For thousands of years sun protection has been a priority, with the forms changing over time. One such form of protection is the parasol. Often thought of as a frilly, lacey ladies accessory or prop, parasols played an important role in sun protection and were not always something for ladies.
The earliest records of parasol use come from what is now the Middle East around 2450 BCE. At this time they were used by royal men, and later aristocratic men. Images from the time depict parasols from leaves or feathers attached to different shaped frames. They also show them being carried for the high-born men. By the time of Ancient Greece, upper class women were also using parasols, also carried by others for them. Upper class ladies of Asia were also known to use parasols, however men did not. As time progressed parasols appeared in Europe where they became solely for ladies.
Through time parasols also changed in form, from the early bulky square shapes to the covered foldable frames we know today. Materials also changed to cloth and lace. With parasols being easier to use, ladies could shade themselves without the help of others. Through these changes, parasols were still a sign of the upper classes. As with other items of fashion, parasols served a function, that of shade from the hot sun, but also were a way to display wealth through the materials and trimmings used. Due to the fact parasols were used by the wealthy a rise in association with wealth and pale skin came into being. By the middle of the 20th century, this notion of wealth and pale skin had changed with the rise of tanning in popularity.
From photographs of, to the parasols within the museum’s collection, it is evident that parasols were widely used by women in Bruce County, and were used when in carriages, strolling down the boardwalk, while parading though town and at the beach. The materials of parasols range from cotton to silk, with handles often being of wood or bamboo and occasionally decorated with something such as tassels. Parasols are also found in the collection as an attachment to baby carriages – a precursor to the more modern sunshade. In some cases, like with the double carriage seen in this photo, there were two parasols.
With the rise in education about the detriments of sun exposure such as skin cancer and melanoma, and the ultra-violet strength of the sun, people are becoming much more sun conscious. This can be seen in umbrellas for shade on patios, sunshades, and umbrellas at the beach and in high strength sunscreen. Perhaps the parasol, a quintessential and functional ladies’ item, will make a fashionable comeback.