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Radley Stories

Style Notes

Our Fun Umbrellas Guide: Discover What is an Umbrella and More

18 August 2023

For keeping dry or staying protected from the sun, a stylish umbrella is an everyday essential. Find out more about fun umbrellas, including what is an umbrella, with our Radley London guide.

What is an Umbrella? 

Most of us associate umbrellas with rain, but this is not the reason they were first invented. Emerging over 4000 years ago, the first umbrella was the parasol, which was used by wealthy ladies and gentlemen to protect themselves from the glare of the sun. Evidence of the parasol can be seen in artefacts and art from West Asia and Egypt, and these parasols were made using palm leaves and papyrus. While they are still around today, the parasol is much less common. 

Unlike a parasol, which has a fabric canopy, any luxury umbrella is made with waterproof material. The first evidence of the umbrellas we know today, the types that protect us from rain, goes back to 3500 B.C.E. in Ancient China, where they were made with bamboo and animal skin. 

Both fun umbrellas and stylish umbrellas come in many different designs, including block colours, patterns and more. Umbrellas also have a collapsible metal frame that enables it to fold down when not in use and sometimes a collapsible pole that allows it to fit inside a handbag.

These subtle differences are how the umbrella and the parasol have earned their different names:

Umbrella: The word has evolved from the Latin word ‘umbella’, which is a flat-topped rounded flower, and ‘umbra’ meaning shade or shadow. 

Parasol: This word originally comes from France and is a combination of two words – ‘para’ meaning to shield or stop, and ‘sol’ meaning sun.

Global Umbrellas History

Ancient Egypt

The first recorded use of a parasol was in Ancient Egypt, dating back to 3500 BC. A very simple design, it was crafted with a wooden stick and a palm leaf canopy. Originally a sign of wealth and nobility, these fashion umbrellas and parasols were only used by Kings and Queens for shade to help keep their skin pale, as those who were less wealthy were often tanned due to their laborious outdoor jobs.


It was China where the first waterproof, unique umbrella was created, dating back to 1100 BC. Unlike a parasol, this umbrella was designed to protect from wet weather. Opening and closing with a folding mechanism, these ancient umbrellas provided the blueprint for modern design. In China, luxury umbrellas were also seen as a sign of status and wealth, with members of China’s royal family only using red and yellow coloured designs, while everyone else would use blue umbrellas. 


Around the same time that China started to produce umbrellas, so too did India. Also seen as a status symbol, these stylish umbrellas soon became an important part of Hindu culture. They would often be decorated with important symbols that signified fortune. 

Greece and Rome

In Greece, people did not start using parasols until around 500 BC, and even then, it was only women who would carry them. Again, a trendy umbrella or parasol in Greece was seen as a sign of status and wealth and was also used in religious rituals.


Umbrellas took a very different path in Europe, with many people instead choosing cloaks to protect themselves from unpredictable weather. Artwork from the 17th century seems to suggest that this is around the time umbrellas were first used here, and only by women. It wasn’t until the 18th century that their popularity increased – particularly in France after Princess Palatine was seen using one herself.  

In England, the rain umbrella was regarded as a French item and if used by a man, it suggested they had a weak character. When Englishman Jonas Hanway returned from a trip to France in the 1750s with an umbrella, their status began to change. He was an eccentric man and often ridiculed for carrying an umbrella, but his habits soon quickly inspired others in England to follow in his footsteps. 

In 1830, England’s first umbrella shop opened in London. James Smith & Sons Umbrellas, which is still open today, operated with an umbrella workshop in the back and sold umbrellas from its store front. These early umbrellas were made with wood until 1851, when Samuel Fox invented the steel frame that could be collapsed and folded down.

Different Types of Umbrella

Now you know what is an umbrella and what is a parasol, you can explore further into the different types and functions of each unique umbrella style.

Automatic Umbrella

These are very modern umbrellas that will automatically open and close with the push of a button often located in the umbrella’s handle. 

Beach Umbrella or Sun Parasol

A term given to a large parasol, beach umbrellas are used to create shade on sunny days. These cool umbrellas are often very large and heavy and need a base to hold them in place. 

Bubble Umbrella

These are very trendy umbrellas crafted with a large, circular dome shaped canopy in clear plastic. These fashion umbrellas look similar to half a clear bubble and are less likely to be blown inside out when up against strong winds.

Child’s Umbrella

Just as it sounds, a child’s umbrella is designed specifically to be used by children. These unique umbrellas have all the same functions as a traditional umbrella, but are often a lot smaller and lighter, and therefore easier for children to carry. They are very fun umbrellas as they come in a range of vibrant designs.

Classic Umbrella

The most common type of umbrella is a classic, manual umbrella that is opened by hand. They often have a collapsible pole, a comfortable handle and a folding metal frame that makes them easily portable when not in use. Some fold down even smaller for storing in bags or pockets. This allows them to be carried around ready for any surprise shower. 

Golf Umbrella 

Named after its purpose, a golf umbrella is traditionally used on golf courses, but can also be found in many households. Much bigger than standard umbrellas, they were first designed to protect golfers, carts and equipment while withstanding strong winds on the course.

Paper Umbrella

Originating over 2000 years ago in China, these are unique umbrellas used for protection against the sun and have religious significance in some other Asian countries.

When is National Umbrella Day?

What is an umbrella day? February 10th is officially National Umbrella Day - a celebration of one of the world’s most useful and popular inventions. In many countries, this time of year is drizzly and wet so it’s the perfect time to honour practical and fun umbrellas. 


The Top Five Facts About Umbrella

  • The word umbrella comes from the Latin word "umbros" which means shade or shadow.

  • The first man who publicly carried umbrella was Englishman Jonas Hanway. His influence finally introduced umbrella to male population of England, and soon after the entire world.

  • Many religions adopted umbrellas and parasols as a part of their ceremonies and processions.

  • First working "folding umbrella" was introduced in 1969 by Bradford Philips.

  • During its first thousand years of life, parasols were viewed as a symbol of wealth and power.


Radley London Fashion Umbrellas

Stay protected from wet weather and surprise showers with one of our Radley London luxury umbrellas. Whether you’re looking for bright florals, logo patterns or one of our signature Scottie dog designs, our range of stylish umbrellas includes vibrant colours and playful patterns that will brighten up even the dullest of days.

Many of our new umbrella styles are part of our Radley Responsible range as they're crafted using recycled materials, making them an eco-friendly choice. You can read up on more about our commitment to the planet over in our Sustainability hub. And we've made sure our signature umbrellas also come in handbag sizes, so you can slip them straight into your shoulder bag or cross body bag when the sun comes out. 


If you’re preparing for wet and windy days, you’ll also need a handbag that fits an umbrella and a pair of wellies or boots. Find everything you need to know about this footwear in our Radley Stories style guides All About Wellingtons and the Different Types of Boots for Women