Historical Costume 1800-1820 : Parasols Up and Down

1820 pelisse robe © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

You may have seen the image above in my blog about pelisses, a few weeks ago. I’m repeating the picture here because of that parasol. Or is it an umbrella? It rather looks like one. In fact, apart from that tassel, the proportions look very modern.

Parasols : for the sun, not the rain

Parasols, especially early in the Regency period, had different proportions, as you can see from the examples below, all courtesy of the Hereford Museum costume collection.

On the left is a pale pink silk parasol, very small, with a long handle, a neat metal ferrule and a tassel. On the right is a pale pink lace parasol, again with a long handle. If you look closely — click on any of the images to enlarge them — you’ll see that the long ivory handle of the lace one is carved. Its ferrule has a ring rather than a tassel.

pale pink Regency parasol, Hereford Museum collectionpale pink Regency lace parasol, Hereford Museum collectionBoth Pale pink?

Do you begin to see a theme here?

There’s another one — also pale pink, but with a fringe this time — below.

The image on the left shows the pink fringed cover and the elaborate tassel hanging from the ferrule. The image on the right shows its beautiful green silk lining and the carving that twines round the long ivory handle. This parasol is exquisite. Even if it is [mostly] pale pink.

pale pink silk fringed Regency parasol, Hereford Museum collection               pale pink silk fringed Regency parasol green lining carved handle, Hereford Museum collection

Did parasols have to be pink?

No. The colour might have been popular because it flattered a lady’s complexion, perhaps?

bright blue scalloped edge Regency parasol, Hereford Museum collectionOr maybe it’s just that the Hereford Museum’s collection was given quite a few pink ones over the years 😉

In fact, the Hereford Museum has other colours, too. To prove it, here’s a stunning bright blue one. Amazing that the colour doesn’t seem to have faded over the two centuries since it was used.

The long elegant handle is ivory; and sculpted rather than carved. The ivory ferrule has a ring instead of a tassel.


Carrying a parasol — upside-down?

We know how a lady carried her parasol when it was open. But when it was closed? Nowadays, we always carry our umbrellas with the ferrule down. Modern umbrellas often have curved handles to make them easier to carry that way.

None of the images above shows a curved handle. And what were the rings and tassels for? Wouldn’t they dangle in the dirt when the parasol was carried unopened?

1808 fashion print with parasols © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

© Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Look closely at the fashion plate on the right, dating from 1808 and shown courtesy of the V&A Museum.

Two of the ladies are carrying coloured parasols. Both are carrying them upside-down — or so it seems to a modern eye.

The lady on the far left has a parasol with a very short handle. The ring in the ferrule is looped elegantly over her little finger. The lady in the middle has a parasol with a much longer handle, and she seems to be using it rather like a walking stick.

So the tassels wouldn’t have dangled in the dirt. They’d have dangled from delicately-gloved fingers instead. And the ring was for one of those slim fingers.

There are quite a lot of examples, from prints, of parasols being carried in this way. i’ve shown another one below, from 1814.
And that parasol is definitely being used as a walking stick.

1814 fashion print with parasol © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

© Victoria & Albert Museum, London

So upside-down parasols were the rule?

That would be much too easy. And to prove it, here are two more fashion prints, from 1817, with parasols carried in what looks, to modern eyes, to be the conventional way.

1817 fashion print with parasol © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

© Victoria & Albert Museum, London

1817 fashion print with parasol © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

© Victoria & Albert Museum, London


The one on the left seems to have a curved handle, so it could have been awkward to use the other way up.


The one on the right has a very long ferrule. Seems to have been designed to be held that way up, don’t you think?

So the image at the top of this post isn’t wrong.
At least, not in the way she’s holding her parasol.

Costume is endlessly fascinating, and just seems to raise more and more questions. So I’ll be trying to provide more answers. Soon.

Joanna Maitland, author


Late PS: Louise Allen looked at the up-or-down issue years ago on her blog about the great parasol mystery. Sadly I missed it. But you probably shouldn’t because Louise’s prints are gorgeous. Also, in her reply here (below), Louise says that, after her parasol mystery blog: “an expert got in touch to say it was because the safe catch that holds it closed wasn’t developed until about 1817 – you had to hold it ‘upside down’ or it just fell open”
Thank you, Louise. Mystery solved 😉 And a totally practical solution, too.

8 thoughts on “Historical Costume 1800-1820 : Parasols Up and Down

  1. Louise Allen

    Lovely blog – wonder if the complexion-flattering pink is the same used for that purpose on the dining chairs at Eltham Palace?
    I had a go at the ‘which way up do you hold it’ puzzle here https://janeaustenslondon.com/2014/08/02/the-great-parasol-mystery-or-which-way-is-up/
    and an expert got in touch to say it was because the safe catch that holds it closed wasn’t developed until about 1817 – you had to hold it ‘upside down’ or it just fell open

    1. Joanna Post author

      Fascinating information, Louise, about the safety catch. And I owe you an apology. I’m an avid follower of your janeaustenlondon.com blog but I must have missed that one. Shall now edit my blog to include a link to it in case viewers miss your comment.

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    I never noticed that before. Very glad to hear Louise’s explanation. They are very pretty. I wonder did they keep the rain off too? You might easily be caught in a shower even if it started out sunny.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’m sorry that so many elephants died to produce handles for parasols but that’s the way it was back then. And some of the carving on the handles is astonishingly beautiful.

  3. Jan Jones

    The pink must have been to cast a flattering glow to the complexion, no? I’m still wondering about holding a parasol just on one finger. Were they amazingly light?

    1. Joanna Post author

      I fancy pink was flattering. And judging by the examples in the Hereford Museum collection, they didn’t weigh much so one finger would have been enough, Jan. After all, parasols were a few wisps of silk, some very slender wires and a thin bit of ivory or bamboo. (I misremembered the handle of the blue parasol as bamboo, but looking more closely, it’s ivory too.) And so much more elegant to carry suspended from a single finger, don’t you think?

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