Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Fun in the Sun...Not!

This parasol is not Victorian--I'm guessing it's early twentieth century--but the tassel and beautiful repousse silver handle ( I wish it showed up better in the photo) are a definite reminder of earlier days.

This week, thousands of college-aged teens are hitting the beaches of Florida in order to come home from Spring Break looking appropriately sun-kissed. If one of our gently-brought-up young ladies of 1810 or 1840 had gone on a trip to the shore, you'd better believe that coming home with a tan would have been regarded as a calamity.

The ideal of feminine beauty up until the early twentieth century was a fair, white complexion. To some degree, this probably had its origins in economics: if you were pale and soft-skinned, it meant you didn't spend your time out of doors working in the fields or taking care of farm animals...which meant your family could afford to have other people do that work for you.

Of course, that didn't mean you never stirred out-of-doors...but it did mean that when you did go out for a stroll around the garden or a gentle trot down the Ladies' Mile in Hyde Park, you used a parasol, wore a hat (and often a veil swathed over your face) and wore gloves to keep the skin of your hands equally white. Like this young lady of 1815, attired for walking.

And if (oh, horrors!) you were negligent and let your parasol drag behind or used it to keep obnoxious suitors at bay, then you rushed home to apply one of the dozens of commercially prepared lotions, like "Godfrey's Extract of Elder Flowers...To be had of any respectable Perfumer or Medicine Vendor in Bottles at 2s. 9d. each" which promised to "...communicate a refreshing coolness and softness to the skin, and completely remove Tan, Pimples, and cutaneous Eruptions...."

By the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, this attitude had changed. As more young women of the lower economic classes took jobs in factories and shops and offices, having a tan (a light one, mind you--just a glow) implied that you had the leisure time to engage in healthy outdoor pursuits like tennis or golf or riding and weren't stuck indoors all day.

And one final word for today: don't try to take pictures on the floor when there's a nosy rabbit around. I wonder if the orange fabric gave him hopes of a giant carrot?


Mary Witzl said...

I use a parasol. They are a great way to keep the sun off you, and more effective than a lot of hats. My kids tell me it looks silly, but let them laugh.

In Japan, almost all women over 50 use parasols. I bought mine one sizzling summer when I saw another foreign woman, a student from Northern Africa, whip hers out as she stepped off the train. I'm betting that in Northern Africa, they know all about how to keep cool, and when I saw that woman put up her parasol, she looked so elegant, I went straight out and bought one myself. I still have it, but I don't get a lot of use out of it here in Scotland.

Marissa Doyle said...

Unless it doubles as an umbrella, Mary!

I think parasols are charming, and would love to see them used more.