditional manufacturers and distributors, they still remain two separate entities.
The umbrella is a handheld canopy used for protection from the rain, whereas the parasol is intended to be used for protection from the sun. This is an important factor to note as many parasols are not water resistant and cannot be used in inclement weather. They simply aren’t designed for it, despite having a similar appearance to the umbrella. This is why it’s very important for the purchaser to ensure they acquire the right canopy as inadvertently purchasing a parasol could result in being drenched.
For many, parasols are not something that remains a part of their collection. Many will simply use a well-made umbrella for both protection from the rain and from the sun. However, the enthusiast or dandy will, of course, have both in their collection, and often multiples in various styles.
The history of the canopy dates back thousands of years to the Middle East where sculptures at Nineveh have showcased the use of parasols the king whose servant would protect his bald head from the sun with a parasol that identically resembles those used today. The difference, however, was that at the time, the parasol was only permitted to be used by the king and no other was allowed to carry one.
In the book the History of Persia which was published in 1815, the author, Sir John Malcolm mentions the use of the parasol and the frequency in which it appears in various sculptures and works of art. Some of the art which has been dated more than twelve hundred years old, showcases the king in various activities from hunting on his horse to riding in his chariot with an attendant holding the parasol perched over his head.
Despite its use in the Middle East, the canopy has been traced as well to the history of the Terracotta Army in China during 210 BCE where an umbrella is seen affixed to the side of Qin Shihuang’s tomb. The interesting thing is that, if we consider the documented records, these canopies appear to be fixed. The first actual evidence of a collapsible canopy actually dates as far back as 21 AD when Wang Mang had one custom made for his carriage. The umbrella used foldable joints that allowed the canopy to be retracted when not in use. This umbrella in question was found in his tomb in the Korean Peninsula and has since been featured in many works of art.
While these umbrellas certainly had a protective capability and were used for this purpose, they also were designed as works of art and accessories the same as we use them today. Many of them featured ornaments, precious jewels and even various types of materials considered to be rare and expensive for the day.
Umbrellas have enjoyed a rich history and have been used daily by the aristocrats of the time, but also for formal use during ceremonies and receptions. What’s interesting to note, is that unlike many other inventions of the past, the canopy really hasn’t changed much since it was first developed thousands of years ago.
Even the Egyptians, who today, are known for their use of ornate riches used the parasol as a fashionable accessory. This is one region that focused on making it their own and many variations of the canopy could be used in various shapes, styles and materials. Often decorated with beautiful feathers or leaves, they are the inspiration behind the canopies used by the Pope in processions. Despite history reserving the canopy for use by gentlemen, it was the women in Egypt who really adopted the parasol as their own. This was the beginning of the use of a canopy as a fashion accessory by women that led to an almost global popularity that reached and remained in much of Europe.
By the fifth century BC, the parasol saw constant appearances in the hands of fashionable women. It was considered a part of their attire and used daily, regardless of weather. With its emerging use in Greece, Rome managed to catch onto the trend, and despite it’s primary use by women, men once again caught onto the trend and began to carry canopies with them.
By the middle ages, umbrellas were a fixture on fashionable men and women throughout all of Europe. What’s almost fascinating however, is that despite umbrellas being capable of fending off rain, they were only used as a fashion accessory and instead, umbrellas would be stored, and cloaks were worn to protect from the rain.
By the 17th century, umbrellas began to adopt a curved handle compared to the previous stick handles. The curvature of the handle was intended to allow a servant to easily hold the umbrella at an angle to shield their employer. Although we primarily use this handle today as a method of hanging the umbrella from the arm, it still maintains its original practicality for doormen style umbrellas used by valets and doormen throughout much of the world. In fact, even in American cities like New York, it’s widely considered inappropriate for a doorman not to be prepared with a large canopy for those entering or exiting the premises.
Almost all full-size umbrellas today utilize a curved handle, whereas the stick handle is primarily reserved for miniature travel umbrellas.
Despite rarely being used, many men and women continue to carry an umbrella with them daily. As a French magazine once reported, we carry the umbrella on our six months of the year to perhaps use it six times. Past and present, the canopy is arguably considered more of a fashion statement than a practical tool for protection. In fact, when we discuss practical use, it’s widely believed amongst experts that umbrellas are used for practicality more for protection from attackers or as a weapon than they are for rain and shine. The umbrella has long been a tool utilized by various spy agencies around the world as a concealed weapon and today, there are manufacturers that produce umbrellas for the general public that double as firearms and stun guns capable of emitting an electrical shock to a potential attacker.
In fact, in the United States alone, the US Patent Office has to employ four employees just for the filing of umbrella patents as they continue to be redeveloped constantly by many different companies. Umbrellas have become such commonplace that we even have a National Umbrella Day which falls on February 10th of each year. Despite being called a “national” day, it’s actually celebrated around the world due to the canopy’s global popularity.
Types of Umbrellas
There are a number of styles that umbrellas come in, the most common being what we refer to as the classic umbrella.
Without question, this is the most common umbrella used today. It’s a retractable umbrella that can be made from a variety of materials such as metal, wood or even plastic. For umbrellas they typically utilize a water resistant microfiber material for the canopy, whereas parasols utilize various materials that traditionally do not provide any protection from the rain. The classic umbrella is usually made in two versions, manual and automatic which allows the user to open and close it using one hand. In most cases, the classic umbrella will feature a long shaft with a curved handle.
Travel or Miniature Umbrella
This is probably the second most common style found today and consists of a smaller automatic umbrella with a shorter shaft and a straight handle. They are often used by those traveling but equally by people on daily excursions who would rather store the umbrella in their bag or car rather than carrying it with them. In fact, some of these umbrellas feature extending shafts which allow them to remain so small they can easily fit in a jacket pocket. When purchasing one of these umbrellas, one should note that in most cases they aren’t as durable or well made as the traditional umbrella. Therefore, it’s often worth it to either invest in a well made umbrella or continue to replace them by acquiring inexpensive umbrellas that can be found for just a few dollars. These umbrellas are traditionally not intended for extended use during heavy rain, but moreso for light showers or short walks from your car to shelter.
This is typically a larger umbrella similar to a golf umbrella used by doormen or attendants around much of the world. They are designed to provide protection to more than one individual and are usually well constructed. They almost always feature a curved handle to allow the doorman to hold the umbrella at an angle making it easier to cover the head of another person. These umbrellas provide sublime protection and are engineered for their commercial purpose which ensures solid construction. Of course, that usually means a higher price tag as well.
In recent years, luxury motorcar companies like Rolls Royce began including umbrellas with their vehicles. Often branded, many of the car companies will simply place the umbrella in the vehicles trunk or hatch, however, Rolls Royce and a few other manufacturers designed pop-out umbrellas that slide into a special compartment built into the car door. Of course, many other companies have began offering branded umbrellas to customers and often they are used as a marketing tool in the same way patio parasols at restaurants and bars will often feature the logo of a brewery or vendor.
Similar to the doorman’s umbrella, the golf umbrella is large umbrella, typically around 70 inches across. They are designed to fit snugly into the golf bag and can be used during a sudden shower to protect multiple golfers. In recent years, many companies have began to sell branded golf umbrellas, some of which even come with the bag. However, if you’re looking for a well-crafted golf umbrella it’s always wise to purchase an after-market canopy from a company that specializes in making them. In most cases, the branded umbrellas are made from inferior materials in large factories overseas where quantity is prized over quality.
Often transparent, these tall, spherical umbrellas are very popular throughout much of the world. They are ideal for high wind situations and protection from storms as opposed to light rain. They are often reinforced using stronger materials than their counterparts and can even be used during tropical storms. In addition, due to the increased visibility of the clear canopy, they are often used by newscasters reporting on television from location. Most meteorologists use these umbrellas while reporting on storms and while some companies have designed them as accessories, they are predominantly used solely for their protective capabilities.
For the most part, these umbrellas provide little protection, but are designed for use on the runway or by those who are simply looking for a fashionable accessory. They are usually quite decorative and rarely seen in use on the street, but more-so in fashion ads.
Today, most parasols are designed for use as patio umbrellas and are too large for anyone to carry. However, there are still a small selection of companies that produce handheld parasols designed for protection from the sun. Rarely seen, these are usually only used in high-heat environments or by fashionable dandies on a sunny day. They are also quite popular in some parts of Asia. One big benefit is that they typically offer protection from the UV rays which, as we all know, is responsible for many forms of cancer and other dangerous diseases.
Today, umbrellas are items you can find for just a few dollars or a few thousand dollars. Most of the quality umbrellas cost at least $50 and go upwards of a few hundred. Typically, these are the ones I would personally recommend as you will notice a significant difference in quality. From a personal standpoint, I can tell you that I own a few umbrellas that are higher priced, whereas my wife and I purchase inexpensive ones for our children from stores like Walmart or Target. Each of my umbrellas are still in mint condition after significant use, whereas we typically have to replace the inexpensive umbrellas each season. While mine can withstand some wind and stronger rain, the inexpensive ones we own will break easily after a single use during anything more than a light shower. Of course, the reason behind purchasing cheap umbrellas is that our kids are unlikely to care for them the same way we would and are prone to losing things or damaging them.
Here are a few umbrella manufacturers that are worth your attention. Keep in mind, these are not the umbrellas you’ll find at Walmart.
One of the most renowned umbrella makers in the world, this is one of the few designers that still makes their umbrellas by hand. Click here to read our in-depth review of them.
For over 60 years Mario Talarico has been making high-end men’s umbrellas in his small workshop at Vico Due Porte in Naples. It is one of those very few bespoke umbrella makers that offers an incredible range of materials and varieties. For example, you can choose from rosewood, elm, apple tree, ash, chestnut, with and without bark, broom, cherry, wild cherry, ebony, hazelnut, sugar cane, bamboo, malacca cane, lemon, dogwood, walnut, beech, hickory, cedar, and oak. The output is only about 3 per day or 1100 a year and prices can range from 200 EUR for an entry-level model, which is already of much higher quality than other umbrellas at that price point, to staggering $8,000 for a version with black tortoise shell handle. Up until ten years ago, Talarico was only known to insiders but one day a chap from the Parisian Le Monde seeked for shelter from the rain, and once he saw the quality, he sent a team of journalists to him, which was his first big story. Thereafter, the internet certainly helped to put Talarico on the map of gentlemen of taste and style and today, you can find his umbrellas all across the globe now including places like Alan Flusser.
Handmade in England since 1868, Fox Umbrellas are quintessentially British and who wouldn’t want a piece of rain great from one of the most rain-experience countries in the world? While Fox Umbrellas are more subdued than their Italian counterparts but they still offer a range of options for the classic gentleman, including handle choices and one piece umbrellas.
Founded by two young umbrella makers in 2014 in London , this bespoke operation seemed promising at first, but after extensive communication,or the lack thereof, a non-functioning website and broken promises, I have given up on them. Even if you offer the best product in the world, poor customer service will always bring you down, and based on my experience, it’s just a matter of time if they continue to conduct their business the way they do right now.
James Smith & Sons
Founded in 1830, James Smith has a beautiful umbrella store in London and you should definitely stop by when you are in town. The umbrellas are certainly not inexpensive but the experience are certainly unique.
Designed by Sarah Burton, Alexander McQueen umbrellas are known for their price tag and dramatic appearances. For the modern man, they offer an umbrella with a very contemporary, yet minimalistic flair. If you fancy the design and don’t mind that you can find better quality elsewhere, Alexander McQueen is a good option.
Swaine Adeney Brigg
Known as the gentleman’s umbrella, Brigg umbrellas are about as classic London as you can get. Click here to watch a video.
When London designer Jamie Milestone got frustrated with monochrome umbrellas that barely resisted bad weather, he set out to design a classically-inspired, yet fashionably designed umbrella that could withstand the inclement weather London is so well known for. Despite the umbrellas made using the most traditional methods, the designs are really unique. From map prints and camo to various intricate designs, these are umbrellas for the modern gent with a special sense of style.
The first, well constructed umbrella I ever bought was from Brooks Brothers. Quite inexpensive in comparison to many of their competitors, they are the perfect umbrella for the east coast prep. They offer a variety of styles, all of which are priced around $60. I’ve had mine for about four years and it’s still in perfect condition despite it’s regular use. In fact, this is the umbrella that I keep in my car.
Pasotti – Not Recommended
Pasotti is an Italian designer that manufacturers unusual and often gaudy, overpriced umbrellas. Although unique it is not something we would recommend buying but since they are so unique we had to mention it, and after all it’s always good to know what not to buy. Prices from around $200 upwards of $500, and definitely not worth it.
Pelcor – Not Recommended
Another brand to stay away from under any circumstances is Pelcor. They sent me one of their “luxury” cork umbrellas that retails upwards of $150. After just two light showers and hanging in my back entrance, the Pelcor looks worse than any other umbrella I have had for years. If you don’t mind a meretricious umbrella that’s grossly over-priced and feverishly inadequate then by all means buy a Pelcor cork umbrella. But if you ask my opinion; don’t expect anything more in terms of workmanship than you do from an umbrella from the dollar store.
Umbrellas are absolutely one of the most elegant and traditional accessories used by both men and women. Regardless of their intended use, they also offer a practical approach when one needs a leaning post, a walking stick over rough ground or a weapon to fend off potential attackers. They are multi-use and vary in both design and craftsmanship. If you don’t own a well made umbrella, this is one accessory you may want to consider investing in. I promise you won’t regret it. What’s your favorite kind of umbrella and who is your favorite designer?