‘An umbrella is a sure sign of someone who doesn’t have his own carriage,’ said an 18th century Parisian magazine, adding that denizens of the City of Light would quite happily risk a soaking just in case they are viewed as the kind of parvenu that walks. We live in simpler times I think, so umbrellas don’t form some kind of social signifier. It’s hardly an indicator of vast wealth to own one.
Yet, the umbrella is still a British cultural touchpoint, associated with the classic Gentleman’s look, alongside the bowler hat and suit. Within this context, the umbrella stood in almost as a civvy street version of the sword, for men who would by and large have served in the military, often as officers – an opportune tool for protecting ladies against a deluge rather than Gerry. City Dress, which came to an end in the 70s, made the long, furled umbrella part of the uniform with little consideration for the weather, it was just considered proper attire. Should you wish to get a sense of this, you can pop over to Hyde Park on the May 13 to watch the Cavalry Memorial Parade.
With demand came supply and cometh the hour cometh the trusty British artisan tradition, which still producesthe best umbrellas in the world for men and women. Considering how London pavements act as a mass grave for broken brollies, largely of the extendable, bought-at-a-newsagent sort, investing a bit more in this vital piece of kit will not only support British craft, but also be a trusty companion when the weather turns inclement. Here’s a small selection of umbrellas that come highly recommended…
Pick of the Bunch
Swaine Adeney Brigg is the craft triumvirate which amalgamated in 1943, and produce everything from backgammon boards, luggage and boots (for which it holds three royal warrants). But best of all are the Brigg Umbrellas, which were first made in 1836. They are made from single pieces of wood (several options including cherry, chestnut or whangee) and sold from a shop in Piccadilly Arcade. If you have seen (but don’t worry if you didn’t like) the Kingsman films, the umbrellas used for this, vis-a-vis the ultimate gentleman’s accessory, are not only Swaine Adeney Brigg, but also available online at Mr Porter. As far as most opinions go, you are buying the best when you buy from here and they should last long enough to be passed down the generations.
Recommended: The Hickory (from £330).
James Smith and Sons was founded in 1830 and there are very few shops like it anymore, a fact that is all the more pronounced given that it sits right in the hullaballoo of Holborn’s Brutalist architecture and endless traffic. There is something for everybody in here, both in terms of affordability (some umbrellas there sell for under £40) and style. Some of the range is all wood but there are options that use a wooden handle and a metal tube, which keeps costs down. There are also some beautifully made telescopic umbrellas, the common-or-garden versions of which tend to be the culprits for breaking, so if you have to buy one for practical purposes, get it from here, as retailers such as this are the type to refuse to let you leave the shop with anything sub-par.
Recommended: Malacca Crook Folding Umbrella (£145)
In contrast to the ‘destination’ retailers already mentioned, Lockwood is an online retailer of umbrellas. It has a made to order service so you can choose pretty much all of the aspects of the umbrella you want, from the colour of the canopy to the type of wood used. I have looked and you can’t change the steel frame but in all honesty, any criticism there would be scraping the barrel and jolly unfair as this is a brand with artisanal British charm mixed with modern accessibility. Definitely worth a look.
Recommended: The Whangee Super Slim (£145)
As with many British brands, Ince Umbrellas is a bit of an unsung hero. Established in 1805, Ince manages to maintain high standards of workmanship in its umbrellas while at the same time offering what retailers currently refer to as a ‘value proposition’. A family run business and one which keeps that in mind when creating a full range of umbrellas for men, women and children. Eponym Richard Ince still cuts the canopies from his workbench.
Tom Chamberlin is editor of The Rake
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