Shades of the Past

Parasols emerge from the 1920s intact

Four years ago P. Diddy and his manservant walked along a dock in St. Tropez under the shade of a white, dainty umbrella. A photo of the two men, dressed in seersucker and stepping into a yacht, ran in magazines all over the country. As Lola Ogunnaike argued in The New York Times last year, the image—an obscene display of wealth, courage, and whatever else inspires someone to carry a parasol—single-handedly made P. Diddy's assistant famous.

At that point, wandering around with a personal, portable roof—particularly one that looks likes lingerie—seemed innately humiliating. But recently this flirty Old World contraption has been winning over a small, but growing, portion of New Yorkers, who aren't easily ashamed. Peggy Levee, the owner of Rain or Shine, an umbrella shop heavy on lace, ruffles, buttons, and boas, said she hasn't seen this many parasols since the first half of the century. "It all went bad when Coco Chanel came back from a vacation," she said. "It was some island in Europe. She looked gorgeous. Perfectly tan. That was the end of the parasol."

In the past few months, Levee has continually had to order new shipments of umbrellas, many of which would look great in an ice skating show. Department stores are also expanding their selections and, three weeks ago, another specialty shop, Brella Bar, opened on the Upper East Side. Owner David Kreitman, who used the term "cheap black umbrella" as if repulsed, specializes in more upscale things— "brollies," as he put it, with handmade bamboo handles, silk canopies and automated systems to ensure a silent and gradual sweep into motion. "It's the hum. Parasols are back. First it was other accessories—bags, watches, hats. But an umbrella is so much more expressive—and big—than a watch!"

For those uninterested in spending $400 on expression, there are cheaper alternatives: On the brightest days, many people have just settled for rain gear. One 34-year-old man, walking on Seventh Avenue in Chelsea, said he's a little embarrassed by his umbrella, which features a picture of Shakespeare's head in each of its eight partitions, but "it's better than cancer." If someone would design a "man-sol"—a term he made up on the spot—he'd feel much more comfortable, particularly if it was in maroon or gray, he said.

Although parasols seem impractical, evoking images of dumb, bored ladies on lawns that expand to infinity, they actually fulfill their function well, shading the whole body. "I'd use a hat, but it makes my hair messy," said a woman walking through Brooklyn Heights who described her age as "50 and up." She was holding a $10 paper parasol from Chinatown that looked like it'd been plucked from a cocktail. "Yes, I feel a little weird. I just wish more people would do it. Then I could get a little Japanese outfit to go along. Wee!" she said, curtsying.

 
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