We’ve said from the start that Helena is a nod to 1920s beach umbrellas – most especially those with stripes. But the history of the umbrella dates back much further than a mere century. Today, a look back at the 4,000 year old invention, starting with ancient Egypt.

Helena, Maria, and Charlotte.
An umbrella in ancient Egypt.

The word umbrella is borrowed from the Italian ombrella, which is a modified translation of the Latin umbella, by way of umbra, meaning shade. Thus, the truth about the umbrella’s origin story is that it had nothing to do with rain. Instead, the umbrella appears in depictions of societies like ancient Egypt, where it was used to shade pharaohs from the hot sun.

An umbrella in ancient Egypt.
An umbrella in ancient Rome.

The first umbrellas were made up of palm leaves or feathers. Later, in China, the umbrella design as we know it today came to the fore. Initially the umbrella’s curved canopy was made from organic materials like tree branches and leaves; later on, materials like cloth, silk, and paper were introduced.

Painting of a Chinese umbrella mender, circa 1790.
Underside of a Japanese oil paper umbrella.

When the umbrella made its way to Europe in the 16th century, it only really existed within the confines of the Catholic Church. By the 17th century, however, both parasols and umbrellas became popular items for wealthy, aristocratic women. Much like their predecessors – such as those in ancient Greece – these women had servants to hold their umbrellas. Needless to say, the umbrella was heavy and cumbersome.

"Paris Street; Rainy Day" by Gustave Caillebotte, 1877.
18th century umbrella.

It was not until the umbrella became a more compact, more affordable item that its usage became widespread. By the 1920s – which, you’ll recall, is where we might locate Helena – the umbrella was everywhere. And on the beach, the stripe reigned. Explore our modern take on the classic stripe here, via Helena.

The quintessential beach scene.
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