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Beyond the Brolly: the use of umbrellas in life and fiction

What is an umbrella but an extension of the self?

Art by Shania O'Brien

In her book Brolliology, Marion Rankine described umbrellas as “humble interventions in those moments when you think to yourself: No, I would really rather not.”

But they’re not always intervening in something as trivial as rain, sleet, or snow. Throughout fiction and life, umbrellas have been used for more than protection against the elements. From weapons to gliders to shields, umbrellas are a dynamic device that have served their human masters through both rain and shine.

In perhaps the most obvious extension of their use, umbrellas appear frequently as a means of flying. As her introduction, Mary Poppins floats down to no.17 on a breeze of cherry blossoms. Like a gift from the gods, Poppins takes an artefact of the civilised urbane and turns it into a tool of whimsy. But this idea didn’t come from nowhere, in fact, the design of the modern parachute greatly resembles the shape of the umbrella and over the centuries, umbrellas have been used in aeronautical experiments. In 1779, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier pushed a sheep from a tower, with nothing but a basket and a seven and a half foot parasol between it and the unforgiving ground. The sheep floated safely down from the tower, much like Poppins did. This buoyant conception of the umbrella isn’t limited to 1930’s children’s fiction and 18th century aerial experiments though. Throughout the Kirby games, our rounded pink friend can consume parasol wielding foes to gain their parasolic power. With a red and white striped umbrella clutched in hand, Kirby can slow his descent from high places (among other things). To continue along the Nintendo vein, Princess Peach can often be seen wielding an umbrella throughout her in-game appearances. In the Super Smash Bros series, Peach’s brolly can be used to jump and float across the various arenas on offer. But it doesn’t stop there, this charming infection has spread to perhaps the most popular (or at least pervasive) gaming sensation of the 21st century: Fortnite. Instead of the traditional glider, players can opt for a stylish parasol and drift down to Pleasant Park in water repellent bliss. Umbrellas have always lent themselves to dreams of flight. The way they catch in the wind and shield one from the sky, their design and purpose are intrinsically linked to what looms above. It may be a fool’s dream to parachute with a parasol, but it’s a dream that captures the imagination of everyone – fictional or otherwise.

Umbrellas can and have been used for far more sinister means though. The dreams of a fool are not confined to personal flight, nay, sometimes they reach for the throat more than they reach for the stars. Umbrellas as weapons have captured the public imagination for quite sometime now. Beginning with the invention of the umbrella gun in the 19th century (an evolution of the cane gun), umbrellas have always enjoyed a healthy suspicion that they are more than they appear. This materialised twice in 1978, as both the infamous Bulgarian umbrella and the far less credible Umbrella Man came to the fore. Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was assassinated in London using the aptly named umbrella. Through a hidden pneumatic mechanism, it can inject a lethal dose of ricin to its victim. That dose left Markov dead four days later. In the same year, the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations was formed to investigate the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. From the revelations of its investigation and its notoriously irresponsible conclusion on the likelihood of conspiracy, the committee inadvertently positioned ‘the Umbrella Man’ front and center. As the story goes, film and photos show a man on the grassy knoll with a black umbrella in hand. It wasn’t raining that day, and to many this is damning evidence of guilt. Depending on who you ask, the umbrella propelled a bullet, a dart, or was just a signalling device for his treasonous friends. As the Umbrella Man himself, Louie Steven Witt, put it, it was a “bad joke” aimed at JFK’s Chamberlain supporting father. Naturally, this has all bled into the works of fiction. DC’s Penguin and the lesser-known White Rabbit, both wield deadly deluge deterrents. As his moniker is the “Man of a thousand umbrellas,” it’s difficult to pin down their specific uses — but they do everything from spitting fire to launching missiles to spraying acid. White Rabbit, on the other hand, doesn’t mess around: her umbrella fires explosive and razor-tipped carrots. It makes sense right? In many ways, it makes sense to see the umbrella as an instrument of violence. I think we all feel a sense of power course through us as we whip out an extendable umbrella as if we’re unsheathing a wicked blade. Equally, when we press down on the handle button to extend its canopy, it almost feels like we’re activating a long range missile to smite enemy combatants at a distance. Umbrellas are one of the few items a regular person will ever wield, and in the gloom of night, when shadows and shapes play tricks on the mind, an umbrella is as good any real weapon.

Umbrellas may attack, but they also protect. The most sensible evolution of the umbrella is from a shield against the elements to a shield against something a little more dangerous. Queen Victoria had a chainmail-lined parasol designed for her protection following a number of assassination attempts. Of course it was never used (owing to its cumbersome weight), but the thought seems to have persisted. Ex-French President Nicolas Sarkozy had his security detail employ armour-plated umbrellas, perhaps fearing the same assassination attempts as Queen Victoria. In fiction, Kingsmen has most famously represented the umbrella shield in its 2014 film. This gadget heavy umbrella shield perhaps went beyond the rudimentary design of Victoria and Sarkozy’s, but it employed the same core principle. More recently, Splatoon 2 released the Splat Brella in 2017 – a shotgun style weapon which can be used to shield from the front. The Japanese name for this can be translated to Parashelter (a portmanteau of parasol and shelter and a far more apt name for the purposes of this article). But beyond the trivialities of heads of state and the inventions of film and gaming, umbrellas have been used on the very front of the front lines. The Umbrella Movement that began with Hong Kong’s 2014 democracy protests counted the umbrella among its defensive arsenal. Protestors would use umbrellas to shield themselves and others from police pepper spray and limit the exposure of surveillance. Not only did this tactic give safe haven to demonstrators, it also gave a name to their cause – even if it required some tweaking.

In Brolliology, Marion Rankine describes getting caught in the rain with a friend – “sodden, delirious, and exhausted.” She says it was an experience that transcended the possibilities of an umbrella. 

“We did not have one—nor, that day, would we have wanted one.”

While the umbrella has many uses, from a weapon, to a shield, to a hand-held parachute, sometimes it’s important to forget the umbrella and just enjoy the rain.

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