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A Potted History of the Umbrella

The word umbrella comes from the latin ‘Umbre’ meaning shade

 

The umbrella has been used to assassinate, conceal, beautify, dance with, kiss under, hypnotise, worship with, dignify and fly with. Mostly, however, it is used to protect us from rain and to shield us from sun…

 

From banana leaf, woven palm-frond, stitched leather, paper, silk, oiled-silk taffeta, the umbrella has made its way into our wardrobes and occasionally our umbrella stands, if we have come up so far in the world as to own one  (stand that is, not umbrella) and has become a commonplace accessory in most of the world.

 

But umbrellas and parasols, when they were first invented in ancient Egypt over 3000 years ago, and whose use spread to Assyria, India and China, were quickly associated with ‘sun-worshipping” religions.  Difficult to make and expensive, they were symbols of power and were used to protect very important people and sometimes objects, from the burning heat of the sun.

 

The first lightweight folding umbrella in Europe was brought to market by a Parisian merchant named Jean Marius in 1710. A Princess fell in love with it and  made it instantly fashionable.  Another Frenchman, Navarre created a new model (the one with the little button to snap open the canopy) in 1759, a design he presented to the eminent Academie des Sciences in Paris.

 

In the 20th century, the Austrians and the Germans took the umbrella to its next incarnation: in 1928 Hans Haupt’s pocked umbrellas appeared in Vienna.

 

But it was a woman, Slawa Horowitz, a student studying sculpture at the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste Wien (Academy of Fine Arts) who developed a prototype for an improved compact foldable umbrella for which she received a patent on 19 September 1929. The umbrella was called "Flirt" and manufactured by the Austrian company "Brüder Wüster" and their German associates "Kortenbach & Rauh".

 

There are many more notable umbrellas sightings in the history of the umbrella. And many more appear in iconic moments in art, literature and film but maybe our fascination with this perfect object, where form meets function, has a deeper pull than we realize.  

 

In Buddhism, the umbrella or parasol is one of the 8 auspicious symbols. The dome of the parasol represents wisdom and the world, with the pole as the spine that connects the bearer of the parasol, making the person holding it the centre of the universe. The canopy, or skirt, represents compassion as well as protection. Protection not just from the sun or the rain but from suffering, earthly desires and entanglements. And so, the magic of the umbrellas is not just what the quixotic character that a flying Mary Poppins or a dancing Don Lockwood (played by Gene Kelly) embody, but a symbol of illumination, knowledge and enlightenment.

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