Victorian parasol kept the skin pale

� Tony Bartholomew 07802 400651''SMT objects of the week
� Tony Bartholomew 07802 400651''SMT objects of the week

by Jeannie Swales

It’s May Day, and the sun will be getting his hat on (we hope!).

So it seems an opportune time to feature that most feminine of objects from the Scarborough Collections: a Victorian parasol.

Caramel silk with a chocolate brown devoré velvet patterned border and silk fringing, and an ivory hanging loop, this parasol also features a luxurious tented white silk lining to disguise the ribs supporting the outer cover – a level of detail which suggests it was an expensive little number in its day.

The word ‘parasol’ means to shield from the sun, and images of the parasol as a practical and unisex accessory can be found in many ancient cultures, from Greece and Rome to Egypt and China, often carried by a servant or slave to protect some important personage from the ravages of sunburn.

In the pictured style – a small, personal, decorative accessory – it became particularly popular in the west in the 19th and very early 20th centuries, when sun-tanned skin was considered highly undesirable: it suggested working in the outdoors, and was therefore considered lower class. A pale skin was considered so fashionable that upper class women went to great lengths to protect themselves from the sun: it wasn’t until the 1920s that, it’s believed, Coco Chanel popularised the tan, making it a symbol of wealth, travel and indolence – at which point the popularity of the parasol began to wane.

Parasols moved through many forms during the 19th century, moving from, for instance, whalebone or baleen ribs to steel ones in the mid-1800s, and gradually gaining innovations such as a latch to keep the parasol open, bands and buttons (like the press-studded band on a modern umbrella) to keep it closed, folding sticks (the precursor of the telescopic umbrella), and the ‘marquise’ hinge, which enabled the cover to be angled whilst on a carriage ride.

The parasol was essentially a feminine accessory, and could be both practical and fashionable. As with the fan, it could be used as part of a ritual to hide the owner from the attentions of men.

The parasol is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork owned by the borough. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on or 01723 384510.