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Ladies fan, 1750

Ladies fan, 1750

Wednesday, June 27, 1711, Mr. Addison writes a letter to The Spectator:

Mr. Spectator – Women are armed with fans as men with swords, and sometime do more excution with them. To the end therefore that ladies may be entire mistresses of the weapon which they bear, I have erected an academy for the training up of young women in the exercise of the fan, according to the most fashionable airs and motions that are now practiced at court. The ladies who carry fans under me are drawn up twice a-day in my great hall, where they are instructed in the use of their arms, and exercised by the following words of command: – Handle your fans, Unfurl your fans, Discharge your fans, Flutter your fans – By the right observation of these few plain words of commands, a woman of a tolerable genius, who will apply herself diligently to her exercise for the space of but one half-year, shall be able to give her fan all the graces that can possibly enter into that little modish machine… For the rest of Addison’s letter to The Spectator, please click here.

Commemorative fan, Nelson and the Battle of the Nile, 1804

Commemorative fan, Nelson and the Battle of the Nile, 1804

Display case, Fan Museum

Display case, Fan Museum

A lady’s fan carried far more symbolism than the mere act of cooling by agitating the air. At first considered a novelty, the fan gained popularity in Europe in the mid-sixteenth century and could be seen in the paintings of fine Elizabethan ladies. The folding fan, which was introduced from the Far East, gradually replaced the fixed fan. Made from vellum or paper, these fashionable and expensive accessories lent themselves well to elaborate painting and decoration. By 1709, fans began to be manufactured in London and a Fan Makers’ Company was established. Commemorative fans that celebrated an historic event were quite popular among the well to do, and their styles echoed the fashion of the day. Neoclassical fans, like the commemorative fan depicted above, lacked color and were generally bare of decoration, reflecting the simple white muslin dresses so popular during the Regency era. When dresses became more ornate and colorful again, fans followed the trend. They were highly prized for their aesthetics, for “in the ordinary fan of the present day Art has not strayed far from Nature.”

Goya, Woman with Fan

Goya, Woman with Fan

Over the centuries, a language of the fan evolved (see link below). Legend has it that by the time the Victorian era began fan gestures had been rigidly codified, wherein each movement and snap of the wrist carried a message fraught with meaning, although some experts dispute this. (See comment below made by Pierre Henri Biger, a fan expert.)  Once popular both during the day and evening, fans gradually became restricted only for the evening, increasing in size in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.  Their popularity waned and waxed as the quote below suggests, but until they could be cheaply manufactered in large quantities, they remained the province of only those who could afford them. In the late 19th century to early 1920’s, fans were made in profusion to carry advertisements, and were given away as souvenirs by hotels, restaurants, and businesses.*

Fan Design, The Lower Rooms, Bath

Fan Design, The Lower Rooms, Bath

For just a century after Addison wrote, the fan figured prominently in polite society, matched, when the sword went out of fashion, against the snuff-box and the clouded cane, and often victorious. The satirists and dramatists wore in turn bitter and pleasant in their references to it. Painters and their sitters paraded it ostentatiously. It is said to have done wonders in diplomacy, and who could wonder at the success of flying sap and masked battery against garrisons defended by an eye-glass, a pinch of snuff, and a malacca. The fan’s apogee was in the days of the minuet de la cour. But since athletic waltzes, polkas, and mazurkas have elbowed out their courtly predecessors, the once ” modish little machine” has retired into obscurity with the “wall-flowers,” or, if at all, is used by the dancers as inartistically as though it were the archetypal ” vanne” or wind engine. Brighter days may, however, dawn, and society which, in its way back to costumes of the Watteau and Pastoral periods, has already reached the stage of short waists and long trains, may over in our time reclaim the little exile from its temporary partial shade. – Nature and Art, by Day & Sons, 1866, p62

3 regency fans

More about this fascinating fashion accessory

from nature and art, 1866

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