This story is part of a series, Past/Present, highlighting images and articles from Vogue that have personal significance to our editors.
To most people umbrellas are markers of rain and shields against the elements, but to me, they are special occasion accessories. I’ve devoted much of my wardrobe to mid-century vintage because it makes me entirely happy and I have a special collection of umbrellas to help complete the look. As I see it, umbrellas are to the rain what sunglasses are to the sun—and who doesn’t love sunglasses?
My enduring fascination with the brolly was piqued in graduate school when studying early Dior looks. Image searches delivered photos of swan after smiling swan; behatted, begloved, and pretty often, carrying an umbrella. Not for rain, mind you, but for fashion. Hooked like an umbrella’s curved handle, I dedicated my thesis to the subject, which necessitated spending several months looking at umbrellas in Vogue. Nice work if you can get it.
What I find enchanting, then and now, is how unnecessary and delightfully superfluous umbrellas seem in many fashion photographs of the 1940s and 1950s. Case in point: A 1956 promotion of new Vogue Patterns. The piece, with instructions for home sewers to make their own clothes “with a clarity that’s clear even to a complete amatuer,” is illustrated with a model wearing pattern 8829. It’s a princess seamed linen shirt dress with prim buttons that reach her neck. On her head is a hat shaped like a squat lampshade and in her hand she clutches a pair of gloves, a fabric handbag and yes, an umbrella.
One wonders why the photographer, Roger Prigent, thought to include it. It doesn’t appear to be raining. In fact, the bright blue background would suggest the exact opposite. One could say the umbrella’s ubiquitous appearance is a reflection of the era’s commodification of fashion—a woman needed so many bits and bobs to consider herself dressed. Maybe it’s merely a matter of fashionable feng shui: an opened umbrella mimics the full, expansive skirt of that time. The overall impression is that these ladies were all dressed up, with somewhere to go.
These days, there’s nowhere to go. My vintage dresses remain largely unworn and my umbrellas haven’t seen much rain. But sometime, soon, when I’ll have some place to be you can bet I’ll be bringing my brolly.
“The New Vogue Printed and Perforated Patterns,” photographed by Roger Prigent, first appeared in the March 15, 1956 issue of the magazine.