Cleopatra's slaves used them to keep her comfortable as she sailed on her barge. The Chinese associated them with mythical characters. The folding variety we all recognize originated in Japan, but China became famous for them. Once they arrived in Europe around 1550 with traders from the far east, they became a plaything of the nobility. Nowadays, I seldom see them, except on warm summer Sunday mornings when a woman inevitably puts one to use during church services.
Fans have come a long way, baby.
Anatomy of the fan
|Lady Holding a Fan by Francesco Bartolozzi|
Folding fans seem to have come in three types: the plain old folding type (yes, the name sounds obvious) is where a set of sticks is fastened together at one end and pleated material (silk, leather, or other fabric) is fastened to the sticks. (Feathers and lace, by the way, went in and out of fashion.)
|Folding fan, circa 1690, from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London|
Ladies also used cockade fans, which are pleated paper attached to two sticks. They open into a full circle with the end sticks forming a handle--although I have not seen them in portraits or read of ladies using them at balls. However, I am not an expert. Just passing along the info.
|Cockade fan, 19th c., Victoria and Albert Museum, London|
There were also brisé fans, where separate sticks are fastened together at one end like the folding fan, but they did not use fabric or leather. Rather, the sticks were painted individually to create a scene or were ornamental, like the one below, and were often held together at the top with a ribbon. It was much harder to paint on these fans than a folding fan. The one below is painted with gilt.
|French brise fan, 1820|
|Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; photograph, A.C. Cooper Ltd.|
Apparently, ladies painted images on their own fans, too: The fan pictured below belonged to Princess Augusta, aunt of Queen Victoria (and it now belongs to her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II). According to documentation, it was created around 1790 and the medallions painted on the panels were done by "one of George III's daughters."
|Princess Augusta's brise fan|
Here enters the so-called Language of the Fan.The fan was no longer a pretty frippery, or a cooling device, but also a method to convey secret codes.
The notion probably began as an advertising technique by fan-makers, but Fan Languages were published in contemporary magazines and books on etiquette. Charles Francis Badini wrote a book called Fanology or Ladies’ Conversation Fan, which was published in 1797. It listed many gestures along with the secret codes they conveyed, including:
Carrying Open fan: come speak with me
Twirling the fan in the right hand: I love another
Twirling the fan in the left hand: We are being watched
Placing the fan near your heart: I love you
A half-closed fan pressed to the lips: You may kiss me
Letting the fan rest on the right cheek: Yes
Letting the fan rest on the left cheek: No
Dropping the fan: We will be friends
Other sources decoding fan language offer some pretty specific statements:
Placing fan on left ear: I wish to be rid of you
Carrying fan in right hand in front of face: Follow me
Drawing fan across the forehead: You have changed
Drawing fan through the hand: I hate you
Threaten with shut fan: You are imprudent
Gazing at shut fan: Why do you misunderstand me?
Perhaps he misunderstands because this gets so complicated, m'dear. While many a female no doubt practiced these motions before the looking glass, one wonders how many gentlemen scratched their bewigged heads in utter cluelessness. Was that her right hand or left hand? Also, how many matchmaking mamas were so oblivious that they wouldn't understand what it meant when her daughter threatened a suitor with a shut fan?
Still, there was plenty of fan-fluttering about. "My, the ball room is overwarm." Flutter of fan. Hint hint. Or slow fans over one's face while batting one's lashes at Lord Fancypants....
Hey, I am not mocking. I'd have totally done it, too.
Rolinda Sharples' painting, Cloak Room, Clifton Assembly Room, was painted in 1817. Look at all these Regency ladies holding their fans! It might be difficult to view, but many of the fans appear to be white or sheer.
|Cloak Room, Clifton Assembly Room, 1817, Rolinda Sharples|
The Victorians took fans to a whole different level. French maisons created fans for the very wealthy. Tablitiers carved exquisite sticks, and famous artists painted (and signed) fans. As the language of flowers became popular again, no doubt the language of the fan refreshed, as well.
|"The Political Lady" by James Tissot, 1884. Get a load of her feather fan! And gorgeous gown...|
Alas, fans as a fashion statement seem to have gone the way of the elbow-length glove and the bonnet. So for now, my experience with gorgeous fans will have to be limited to my imagination, when my characters use them to their advantage.
But to you, I will drop my fan. (Translation: we will be friends. Although that totally isn't what it sounds like to me.)
Fan Anatomy: http://www.thefanmuseum.org.uk/
Folding fan: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O78760/folding-fan-and-unknown/
Cockade fan: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O70089/fan-unknown/
Brise fan: fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk
Princess Augusta's fan: www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection
Regency lady: http://regency-clothing.blogspot.com/2012/05/regency-era-fashion-plates-april-1812.html
The Political Lady: http://www.zazzle.com/the_political_lady_by_james_tissot_poster-228780734008503372
This post originally appeared on www.inkwellinspirations.com, 11-19-12