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Evolution and Purpose

Autumn and Summer, 1644 by Wenceslaus Hollar©

In the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries two types of fan were introduced to Europe from the Far East: rigid fans, normally consisting of feathers held in a richly jewelled handle, and folding fans. Because of its compact form, the folding fan soon displaced the rigid fan in popularity. Very few English folding fans are known from before the early seventeenth century: the small pierced leather fan is a rare survivor. Since that period, fans have evolved in size, design and manufacture, in general growing both in scale and in the angle of opening. Most seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century fans are considerably smaller than those produced in the late nineteenth century – the period of the belle époque, when all respectable ladies would have had a number of large and glamorous fans in their wardrobes.

Although most folding fans are approximately semicircular when open, some open to 360°. Additional features have been introduced from time to time, for novelty has always been an accompaniment to fashion. As the nineteenth century progressed numerous patents were issued to protect innovative features of fan design: one of the fans contains a lorgnon (pince-nez) hidden within the guard.

The Marriage of George, Duke of York, with Princess Mary of Teck, 6 July 1893©

The main purpose of a fan is to cool and ventilate, or to protect the face from the heat of a fire. But for around three hundred years from the start of the seventeenth century fans also served as essential dress accessories for ladies - and occasionally for gentlemen too. Handled with a combination of knowledge and artifice, the fan also came to be used either to communicate a lady’s feelings and moods, or as a convenient screen to hide behind.

Between the seventeenth and the early twentieth centuries, a fashionable lady’s wardrobe would have included a variety of different fans. In the same period a royal lady’s wardrobe would have contained many hundreds of fans: Queen Charlotte’s posthumous sale in 1819 included over 400 and in the early twentieth century Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary each owned between 300 and 400. Although some of these would have been relatively inexpensive disposable items, others would have been personalised for their owner, often with jewelled initials or ciphers.

Fans have been used at key moments in court life. The lace fan was held by Queen Charlotte at the christenings of her children; Queen Victoria used it for a similar purpose, and is shown holding it at the wedding of the future Queen Mary in 1893 (as depicted in the painting above). A fan was also considered a suitable wedding gift: the eighteenth-century French fan with a leaf decorated with a marriage scene, including figures holding fans, was a wedding present to HM The Queen in 1947.

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