Though already used for many centuries in other parts of the world, fans started becoming popular in Europe in the late sixteenth century, but experienced virtual demise in the early twentieth century.
Sixteenth-Century Rigid Fans
There were two distinct types of rigid fan in the sixteenth century: those of exotic feathers set in a fancy handle and those of vellum or plaited palm leaf also attached to a decorative handle.
A number of portraits from 1559 to 1603 show Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) holding feather fans. The identifiable feathers were ostrich. Fan handles ranged from handsome silver-gilt or silver set with fabulous jewels to plain-turned wood.
A well-known 1585-1586 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I attributed to John Bettes (c. 1585-1590) and now housed in the National Portrait Gallery, London, shows her with a large ostrich feather fan set in a superb jeweled handle. The fan is given the same prominence in the portrait as the jewelry and costume, indicating that it was valued. This is confirmed by the wardrobe inventories, which include numerous feather fans: “Item one Fanne of the feathers of the Birde of Paradise and other colored feathers thone set with sixe small starres and one great starre set with iiij or little Saphires the handle of sylver guilte.” These are recorded in fascinating detail in the Stowe Inventory of 1600 and published in Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlockd by Janet Arnold.
Rigid fans of vellum or plaited palm leaf were as a rule rectangular in shape and set into a handle in such a way as to look like small flags, and this is the term used to describe them.
Early Folding Fans
Mention the word “fan” in connection with dress and fashion, and the immediate mental image is likely to be that of the folding fan. A fashion accessory, it is easily held in the hand, whether open or closed.
The folding fan has found a niche in the popular history of fashionable dress as a pretty object that used to be carried by ladies of fashion, coupled with its reputation as a useful device in the art of flirtation. While its presence as an accessory in Western fashion has been taken for granted for over three hundred years, this is not a Western invention. It is generally acknowledged that the folding fan originated in Japan as long ago as the ninth century C.E. Its gradual dominance over the fashionable rigid feather fan of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries can probably be attributed to the convenience of being able to fold the fan away when not in use.
Folding fans probably made their first appearance in Europe between 1560 and 1600. It is likely that isolated examples were originally brought back by travelers or merchants as personal gifts for female friends or family and were probably treated as exotic curiosities. Proof of their existence in Japan prior to the 1560s can be seen in early Japanese paintings and manuscripts. One of the best known is the aristocratic hand scroll that illustrates The Tale of Genji, a romance of Japanese court life written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the tenth century C.E. The earliest surviving illustrated text dates from 1120 to 1130.
Not until the seventeenth century were significant quantities of folding fans imported into Europe from Japan and China. However, at some point before the end of the sixteenth century, European craftsmen appear to have taken up the challenge of making folding fans for their own market.
By the end of the seventeenth century, European fan makers had fully mastered the art of making folding fans. They used vellum or silk for the leaves and wood, ivory, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, or bone for the sticks. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, leather fan leaves and leather gloves were perfumed with orange water or other scents.
Another type of folding fan known as brisé was contemporary with folding fans. The brisé fan does not have an attached leaf. In early European examples, the entire fan consists of very wide sticks. The brisé fan shown in this entry is made of quite thick pasteboard covered in silk and elaborately decorated with delicate straw appliqué designs. Straw work of this quality may have been of Italian or south German origin. Early brisé fans have one feature in common in the shape of the sticks—each one resembles a single, stylized, curled ostrich feather. Folding feather fans do not appear until the second half of the nineteenth century.
Seventeenth-Century European Fans
During the seventeenth century, European folding fans improved in technique and style. The leaf would be painted in gouache. The subject matter was usually taken from classical literature or allegories. The sticks became finer and thinner; those that supported the leaf tapered to a point at the top. The two outer sticks, known as the guard sticks, were wider at the top and more bladelike. Fan painters of this period were influenced by the masters of the early and high baroque, copying or adapting their paintings for fan leaves. Literary tastes of the era, too, were reflected in the choice of subject: classical, biblical, and—to a lesser extent—conversation scenes predominated. Both sides of a fan leaf were decorated, the front (obverse) would be fully decorated with a painted scene while the back (reverse) was usually painted with a superb rendering of familiar flowers shown as a bouquet.
The eighteenth century is considered a golden age for fans. The century began with the final flourish of the heavy baroque style of Louis XIV. His death in 1715 removed his overpowering influence, and breathed new life into fashion in France and Europe. It is no surprise that the ensuing rococo style, which predominated during the reign of King Louis XV (1715-1774), was a complete contrast. Characterized by its lightness and graceful, sinuous decoration, it was particularly well suited to decoration of fan sticks and fan leaves. Subject matter broadened to include pastoral, commemorative, and conversation themes—although classical subjects continued to be popular.
The major centers of fan production in Europe were France, Holland, England, and Italy. However, ivory fan sticks without leaves were imported in bulk from China as well as painted and plain brisé fans. The East India Company imported large quantities of fans and other goods into Europe from China in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These traders would commission goods to their own specification for the European market. Such goods were designed to appeal to European rather than Asian taste, though they had a definite Asian influence, resulting in a style that became known as chinoiserie.
The most prolific fan production came from France during the eighteenth century. French influence on European fashion was profound at this time. Fan leaf design was influenced by painters such as Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), François Boucher (1703-1770), and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806).
Many fan leaves were painted on paper or vellum throughout the eighteenth century, but from the 1730s onward, an increasing number were printed. Printing created some problems in the fan-making trade as it threatened to deprive fan painters of their livelihood. It had the advantage of being quick; a printer could produce huge numbers of just one design much faster than the fan painters.
The richness and exuberance of eighteenth-century design on fans and other forms of decorative art became increasingly restrained in the last quarter of the century. The affect of neoclassicism, with its strict adherence to classical form, caused fan designs to conform to minimal decoration in the approved style.
Restrained decoration continued in the nineteenth century. Fashionable dress still retained the slim classical silhouette. Fans were small to the point of invisibility. Conveniently minute, they were held in the hand or could be popped into an equally small reticule. Decoration was slight; painted flowers and a little gilding usually sufficed. Many fans at this time were brisé made of pierced ivory, bone, wood, or tortoiseshell.
LANGUAGE OF THE FAN
In 1711, Joseph Addison (1672-1719) wrote a satirical article about fans in The Spectator, no. 102, including directions to present the fan as if it were a weapon. Duvelleroy published a leaflet listing various positions of the fan that a discerning young man was presumably expected to interpret.
Inevitably women’s fashions changed, and the elegant high-waisted styles moved to a more natural waistline in the 1820s. Decoration remained delicate but grew fussier. Fans became larger, and there was a fondness for silk or net leaves with appliquéd decoration in the form of gilt paper motifs and spangles. Other types of fan leaf were of painted or printed paper. Not until the mid-nineteenth century did fan making and fan design regain the panache of the previous century.
The second half of the nineteenth century saw a gradual decline in fan making and design. In France the firm of Duvelleroy dominated the European market with quality fans and had done so since it was established in 1827. Yet, the quality of their designs flagged during the second half of the century. Fan making in England fared no better despite attempts at holding competitions. Good-quality fans appeared briefly from the 1880s following a revival of interest in fans as fashionable accessories.
But World War I and the arrival of the “Modern Woman” completed the end of the fan. By the 1920s, fans had become attractive gimmicks to be given away as advertisements by well-known department stores, restaurants, or fashion houses.
Armstrong, Nancy. A Collector’s History of Fans. London: Studio Vista, 1974.
Arnold, Janet. Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d. London: W. S. Maney and Sons, 1988. The Stowe Inventory, p. 325, folio 91/8.
Bennet, A. G., and R. Berson. Unfolding Beauty: The Art of the Fan. Exhibition catalog. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1988.
Cust, Lionel. Catalogue of the Collection of Fans and Fan Leaves presented to the Trustees of the British Museum by Lady Charlotte Schreiber, 1893.
Delpierre, M., and F. Falluel, eds. L’eventail: Miroir de la belle époque. Exhibition catalog, Musée de la Mode et du Costume. Paris: Palais Galliera, 1985.
Gostelow, Mary. The Fan. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1976.
Hart, Avril, and Emma Taylor. Fans. London: V and A Publications, 1998.
Mayor, Susan. Collecting Fans. London: Christies/Studio Vista, 1980.
Rhead, George Woolliscroft. History of the Fan. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, and Company, 1910.
Schreiber, Lady Charlotte. Fans and Fan Leaves. Vol. 1: English; Vol. 2: Foreign. London: British Museum, 1888-1890.