Invented to protect people from the sun in ancient Egypt and the Middle East, the parasol was developed as a fashion accessory in late-sixteenth-century Italy and soon spread throughout Europe. A parasol is a light umbrella, generally made of much lighter, less durable materials than an umbrella and not intended to protect the user from rain. At first used only in southern European countries, parasols became popular in England by the mid-eighteenth century and remained an important fashion accessory for women throughout Europe well into the nineteenth century. They were essential to helping women maintain their fashionably pale complexions.
Like other fashionable accessories, the parasol soon became a vehicle for the display of taste and manners. The shades of parasols were made of delicate fabrics like silk, satin, and lace, or of fabrics imprinted with beautiful patterns. Shafts were made of delicately carved wood, and handles might be made of ivory, silver, or gold. Practicality was soon discarded, and the sizes of parasols grew very tiny, hardly capable of providing shade. In the eighteenth century parasols played an important role in the posturing and posing that became such an important part of social display. Women held a parasol over their shoulder just so, twirled the handle for dramatic effect, and used the parasol to draw attention to themselves.
While it is not surprising that men didn't carry parasols, it also was considered ungentlemanly to carry an umbrella until the nineteenth century. Carrying an umbrella implied that a man couldn't afford a carriage to protect him from the rain, so umbrellas were considered acceptable only for the lower classes. Men using umbrellas in England were mocked as late as the 1780s, but finally people realized that keeping dry might make more sense than keeping in fashion.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Cassin-Scott, Jack. Costume and Fashion in Colour, 1550–1760. Introduction by Ruth M. Green. Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1975.
Crawford, T. S. A History of the Umbrella. Newton Abbot, UK: David and Charles, 1970.