Class conscious

A downpour propels me to James Smith & Sons in New Oxford Street, the biggest umbrella shop in the world, with the suspicion firmly in my mind that umbrellas are carried almost exclusively by the middle classes. When it rains, the working classes get wet. Or they don caps, baseball or flat.

At James Smith, though, a member of staff called Jonathan Wardle assured me that he couldn't tell me "the class of our customers; we take no interest in that". I didn't believe him, and I felt that he contradicted himself with every subsequent statement. He told me, for example, that Charlie Chaplin carried an umbrella to suggest a poignant aspiration after gentility; he also told me that part of the reason people get through a lot of umbrellas is that they're one of the few items that middle-class people nick. "We often have judges or lawyers coming in saying: my brolly was taken from the Bailey yesterday."

Before the second world war, every man who worked in a suit carried a brolly every day, but to use it for keeping the rain off was considered naff. When rain started to fall, the correct etiquette was to use your brolly to hail a cab. True toffs carried tightly wound umbrellas that never unrolled, and if any gent had one that became unrolled by accident, then he'd probably buy another because re-rolling was a difficult art.

These upper-class types carried umbrellas for poise, and, according to Wardle, because an umbrella makes you look taller. The habit was a throwback to the times when a gentleman carried a sword and, during the late 18th century, when umbrellas first came to London, successful men would sometimes carry both. They were ready for anything, but often tripped over.

Today, umbrellas are still symbols of class. Golf umbrellas - popular with eighties yuppies - are now considered to be vulgar, especially if they bear a sponsor's name. Many middle-class men still observe the rule that you don't carry brollies in the country. Unless you're a vicar, that is, because it is perfectly okay for vicars actually to use their umbrellas in the country - for keeping the rain off, I mean.

This article first appeared in the 15 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Guns and the Dome