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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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When one thinks of a fashionably attired Regency lady, one also thinks of the lovely fan she most likely carried. These graceful objects were first used for cooling, but during the 19th century they became an indispensable fashion accessory. Flirtations were carried on with fans, which hid blushing cheeks or communicated a specific message. (Click on ‘The Language of the Fan’ post below)

In the eighteenth century, wealthy Georgian ladies, especially English ones, waved [fans] at masquerade balls, and wore them as a fashion accessory with almost every outfit that they owned. There were daytime fans, white satin bridal fans and even mourning fans painted with grisaille, i.e. black, white and grey. Classical fans, brought from Italy, replaced the luscious rococo of the French. As well as drawing attention to beautiful and perfectly manicured hands, these items played a big part in delicate flirtations. In fact, a whole ‘language of the fan’ had developed in England in Tudor times which became especially popular for middle and upper-class Victorian women who were courting. A folded fan placed against a lady’s chin told a gentleman that she found him attractive, for example, while snapping a fan shut was a curt dismissal! No wonder that the sixteenth century English writer, Joseph Addison, stated: “Men have the sword, women have the fan and the fan is probably as effective a weapon!”- Life in Italy, Handheld Fans

The following passage was written in the U.S. in mid-nineteenth century America. It describes an oppressively hot day in church in which so many ladies were fanning themselves that they created a significant breeze for others. “One old lady must have been thinking of a dancing-tune to which her feet kept time in the days of her youth, as her fan kept time with a regular hop, skip and jump, not at all like any psalm-tune I ever heard.” The author goes on to describe fans made of red and yellow, or resembling a great palm-leaf, or made of a peacock’s tail or turkey feathers, their delicate  ivory or sandalwood sticks and guards creating clicking sounds.

Those two young ladies who sit where side glances cross very conveniently from the crimson-cushioned pew occupied by a single gentleman, have consecrated theirs to the most effectual display of their ruby lips and laughing dimples, and I am kind enough to hope it will not be “all in vain,” and, as I have hinted, really think fans are often put to a worse use. No insignificant thing is the little flutterer, whatever may be its form or fashion – how many smiles and frowns and titters it hides, to say nothing of the blushes that take shelter behind its graceful folds. Many an ague fit have they given me; yet on the whole, I am not sure that I would banish them; were they the authors of ten times as much mischief, for I think it would cause a flutter among ladies, that would be more deleterious.

Into what a consternation they would be thrown if suddenly deprived of this relief in all embarrassments; and it is a curious fact, that in all heathen as well as all Christian nations, it is a favorite shield of the gentle sex. In all histories of queens and courts and festivals, the fan is conspicuous, whether it be among the Princes of Christendom, in India or China, or in the Islands of the seas. The true reason is that it is so graceful an appendage, and so kind a helpmeet in a moment of timidity or an hour of idleness.” –Minnie Myrtle, The Ladies and Their Fans, New York Times, June 30, 1854

Top Image from: Hagley Magazine: Fan Exhibit

Diagram of fan: The Fan Museum

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The sixteenth century English writer, Joseph Addison, stated: “Men have the sword, women have the fan and the fan is probably as effective a weapon!”

The Language of the Fan demonstrates the hidden language of the fan, an art that has been lost, but was once widely followed. Click here for a fascinating explanation. The Language of the Fan.


In Georgian England, women wore fans as a fashion accessory with almost every outfit that they owned. “There were daytime fans, white satin bridal fans and even mourning fans painted with grisaille, i.e. black, white and grey. Classical fans, brought from Italy, replaced the luscious rococo of the French. As well as drawing attention to beautiful and perfectly manicured hands, these items played a big part in delicate flirtations.”

Madame Devaucy, J.A.D. Ingres, 1807

For more about these beautiful and fashionable accessories, go to the following sites:

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