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Umbrellas: Rain Protection or Public Menace?

Classic Plaid: 'The Fine Burberry Plaid,' assembled in the U.S.; $75 at Burberrys Limited, 225 Post St.

How to weather winter storms in style

By Heidi Pollock

For the mirthless creatures working in the Chanel boutique, the umbrella is nothing unusual. Which is surprising, because at $990 you'd think that the Chanel umbrella would offer something out of the ordinary. But for almost a thousand dollars all you get is one (1) Chanel umbrella, sans logo, with carrying case in your choice of patent leather or hallmark quilt. Of course, for nine hundred and ninety dollars you could also take cabs everywhere for the duration of the rainy season, thereby obviating the need for this umbrella in the first place.

Quaint mechanical ingenuity, the umbrella is perhaps the only form of human shelter which concurrently proves a stylish addition to most every fashion ensemble. Lucky thing for the umbrella that it does indeed double as a fashion accessory, because as a practical device it is almost entirely useless.

Euro Chic: Long wooden handle; $140 at Emporio Armani, 1 Grant Ave.

Theoretically an umbrella is supposed to protect one from the elements. In actuality this is far from true. Certainly an umbrella can keep some of your hair dry, but in real-life conditions it offers little or no protection for the torso, arms, legs and feet. In short, the umbrella provides little or no protection for approximately 90 percent of the human body and should not be thought of as much more than complex headgear.

Granted, in a strict A-B comparison test, standing in the rain without an umbrella will, over time, render one more wet than standing in the rain with an umbrella. But like all scientific testing, this does not account for human desire. No one in her right mind wants to stand in the rain with an umbrella. Not just because umbrellas don't work but because they're a total nuisance.

Cheap Choice: Floral print, made in China; $3.99 at Merrills Drug, 1091 Market St.

Umbrellas are almost impossible to control. They are difficult to grip and tricky to balance, and they have a tendency to spin out of control in the slightest breeze. To make matters worse, rain never falls straight down. While adjusting the umbrella in response to rainfall direction, an umbrella bearer must be ever vigilant for the errant gust of wind that threatens to carry off or invert the precariously aligned device. Finally, none of this maneuvering even begins to hint at the complexity to which umbrella operation can escalate as soon as one factors in miscellaneous package-carrying variables.

Basic Black: With wooden handle; Shedrain, $20 at Macy's, 170 O'Farrell St.

In the raging debate of form versus function, the umbrella remains untouched, for the simple reason that the umbrella is pure form. While seemingly a strength, this is in fact the umbrella's true weakness. In the umbrella, form and function are one, and for this reason you will never see a real umbrella on Montgomery Street. No umbrella can survive the gale-force winds of this geographic zone without twisting inside out. And an inside-out umbrella cannot perform its rain-shielding function. Instead, it flails about in a storm like a dying metallic octopus and threatens the safety of all nearby pedestrians.

None of which detracts from the umbrella's inherent stylishness. There are, in truth, few accessories capable of evoking such a wide range of ambient impressions. From Mary Poppins to the Avenger, the umbrella has always been more about image than about the weather. No other accessory can transform a look from whimsical to sophisticated at the slightest tilt of the wrist.

The Sportster: Rubber-grooved grip, carrying case; spokes invert with wind; $25 at Niketown, 278 Post St.

And very few accessories are as undeniably enjoyable as the umbrella. For swinging, tapping, twirling and impromptu dance routines, the umbrella is quite simply unbeatable. Choose full-size, noncollapsible umbrellas for both strength and good looks. The smaller, collapsible pocket-umbrellas are easier to lose and more prone to wind inversion. They also do absolutely nothing for the stylish gait. Oversized umbrellas should, of course, be banned from city streets as a menace to anyone with eyes: As with other items in life, it's not the size of the umbrella that matters but how well you wield it.

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From the November 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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