Gentleman Scholar

A Gentleman’s Guide to the Umbrella

Where to buy a good one? Can I text and umbrella? Should I walk that cute woman home in the rain?

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Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

Nice umbrella, man!

Taking his constitutional one recent morning—mellow sidewalk, stubborn drizzle—the Gentleman Scholar briefly basked in the sunbeam of this passing compliment. It is a nice umbrella but merely nice, nothing special. Its basic black nylon canopy can comfortably shelter a party of two. Its wooden crook handle feels proud and solid. It is neither so dinky as the sort of emergency-purchase umbrella for which people daily fork over damp cash (one of those numbers as flimsy as a dental dam), nor so imposing as one of those golf umbrellas vast enough to accommodate a wedding reception (the umbrellal equivalent of an SUV, and likewise often piloted by persons with the manners of warthogs).

“Thank you,” I told the admirer. I suggested that she could find a similar model at any common cobbler, or at a good hardware store, for about $15.

You can of course spend more: A bona fide Prince of Wales umbrella with a silk canopy will run you about 650 pounds. Less absurdly, you could snap up a classic London number called the Fulton Commissioner, distinguished by its elmwood handle and dashing ferrule, for around $50—and then devote a bit more money to marking it with a low-key monogram. And although the ideal umbrella will not clash with anything a sane person would conceivably wear while beneath it, it is in some contexts acceptable to pay a premium for one printed with your school colors; however and of course, if your school’s colors are Prussian blue and white, then you need remain extremely aware of your surroundings while carrying the thing, having made yourself a conspicuous target for boys throwing rocks and motorists splashing through runoff.

Point is, unless you’re rich or vain—or ideologically committed to an aerodynamic umbrella model such as the batlike Senz—there’s rarely a call to spend more than $15 or $20 on a quality brolly with a canopy of black or pewter or some neutral tone. Also, don’t expect Americans to take you seriously if you refer to your umbrella as a brolly, and don’t attempt to call it a bumbershoot unless you can lend the term a Benedict Cumberbatch lilt.

It should be understood that the umbrella you buy from a street vendor for $3 or $5 is, as reusable items go, less comparable to a Tupperware container than to a big brown bag from Bloomingdale’s. It should be given away with cheerful ease, misplaced without lingering regret, and tossed out upon its suffering a mild level of distress. “Umbrellas, like faces, acquire a certain sympathy with the individual who carries them,” as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in “The Philosophy of Umbrellas,” and the pathos of a wind-blasted umbrella, with its bare ribs and bent stretcher, will defeat your dignity and remind your fellow pedestrians all too sharply of the frailty of their species. Toss it out and reinvest in your self-respect.

It should be understood, also, that the fundamentals of umbrella etiquette have varied little in the English-speaking world since the 1750s, when Jonas Hanway, picking up an elite Eastern tradition rooted in the parasol, became the first man in London to carry one, much to the annoyance of coach drivers. It should be understood by everyone everywhere—and yet urban writers feel compelled to reiterate the basics at regular intervals. This is because the people most likely to commit umbrella infractions are not good at paying attention to things, such as where they are going, or blogs. April ranks as the cruelest month strictly on account of all the rib tips darting at innocent eyes.

Will it help to keep things simple? When entering an apartment from an interior hallway, leave the umbrella outside. When entering a house, ask what to do. Remember that a man-made puddle on a subway seat is an insult to the whole community. A considerate umbrellarian does not deal with text messages while going down the sidewalk, the better to keep an eye out for opportunities to yield the right of way, as it were, by raising his arm to avoid collisions. An umbrella’s natural state is vertical (but don’t sling it over an uncouth shoulder). An umbrella is rarely to be used for anything other than keeping people dry, but if you’re sitting in the gallery at a music hall, you may correctly pound it against the floor to show approval, adding some percussive notes to the lusty crowd noise.

An umbrella is best converted into a weapon according to the principles of Bartitsu, a martial art invented in late-1800s London (jokes about the climate of which are as dull as rain). The basic idea is to angle with the wrist and swing with the hips. You can learn more from a guy who teaches a class in umbrella self-defense in Vancouver, British Columbia (a city more than twice as rainy as London). It is unclear whether the Canadian instructor will share the most lethal secrets of Barton-Wright, who promised that his techniques made it “possible to sever a man’s jugular vein through the collar of his overcoat.”

In 1873, Cecil B. Hartley published The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness. His advice? “If you are walking with a lady, let the umbrella cover her perfectly. … If you have the care of two ladies, let them carry the umbrella between them, and walk outside yourself.” I believe that his words remain relevant, but there seem to exist modern ladies who regard such behavior as an expression of male privilege and who have been trained to reject this bit of thoughtfulness as condescending and patriarchal. If you encounter such a person, listen to her respectfully. Further, consider bringing in some undergrad-seminar atmosphere of your own by discoursing on a famous Nietzsche fragment (“I have forgotten my umbrella”) and Jacques Derrida’s riff thereupon: Nothing brightens a cloudy day like playful poststructuralist gobbledygook. But you should also politely make it clear that you are not extending this courtesy (one of the behaviors popularly referred to as “chivalry”) with an ulterior motive in mind (what is colloquially referred to as “getting laid”). Rather, you are doing it just to be nice.

That said, there are very few modern gentlemen who mind getting laid. They are lucky to live in times that regard as quaint Hartley’s injunction against an umbrellarian trying to chat his way inside a lady’s home (“Let her thank you, assure her of the pleasure it has given you to be of service, bow, and leave her”). Let’s delete that one from the umbrella code, yes? Likewise, I propose that the 21st-century lady may safely disregard a rule set out by etiquette maven Emily Holt: “It is not permitted, however rainy the day may be, and however fine and fresh her bonnet, for a woman to accept the shelter of a man who is a stranger to her.” A lady may now, of course, rely strictly on her own discretion in deciding such matters, and a gentleman who has obtained a lady’s consent to walk her home should look out for cues that she would like to consent to other rainy-day activities.