Get an umbrella that doesn’t fizzle when it drizzles

BY MEG MOORE Staff Reporter

October 24, 2013 11:00AM

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Updated: November 26, 2013 6:11AM

Despite our weather, Chicago does not possess an
umbrella culture.

Perhaps it’s because there have been one too many trips across the river with a flimsy bumbershoot or a few left behind on planes, trains and automobiles. Whatever the brolly folly, Chicagoans need to embrace what Londoners have known for years: A good umbrella is worth its weight in gold.

As with all things fast fashion, a $5 last-minute weather purchase is not a sound investment to fight the elements. While these umbrellas fit in a pocket, the nylon isn’t top-notch, the ribs
aren’t reinforced, the fabric isn’t strongly attached to the spokes and, perhaps most problematic, color choices
are sorely lacking.

With “Mary Poppins” landing next week at the Marriott Theatre, it’s time to look in our umbrella stands.

But first we must look abroad. James Smith & Sons Umbrella Shop, London’s top shop for bespoke umbrellas, is the source for your Mary Poppins fix. The still-Victorian store, which opened in 1830 (it moved from its original location in 1857), is filled with rows of men’s and women’s umbrellas, parasols and walking sticks. Customers can choose from a classic city umbrella with delicate wrought handles or opt for sun shade with an umbrella featuring a carved handle and silk tassels.

It was in this shop where “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers found inspiration in the early 1930s for her nanny’s mode of transport. The famous parrot-head umbrella comes in 10 colors, though black was Poppins’ choice. There are two versions of the resin parrot-head toppers — one that appears wooden, the other looking like crystal. As with all umbrellas at James & Sons, they are handmade and can take up to four weeks to construct. With the current exchange rate, this custom version begins at $121 and can be ordered online at

Nicholas Spencer, U.K. expat and owner of all-things-British foodstuffs boutique Spencer’s Jolly Posh Foods in Lake View, keeps his trusty James Smith umbrella at the ready for Chicago’s weather. Cheaper versions just won’t do.

“The difference is a gust of wind; others just aren’t durable,” he said. “This umbrella will not be wrecked.”

Because Mary Poppins took her young charges around the globe in the original series, there are great finds elsewhere. If the classic black umbrella isn’t your style, there are French purveyors of rain cover. Guy de Jean is a well-known specialist, and his wares can be found locally at the Art Institute of Chicago’s museum shop (

During the museum’s recent “Impression, Fashion and Modernity” exhibition, there were three versions on offer, including one with ruffles as a nod to layers of petticoats seen in masterpieces in the show. The umbrellas are 100 percent polyester and the inside engineering has eight ribs, well-constructed with multiple points of contact with the fabric. The cost to cut such a chic figure on Chicago streets: $65. While those are no longer in stock, a nod toward Georges Seurat’s masterpiece “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” is available for $38.

For more sassy, fashion-forward choices, check out, a New York City mainstay, when a slight drizzle requires cover.


Twitter: @stylecounselor

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