Raincoats can be a challenge. I don’t mean the waxed cotton variety meant for rough wear over sweaters; I’ve had my Barbour for ten years and it looks better (by which I mean worse) each season. Raincoats meant for wear with a suit or odd jacket are where problems arise. It seems there are two choices: breathability or water resistance. (Style is another matter entirely, of which the choices are the double breasted trench, the fly-fronted mac and the high-tech abomination). The grail is probably a reversible balmacaan featuring two shades of treated gaberdine. My enthusiasm for the hunt, though, has always been dampened by the other option: umbrellas. In other words, I’m not anti-raincoat; I’m pro-umbrella.
And why not? Who doesn’t harbor a secret, unspoken desire to carry a handsome stick? But to do so without the honest need is to immediately consign oneself to clowndom. A proper umbrella, however, is a romantic object, at once a relic and an acceptable appurtenance. If the shaft is solid, an umbrella performs all the classic uses typically reserved for canes: aiding in walking, gesticulating, ushering small children, warding off strays. But when the clouds ripen, and the first fat drops stain the pavement, a series of deft snaps and flicks deploys the cambered canopy that saves its user from costume.
In fact, the rain reveals the umbrella’s final and best trick: the pitter-patter. It is a familiar sound, a warming tone of temporary shelter that sings of human ingenuity. Animals scatter in a downpour; people pop open their umbrellas and march out in merry pursuit of whatever endeavor is scheduled. The canopy’s edge, like the penumbra’s rim of half-light, runs heavily with water that could have soaked, but, foiled, instead forms rivulets around its purposeful occupant. The rain may pass, or return in double; it matters little to the person for whom an umbrella is standard kit.
The practical aspect is somewhat less colorful. An umbrella can be deployed or retracted in a moment, without the fumbling and smoothing required of raincoats. This is especially true during summer, when afternoon showers are frequent, but the temperature and humidity too high to comfortably wear an additional, often unbreathable layer.
But to achieve all this—from the fanciful to the practical—an umbrella’s design is crucial. The flimsy, street-merchant versions are found handle-up in waste bins following a downpour for a reason. And collapsables, while earnest in design, so often disappoint in execution. I alluded earlier to the solid shaft, by which is meant a one-piece stick turned and routed to accommodate a collapsable frame. Unsurprisingly, this is an expensive configuration, but if much is required of the umbrella, some investment in its design is necessary. Thoughts on the best options shall be covered in part 2.