Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Most Romantic Accessory Under the Sun

QUESTION: I love fashion accessories. Recently, I purchased a beautiful antique parasol from a vintage clothing booth at a local antique show. It’s covered in lace and has an ivory handle. Other than they’re a cousin of the umbrella, what can you tell me about the history of these romantic fashion accessories?
ANSWER: Parasols go back almost 5,000 years to ancient Egypt. Then as in their heyday during the late 18th and 19th centuries, they shielded women from the sun. In fact, the word literally means "for sun" in Spanish.

The umbrella as we know it first gained favor in England as a way for women to shield themselves from English rain. English umbrella makers first constructed them of oiled silk which made them extremely heavy and difficult to open when wet. But it wasn’t until the late 18th century that French umbrella makers transformed this mundane accessory into the parasol, one of romantic beauty. It’s name literally means “for the sun.”

Traditionally ladies had accessorized their outfits with delicate cane walking sticks, but during the 18th century, they replaced them with the more fashionable and useful parasol.

As the popularity of the parasol grew so too did its ornamentation. Until 1800, the fabric used on parasols was mostly green to cast a complementary shadow over the bearer's face so that a woman’s overly flushed complexion might appear fashionably pale. After this period of restraint, parasols became sumptuous with canopies adorned with laces, ruffles and fringes. Parasol makers replaced utilitarian wooden handles with costly ones made from porcelain, ivory, or ebony, enriched with elaborate carvings and inlays of mother of pearl, gems, and precious metals.

By the Victorian era the parasol was an essential accessory for ladies. Many had parasols made to match the fabric of their dresses, while the truly fashionable even had fans made to match their parasols. The length of the handle and shaft, the number of spokes and the diameter of the canopy, at one stage no larger than a handkerchief, were constantly shifting with changes in fashion. But in 1852, Samuel Fox, the founder of the English Steels Company, had a surplus of steel stays used in making corsets. Fox had the idea of using his steel stays in place of wooden or bone ribs, thus reducing the weight of parasols and improving their opening and durability.

To Victorian women, an unblemished complexion was essential to their concept of beauty. Like fans, parasols became part of the Victorian feminine mystique and even developed their own secret language useful for flirting.

Parasols were as a much a part of a well-dressed lady's outfit as were her gloves, hat, shoes and stockings. A fashionable lady carried a different parasol for each outfit. They became popular gifts for men to give their lady.

By the dawning of the 20th century, wide-brimmed hats became fashionable and women no longer needed parasols to protect complexions. Parasols eventually disappeared during the 1920's, when a tanned complexion replaced pale skin as a status symbol.

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