Unlike the sun-kissed tans admired by some women today, (and let’s face it, chalk-white legs just aren’t coveted) a pale complexion was a fashion statement during much of England’s history. Since laborers often worked long hours outside, their skins got tanned and weathered from exposure to the sun and the elements. A lady with a creamy complexion loudly proclaimed, without uttering a word, that she was wealthy enough not to have to spend a great deal of time out of doors. But since a lady’s skin could become unfashionably brown simply by walking outside, even with the protection of a hat or bonnet, she had to take measures to protect her skin from the sun.
During previous eras, ladies and gentlemen of the upper classes powered their faces to maintain a pale complexion. But by the Regency Era, people abandoned the powder, rouge, lipstick, and powered wigs, as well as ostentatiously ornate clothing, in favor of a more natural, comfortable look. They also started bathing on a regular basis, which I think is not a coincidence.
So, what was a lady to do if she wanted to spend time outside but keep her skin alabaster white without the use of powder? Sunscreen, obviously, was not the answer, since it had yet to be invented. Bonnets and hats certainly helped but there were times when those failed to protect a lady’s face from all angles of the sun.
Enter the parasol. Made of natural fabrics such as cotton and silk and often embellished with lace, these functional little beauties became so popular in England early in the 19th century that they became part of a fashionable ensemble. Depending on how they were made, they could even protect a lady from a light rain.
So the next time your Regency lady goes for a walk, make sure she brings her bonnet and parasol to keep her face un-freckled and white, and her gloves to protect her hands, lest she fall under criticism of becoming “brown.” Horrors!
For more pictures, feel free to check out my Regency Accessories Pinterest Board with lots of images and fashion plates of parasols, fans, shoes, and other fun Regency accessories.
Laura Boyl on Jane Austen Center has some lovely pictures of ladies and children carrying parasols.
Louise Allen, on her blog, History of Costume, has a great collection of pictures as well as how the “correct” way to hold a parasol evolved.