Beautiful umbrellas can incite crime. In Japan, umbrella up-grading and `borrowing' has become endemic Photograph by Jason Bye
It is hard to believe the British could have greeted the arrival of the umbrella with anything but enthusiasm. It is, after all, the item which completes the uniform of the City Gent; and the sight of spectators huddling under them at Wimbledon is an enduring image of the Great British summer. But, although the umbrella has been used around the world for more than 3,000 years, it has only been in the past 200 years that it has been accepted here.

When, in the 1750s, Jonas Hanway, the philanthropist, traveller and champion of the umbrella, became the first man to walk London's streets with one, he was laughed at and taunted by everyone he met. It is very telling that this reaction had more to do with the umbrella's provenance than its novelty. Umbrellas were not, at that time, unheard of, but the English regarded them as ridiculous French affectations, and their owners were thought to be effeminate victims of foreign fashion.

It took another 50 years or so before their appearance at the first sign of rain became the norm. But rainy days were not really what the umbrella was designed for; and its earliest users would be horrified to find its status sunk so low.

It was generally thought that umbrellas were a Chinese invention, but TS Crawford, one of the few umbrella historians, offers Egypt as its birthplace. He suggests that umbrellas were created as religious devices to represent the Egyptian view of the universe: the canopy symbolises the celestial goddess Nut, whose arched body formed the sky; and the stick and struts represent the god Shu who supported her with an outstretched hand on her breast and the other on her thigh. The umbrella was also seen as a symbol of Khaibit, the shadow cast by man, which contained an individual's powers of reincarnation. These religious connotations account for the umbrella becoming a mark of status in many cultures. In Asia, the size of an umbrella indicated the power and authority of those in its shade.

The ever-practical Romans ignored the umbrella's rich religious history and focused instead on its potential as a shield from the sun and shelter from the rain. Although the English were slow to follow suit, our change of heart, when it came, was nothing if not energetic. It was an English inventor, Samuel Fox, who in 1852 created the slim-line frame - still in use today - which made British umbrellas among the best in the world. A century later, Arnold Fulton improved on this design by increasing the number of ribs from eight to 10. His company was also awarded the Royal Warrant for their see-through PVC "Bird Cage" umbrella and, last year, Fulton launched the Miniflat, the smallest umbrella in the world.

Now Fulton has a new goal: it wants to establish the umbrella as a fashion accessory, taking the Japanese market as its model. There, the majority of the 80 million umbrellas in use each year are both functional and fashionable. Umbrellas, if they are beautiful, can even incite crime. In Japan, the umbrella racks stationed outside shops to stop customers trailing rainwater in their wake, now come with locks and keys as umbrella up-grading and "borrowing" has become an epedemic.

We still have a long way to go before we can match the Japanese in their regard for umbrellas. "I would like to feel," says Arnold Fulton, "that every time a person, male or female, buys an outfit, they will choose an umbrella to match." If past form is anything to go by, he will have quite a wait on his hands - 99.9 per cent of men's umbrellas sold in Britain are still black (in Sweden and Denmark, only clergymen carry black umbrellas), and 80-90 per cent of sales are what the industry rather quaintly calls "distress purchases". The idea that we may in time treat ourselves to an umbrella, as we might a pair of shoes or a hat, still seems remote