The Met collection houses a fascinating range of umbrellas and parasols—as well as images of them—from diverse cultures and periods, such as the unusual American parasol shown at top, and the beautiful Belle Époque parasol from French luxury maker Dupuy, shown below.
The first umbrellas functioned as portable canopies, probably assembled from the broad leaves of a tree. Seen in ancient artifacts and sculptures from China, Egypt, Greece, and the Near East, they often indicate divine or royal status and are generally entrusted to attendants to carry.
During Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868), beautiful paper umbrellas enjoyed great popularity. They are frequently depicted in colorful woodblock prints, variously sheltering their users from sun, rain, or snow.
Parasols (from the French parare, to shield, and sole, sun) and umbrellas (from the Latin umbra, shade) became popular fashionable accessories in the 18th century. The two terms have often been used interchangeably, though the latter is associated more with rain.
The unusual hybrid called en tout cas (in any event) offered dual protection from both sun and rain; the charming example shown below has a duck-headed handle.
Britain’s Queen Victoria started a trend for “carriage parasols” in the 1840s, which were used when riding in an open carriage (example below). The fashion remained current for several decades.
Indeed, the chic 19th-century woman in Europe and America was rarely seen in public without a parasol, which safeguarded her complexion and showed off her discriminating taste. Well-dressed ladies carrying parasols were depicted by many notable artists of the day, including Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and Georges Seurat.
Find a selection of art-inspired umbrellas at The Met Store.