Category Archives: 18th c. Accessories

A Woman with a Parasol

Come summer I am absurdly jealous of ladies and their parasols.  What modern accessory marries charm and practicality half so well?  I have not discovered it, though I do have a tendency to reach for my collection of floppy hats once the sun rides high.  Sunscreen and my face are frenemies with a capital F, you see, and while I hope to maintain the Nicole Kidman aesthetic of limiting direct exposure whenever possible, brims that stretch to my shoulders get rather ridiculous looks, not to mention they are impossible to keep on one’s head in the wind.

Thus the want of a modernized parasol.

Vertumnus and Pomona – Jean Ranc (1710-1720)

A Bit of Sunshade History

Once an object of royal privilege, the parasol had its origins in the ancient east, migrating from China to Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent.  It eventually spread to the arid climes of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, but after the collapse of the Roman Empire it fell out of favor with the public until the Italian renaissance.  In the centuries’ gap in between, the parasol shaded the holy heads of popes, bishops, and doges from the eighth to the 16th centuries.  Its use was largely ceremonial.
Italy -- doges of Venice and t... Digital ID: 817921. New York Public Library

Northern(ish) Europe was late to the parasol party.  The French style mavens adopted it around the 17th century, but their early parasols were a far cry from the silk sunshades of Versailles.  When the first engravings of the parasol appeared in France in the 1620s, the parasol was still reserved for the wealthy.  These iterations, though evolved from the first creation, were unwieldy and required the assistance of a brawny servant who could manage its weight.

Measurements from the 1650s tell of parasols weighing 1600 grams or about three and a half pounds—three and a quarter pounds too heavy for a gentle lady to prop on her shoulder or hold over her head.  Stripping the parasol to its bones would have rendered whalebones at lengths of 80 centimeters that were held together by a copper ring; a handle of solid oak; and a choice of heavy fabrics made of oilcloth, barracan, or grogram.  In cheaper parasols, one might have used straw.

Around 1688 ladies parasols matured into an elegant accessory used much like a fan.  An engraving from Nicolas Arnault shows “…the appearance of a mushroom, well developed and slightly flattened at its borders, the red velvet which covers it is divided into ribs or rays, by light girdles of gold, and the handle, very curiously worked, is like that of a distaff, with swellings and grooves executed by the turner.  Altogether, this coquette’s Sunshade is very graceful, and of great richness.”
[Woman holding a parasol walki... Digital ID: 824666. New York Public Library
Luxury in sunshades became the thing.  Silk fringes and feather plumes, handles of Indian bamboos and changing silks, replaced dull practicality and fashionable ladies ran after their whims.  By the middle of the 18th century, the Parisians preferred taffety to all other fabrics and preferred the convenience of picking up a parasol along the way over the danger of going without.  In 1769 parasols were so trendy that a small business sprang up on the Pont Neuf where, at the cost of two farthings, those crossing the bridge could rent a parasol and return it on the other side.  The French, one must assume, did not walk fast.

Le Pont Neuf. Digital ID: ps_prn_cd11_155. New York Public Library

A couple under a parasol in a garden – Jean-Baptiste Mallet (1791-1793)

England’s affair with the parasol was somewhat less enthusiastic.  You may have noticed by now that I’ve excluded men from all our parasol talk.   Historical accounts claim they stuck to manly accessories like cloaks and hats to fend off the elements.  Jonas Hanway, an English doctor who must have trudged through more than one rainy afternoon with a scowl on his face, thought this prejudice absurd.  Even though parasols and their umbrella cousins were considered effeminate, Hanway was a doctor, damn it all, and he was not going to risk his health on some silly society opinion.

Jonas Hanway, the first Englis... Digital ID: 824663. New York Public Library

Above:  Jonas Hanway being heckled for his parasol/umbrella.  

Below: looking proud.

Jonas Hanway and his umbrella. Digital ID: 824683. New York Public Library

Starting in 1756 he would walk through the London streets, brash as Robinson Crusoe, umbrella in hand, recalling perhaps: “I covered it with skins, the hair upwards, so that it cast off the rain like a penthouse, and kept off the sun so effectually that I could walk out in the hottest weather, with greater advantage than I could before in the coolest. . .”  (Daniel Defoe’s lines written in 1719, one of the first references by an Englishman to the umbrella)

Robinson Crusoe brings in the ... Digital ID: 1697950. New York Public Library

Never mind that to carry a parasol or umbrella was to risk announcing that one was without a carriage.  Dr. Hanway was a thinking man who spurred on England’s umbrella revolution because he dared and it paid off.  Thirty years after his spirited jaunts about London, ladies were stepping out in the park, twirling pretty handles over their shoulders, and gentlemen weren’t looking at umbrellas so scornfully.  Well, almost.

Parasols for 1795. Digital ID: 817999. New York Public Library

Parasols for 1795

All images except except Mallet’s and Ranc’s are from the NYPL digital gallery. Go browse and discover.  Their collection is marvelous.

Also, for those who like a bit of amusement with their history:

The newest thing in umbrellas. Digital ID: 824646. New York Public Library

Hands free!  “The newest thing in umbrellas”

Some new ideas in umbrellas. Digital ID: 824678. New York Public Library

The next newest thing.  Be an umbrella

Bartine’s sunshade hat. Digital ID: 824699. New York Public Library

From 1890 . . . when gentlemen really gave in

 And lastly, which umbrella type are you?

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Ringling Museum: Ladies’ Fans, Part 2

Earlier last week I posted pics of 18th century fans, circa 1750 to be precise, from France and the Netherlands. After a few days lolling around Sarasota and wondering whether a series of postings to a) show additional pics of their C18-19 fan collection and b) extend my current Water for Elephants/Ringling Circus preoccupation would be appropriate for a site mostly devoted to Georgian England and Revolutionary France tidbits, I’ve decided that a week’s deviation from the usual topic might just be diverting.  You agree?  Good.  If not, I’ll see you next week!

The Fans

The left fan I must not have thought much of while at the museum because I have no picture of it in my possession.  Oops! The middle fan (2) caught my eye right away.

It’s of Napoleon and Marie Louise, the Duchess of Parma and Napoleon’s second wife.  The fan is circa 1810, made just prior to her becoming Empress in 1811.  I wonder if they were all the rage to carry or more of a promotional campaign on the Empire’s part?  My French isn’t exactly amazing; otherwise I would take the pains to translate the inscription on either side of the fans.  My guess without translation is that the fan commemorates the uniting of two empires, namely the French and the Austrian-Habsburg.  Oh, well look at that little bit of irony!  Vive la révolution!

 I find this fan visually pretty in a pale, ephemeral sort of way.  It’s the color of tea-stained rags with hints of relief in white and dove gray.  The scene presented to us is a wine festival with musicians and dancers, families and couples, all enjoying an evening out.  Odd color scheme for for what’s being staged, but it is an old fan dating to 1710.  It’s also Italian.  As with many fine fans, the paper is vellum and the sticks are ivory.  This contrasts with the Napoleon and Marie Louise fan whose sticks are wood.

The last fan in the bunch is another French one from 1750.  It’s typical of the period, ivory sticks, watercolor on paper leaf, and a tranquil peasant scene.

 The Making of Fans from the Ringling Museum

“The main components of a folding fan consist of two end sticks, called guards sticks, that protect the painted leaf within.  Typically, the painting was done in watercolor after which the shaped leaf was carefully scored and pleated, allowing the fan to unfold as it was opened.  The interior sticks and spine supporting the fans leaf,  made of materials as varied as elephant ivory, tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl, exotics woods or bone, are joined at the base of the sticks with a single rivet.  The most expensive examples would then have gold or silver leaf applied to the carved decoration.  Handmade paper, woven silk, and vellum were all used to fashion the leaf.”

On tap for tomorrow:  Pictures of Ca’ d’Zan, the Ringling Family Mansion

Ringling Museum: Ladies’ Fans, Part 1

Other than being a delightful ode to all things circus, the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida is a surpising resource for the 18th century.  Not only does it have an original 1788 Vigee-Lebrun of Marie Antoinette, their collection of fans is spectacular.  Take, for instance, this trio from the 1750s.

The left (1) is French and features figures on a landscape.  It’s a pretty example of watercolored leaf paper over ivory sticks.  The predominant design is lace on a black backdrop, black being an unsual color for the time except when used in mourning.  I don’t, however, believe it’s a mourning fan as it was not specified as such at the museum.  If my recollection is correct, full mourning fans would have been made of black crepe during this period with half-mourning allowing white and/or dull colors to grace the garments and accessories.

The middle fan (2) is also French and shows a fête au jardin or garden party.  I have a close-up photo below because it’s very busy.  The sticks in particular are incredible.  Like the previous fan, the medium is watercolor on paper leaf, but it’s made with mother-of-pearl sticks in addition to ivory.

Unlike the first two, the bright red fan on the right is Dutch.  The technique is gouache on paper leaf.  This technique is similar to watercolor except with a higher pigment to water ratio and a chalk-like substance added to the mix.  This creates opacity and a high degree of reflection, making the colors stunning.  The ivory sticks aren’t quite as decorative as fan 2, but the village scene therein is precious.

The additional fans are closed and therefore not very interesting.  So then, the Marie Antoinette Vigee-Lebrun. As a side note, did MA actually read? I’m not so sure!