Washington Coverup

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Deadly ultraviolet sun rays in the summer, acid snow in the winter, torrential rains all year long -- there's no telling what the skies will throw down these days. We need all the protection we can get in these angst-ridden times. Maybe that's why more and more people seem to be carrying open umbrellas all the time, on perfectly sunny days as well as dark and stormy ones.

Walk along the Mall on a pretty afternoon and see for yourself. There's a large blue one with a floral print. There's a bright red one. And a small green one.

"I can protect more of myself," says Inci Bowman, 66, a retired University of Texas medical historian who lives on Capitol Hill. On a recent weekday, she's sporting a beige umbrella as she strolls toward Pennsylvania Avenue. Overhead the sun is hot, but clouds and leafy trees provide intermittent shade, and breezes sweep along the streets. Bowman never lowers her umbrella.

"It's cooler to carry an umbrella than to wear a hat," she says. Besides, "it could rain every day. You never know."

She keeps the umbrella open "just to be on the safe side."

Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, says that people are carrying umbrellas more on sunny days because of concerns about global warming and danger to the skin. It can be an emotional aid, she says, in "an uncertain environment."

The word "umbrella" comes from the Latin word for shade. Originally, umbrellas were used for sun protection. In earlier civilizations they were a status symbol -- Egyptian royalty are pictured with umbrella-bearing attendants. (The modern equivalents are the valets who have carried umbrellas for celebrity royalty, such as Michael Jackson and P. Diddy.) The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that carrying umbrellas was okay for women but not for men, the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us. In the mid-18th century, a British traveler wrote home from France of the en-tout-cas, an umbrella that protects from both rain and sun. And he suggested that Brits should start carrying them.

Guidebooks through the years have urged visitors to the British Isles to carry an umbrella at all times. Historians tell us that British soldiers even toted their umbrellas to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

A legend accompanying a watercolor of a parasol at the National Gallery of Art explains that parasols were introduced to the United States in 1772 by a Baltimore entrepreneur. "Soon the fashion centers of Philadelphia and New York took an interest in this kind of accessory," the legend reads. "By the 19th century, parasols were commonly used by women for carriage rides or for promenading."

The umbrella, on the other hand, "was declasse," says Steele. "You were supposed to have a carriage to keep you from getting wet. Only middle-class people carried umbrellas." In the mid-19th century, Louis Phillipe of France carried an umbrella. He was known as the Bourgeois King.

Parasols were considered a more genteel thing in the southern United States, Steele says, where many people wanted "to keep their skin as light as possible." The same was true in India. She adds that parasol carriers were also trying to avoid heatstroke.

Today the answer to the umbrella and parasol is a 24/7 omnibrella. All-weather umbrellas are offered in gift catalogues.

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