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Fashion: Come reign or shine

As with so much of our culture, the origins of the umbrella came out of Egypt. They were first used as an item of religious and ceremonial regalia and are thought to have been constructed to represent the Egyptian concept of "heaven", with the shade cast by the royal umbrella soon likened to the protection afforded by the king's power.

An umbrella is used as protection against the rain, whereas a parasol protects the user from the sun. The word umbrella originates from the Latin word umbra, meaning "shade", and originally the two words were usually interchangeable.

In the early 16th century the umbrella was seen as mainly a religious object, but was quickly becoming a fashionable accessory. Influenced by Asia and Africa, the custom of carrying a shade to protect yourself from the sun became popular in Europe.

At the end of the 17th century, the waterproof umbrella had been introduced into Britain, although it was used only by upper-class women, and by the mid-18th century the commercial production of umbrellas was underway across the channel.

By the early 1800s the parasol was firmly established as a fashion item for women whereas the umbrella was meant to be more functional. Towards the end of the 19th century, parasols came with chiffon and silk covers, and women could carry them closed as walking sticks while men had their own silk "city umbrellas".

Fashionable styles were changing frequently up until the start of the First World War. After the war more men started carrying umbrellas, but with the growing car industry the demand for them was lessening. Despite a short revival in the 20s, the parasol's demise was most rapid in countries where they had been carried only as a fashion item, and in countries that lacked sunny weather.

Umbrellas today rarely follow trends. Although a well-made umbrella can last years, our national habit of leaving brollies in shops, taxis and buses means that we get through quite a few more.

Susannah Conway