The umbrella, like many good symbols of Britishness, was an import. Parasols from China were a British curiosity in the seventeenth century. As with fine cottons or ceramics, local attempts to imitate these foreign goods transformed over time into a sophisticated craft tradition in its own right. By the nineteenth century, umbrellas were as much a staple of bourgeois urban life in London as bowler hats and emotional repression.
They were so much a part of the life for the Victorian ‘gentleman’ that William Sangster’s 1855 pamphlet ‘Umbrellas and their History’ could poke fun both at the bumpkin village-dwellers outside of the capital who still relied on their cloaks in foul weather, and the worst, most pretentious rainwear aristocrats.
He writes, in a brilliant pastiche of the tired #lifestyle writing that was a feature of the nineteenth century as much as our own:
“There is a something about the Umbrella which stamps its bearer with a peculiar, and surely we may call it, exalted character: such men, we feel certain at the first glance, are not addicted to dissipation, nor do they yield to the seductions of the Casino: they are essentially family men ; and just as the baton is the symbol of the Field-Marshal, the truncheon of our police, so is the Umbrella the distinguishing mark of the respectable paterfamilias.”
The umbrella, in Sangster’s sarcastic parody, is both the moral and physical backbone of a man. It is the thing saving him from a life of easy women, cheap wine, and misplaced bets. It is his word and his bond.
Of course, an umbrella won’t make you into a Field-Marshal (or even a Regimental Sergeant Major) but it can still be a very fine piece of craft. It’s one of the few accessories that have a practical purpose as well as a decorative function. The best models are distinguished by their materials, finishing, and design. Many have handles whose quality is equal to antique furniture (in lacquered bamboo, or highly polished woods such as ash, chestnut, or oak). Good designs range from subtle to eye-catching. An umbrella canopy, like a tie, is one of those fabrics which permits a bit of personal expression.
Like tailoring, those at the summit of the fine umbrella business today are traditional English makers and Italian craftsmen who have perfected their own versions of the stile inglese. Beyond England and Italy, a notable mention goes to Maison Piganiol in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France, but to keep things simple, my guide focuses on British and Italian products, and covers a range of options and budgets.
Most good makers have plenty of models to choose from, but for purpose of comparison I’ve focused on two kinds you should consider: a quality telescopic model, that can fit in a briefcase or carry-on, and a solid stick: a full-length umbrella made from a single piece of wood running from handle to tip. These are the strongest and most traditional version of the classic umbrella. Full sticks are typically 38″ long (almost a meter) but some clock in at 36″, and James Smith & Sons even offers a custom option in case you are very concerned about the length of your shaft.
The guide should have something for everyone, but if you just want a quick recommendation, here are my entirely subjective opinions:
Best budget choice: Kent Wang
Best design sensibility: London Undercover
Best luxury model: tied between Francesco Maglia / James Smith & Sons (depending on if your heart is in Italy or London)
Without further ado, here’s the guide.
Where else can you find an Italian-made solid stick chestnut umbrella for under $200? Kent Wang offers several attractive full sticks in chestnut, whangee (bamboo) and, my favourite, tiger hickory. They don’t have the adornment of some luxury models, and clock in a hair shorter than most, but they are a clear winner for value.
Location: 27th St, New York, by appointment only.
Compact models start at: $75
Solid stick starts at: $165
Forum favourite Shibumi offers handmade umbrellas in the spirit of their other classic accessories: well made, with a focus on materials and patterns. Made in Italy. Their canopy fabrics are both unusual and tasteful. The green and gold and the striped navy models in particular have something of the classic Italian tiemaker’s spirit to them. The mother-of-pearl fasteners are a nice touch.
Location: Via di Santo Spirito 11, 50125 Firenzeh
Compact models start at: €150
Solid stick starts at: €300
One of the true artisans, and some of the best styling available. Exceptionally attractive two-tone canopies in polycotton, and handmade shafts. Look out for rare or unusual materials such as Indonesian Manao wood and polished chestnut root handles, as well as striking vintage canopy patterns. Brass hardware. On the downside, some models can be hard to find outside of Italy and you may need to go through Michael Jondral or The Rake.
Location: Via Giuseppe Ripamonti 194, 20141 Milan
Compact models start at: €229 via Michael Jondral
Solid stick starts at: £275 via The Rake
The Neapolitan master, since 1860. As with other Italian artisans, sometimes tricky to buy directly from outside the country, but are readily available through Exquisite Trimmingsand No Man Walks Alone. Talarico is notable for making the whole stick in-house, rather than buying treated wood. Horn buttons and horn ferrule give a rare and luxurious touch. Budget full sticks bearing his name can be found for around £80, but you’ll want to save up for the real thing. As with a Neapolitan suit, you are buying into the strange old world of family-run workshop craft that so many menswear aficionados aspire to call home.
Location: Vico Due Porte a Toledo 4 /B, 80134 Napoli
Solid stick starts at: £365 via Exquisite Trimmings – $355 via No Man Walks Alone
A younger, more design-forward brand with a strong range of umbrellas, rainwear, and bags. Of particular note are the telescopic models with burnished whangee handle. Both the telescopic and full-length models come with brilliant yellow and orange canopies, as well as Blackwatch tartan and other classic patterns. Nice finishing including leather keepers and bronze hardware. Best of all is this chestnut solid stick with a navy exterior and a unicorn print interior made in collaboration with Drake’s. Full stick models are hand made in England. Telescopic models are made with recycled PET Fabric and present perhaps the best quality-to-value ratio available in a compact umbrella.
Location: 20 Hanbury St, Spitalfields, London E1 6QR
Compact models start at: £65
Solid stick starts at: £205
Samuel Fox invented the steel frame lightweight umbrella. Since 1868 Fox Umbrellas has offered a wide range, all made in England, including beautiful handmade and hand-sprung solid wooden models in a number of woods, as well as a fully-custom option and good value folding and steel tube models. Their website can be a little trying, but they are the artisanal maker of choice for The Armoury in Hong Kong and some models are also sold by The Rake.
Location: 240A Wickham Road, Shirley, Croydon CR0 8BJ
Compact models start at: £70 / $75
Solid stick starts at: £280 / $385
One of the original London makers (starting in 1830), notable for their luxurious finishing, with brass ferrules and sterling silver lap bands. A wide range of models are available, from compact city models to handsome full sticks in ash, maple, and oak. Do if at all possible visit their shop, which has the feel of one of those great old-world merchants. More unusual options include some fabulous animal-head carved handles (perfect for the duck enthusiast or whippet fancier) and a collection of rare and unusual sticks including rare wood and snakeskin.
Location: Hazelwood House, 53 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1BL
Compact models start at: £145
Solid stick starts at: £285
Best known for leather goods, the legendary SAB offers solid stick models in a variety of woods. Expect to pay handsomely for the true Rolls Royce model: the handmade whangee model with black silk canopy and sterling silver finishing clocks in at £935. The Kingsman film-endorsed chestnut stick is a comparative bargain at less than half that, but what you’ll really want is the malacca two-piece model with integrated flask, for those moments when you’re caught in the rain without your usual bottle of brandy. No folding models, but one with a removable handle and tip, provided for the sake of those new world types who insist on traveling by airplane.
Location: 7 Piccadilly Arcade, London SW1Y 6NH
Solid stick starts at: £380