Since their introduction, folding fans have served as status symbols, fashion accessories, works of art, cheap novelties and instruments of courtly intrigue.


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Fantastic fans

Since their introduction, folding fans have served as status symbols, fashion accessories, works of art, cheap novelties and instruments of courtly intrigue.

 Fans have a long, long history, at least 2000 years, though their design and role changed dramatically through the ages.

 They were originally used for purely practical purposes. Large, flat ones fanned the flames of a fire, winnowed grain or discouraged marauding flies.

 However, it was not long before fans were used to sort the wheat from the chaff in more ways than one.

 In the Orient, open, flat fans had great ritual and social significance. Being fanned by a servant or slave proclaimed a person's status for all to see.

 Legend has it that an unknown Japanese invented the folding fan after being inspired by the wings of a bat.

 This new development made a fan highly portable; it could be folded away and slipped into a sleeve, pouch or bag.

 A fan soon became an indispensable fashion accessory for the wealthy and the high-born.

 Folding fans first came to Europe in the baggage of pioneering merchants. By the 17th century, they had become a big hit with the rich and aristocratic; and no fashionable lady would have been seen in society without one.


 During the 18th and 19th centuries, women learned to use fans to communicate thoughts and feelings that etiquette forbade them to express in words.

 They were used as instruments of flirtation or aggression - Disraeli likened them to swords and swore they often did more damage - while the class conscious could tell at a glance a woman's status by the fan she carried and by the way she wielded it.

 A fan was particularly useful in courting; it could say 'Come hither', 'Maybe' and 'Not on your life' with equal clarity. The clergy, unsurprisingly, denounced them as wicked.

 Ever since their adoption by high society in the 17th century, folding fans have been a medium for European craftsmen working in many different materials.

 This Victorian fan, part painted silk, part lace, was made for a reasonably wealthy middle-class lady.


 The 17th and 18th centuries saw the crafting of some exquisite fans, made for particularly wealthy and influential women.

 Beautiful silks were hand-painted with a painstaking delicacy. Tortoiseshell, ivory, bone and mother-of-pearl were elaborately pierced and formed into sticks and handles.

 At this time, the best and most fashionable rans came from France, though there were some good English makers, too.

 One particularly elaborate style was the brise fan, which was made of sticks, delicately pierced and threaded with ribbons, instead of leaves.


 The French queen, Marie Antoinette, favoured another type, the mask fan, which had a face painted on it.

 She used hers to disguise her lorgnettes (an early form of spectacles), because she was both vain and short-sighted.

 Bespoke fans from this period, in good condition, can cost thousands of pounds. There is much more scope for the collector in Victorian and Edwardian examples, as by this time, fans were no longer carried exclusively by the rich and titled.

 Paper was now used for cheaper or more temporary fans. Few were hand-made, as the Victorian passion for mass production saw designs being reproduced from engravings and coloured by cheap, workshop labour.

 All manner of new designs were introduced. Pictures of games, maps and scenes from popular plays and books became common decorations for fans.

 Any of these would make good subjects for specific, themed collections.

 Fashions in fans came and went. One, for mourning fans, was introduced by Queen Victoria after Prince Albert died in 1861.

 Pastel shades had a vogue around 1900, when exotic materials such as gauze, sequins and ostrich plumes were also used.


 Antique shops, salerooms and junk shops are all good places to look for reasonably-priced Victorian and Edwardian fans.

 Initially, it is a good idea to buy what you like and not to be too specific about period or purpose. Note that an original box adds greatly to the value of a fan.

 Decorative fans are easily damaged by light, heat or damp, so check them carefully before buying; make sure that hand-painted designs are not flaking.

 Store and display your collection of fans very carefully, preferably folded away and wrapped in tissue paper. They can be mounted on a wall, but must be kept away from humidity, sunlight and sources of heat, such as radiators.

 A collection of fans can make a gorgeous display but they are best kept protected from the light.


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