Stories / February 2019

The Umbrella: Flooded in History

Empowered as sun protection in 11th century BC ancient China, to being tightly furled underneath English bankers arms on London Bridges, the umbrella has an unprecedented history that is making a storming comeback.

The Queen appears to be asking Canadian Prime minister Pierre Trudeau to share her umbrella in 1977 (Photo by Jeff Goode/Toronto Star Via Getty Images)

Perhaps it’s down to the rise of technical fabrics, or the re-emergence of the hood as something acceptable in the wardrobes of the over-12s. Maybe it’s because of heritage style, with its emphasis on the dependable and rugged, or perhaps because we spend much of our time secreted in climate controlled rooms or vehicles. But the umbrella, it seems, is not what it was. One of menswear’s few contraptions, it was once regarded as being as much as tool for gesticulation as for protection from the rain. Indeed, look to Gene Kelly’s most famous dance routine and it was decidedly more for the former than the latter, and this despite the downpour. Yet, look to the glistening city streets today, and it might be assumed that the proper umbrella had furled its last.

But the umbrella deserves resurrection - not just because it’s a marvel of engineering, one which, like the steam engine, may feel as though its day is done but which nevertheless retains ardent fans of the technology’s very peculiarity and charm, but because, as Jonas Hanway discovered, it’s an effective style signature, and all the more so as fewer men use one. Hanway was the traveller who, in the early 1700s, was accused of affectation - and of damaging the coachmen’s trade - for carrying what, until that time, had been considered an accessory strictly for women; and more a parasol to keep the sun off one’s porcelain skin than to keep the heavens from one’s brow (the name ‘umbrella’ comes from ‘umbra’, Latin for ‘shade’).

Hanway was rediscovering an idea that had somehow been long lost: the earliest examples of the umbrella date to the 11th century BC, the ancient Chinese being the first to waterproof their sun protection. It wasn’t really embraced during Hanway’s lifetime either, despite its steady if slow uptake. The first patent registered for an umbrella wasn’t until 1786, the year after he died. Just as remarkably, this patent was for a design that defined the umbrella as a canopy stretched over collapsible ribs extending from a central shaft.

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Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.