Exhibit of the Week: Understanding the language of the fan

The exquisite Victorian fan in the Scarborough Collections.
The exquisite Victorian fan in the Scarborough Collections.

Every fairy princess needs a pretty fan, and they don’t come much prettier than this one.

In shades of cream, pink, coral and baby blue, it has bone or ivory sticks embossed in silver, a band of hand-painted fabric, a band of ribbon woven through the sticks and finished with a bow, and all surmounted by exquisitely feminine marabou or ostrich feathers in cream with pink accents.

Probably Victorian, it’s a pleated, or folding, fan – other fan styles included ‘brisé’, (decorative sticks, with no folding ‘leaves’ holding them together), ‘fontange’ (a folding fan so-called because its shape recalled the fontange headdress, a confection of pleated fabric which was the height of fashion for ladies’ hair in the late 1600s) and ‘cockade’ (a pleated or brisé fan which opened into a complete circle around a central stick).

An accessory combining real practicality with the opportunity to display your taste in art or fashion, the hand fan has been used around the world for centuries. It was found in Ancient Greece as early as the fourth century BC, while in Europe, the flabellum or ceremonial fan was used in the sixth century to keep insects away from the consecrated bread and wine in Christian ceremonies.

But it wasn’t until the 17th century that the fan as decorative object and fashion accessory became popular in Europe – many paintings show the ultra-fashionable Queen Elizabeth I carrying various styles of hand fan.

In the early 1700s, the so-called ‘language of the fan’ began to evolve. Using and positioning the fan in different ways, ladies were supposed to be able to communicate ‘secret’ messages to would-be admirers – although those messages were presumably not that secret to others who also understood the language!

It must also have been a very imprecise language of which certain aspects were very much open to misinterpretation – for instance, fanning slowly meant ‘I am married’, while fanning quickly meant ‘I am engaged’. But one woman’s quick is another’s slow…

And drawing the fan across the cheek meant ‘I love you’ – unless, presumably, the lady had an itchy cheek, in which case her suitor might be in for a bit of a disappointment.

Less ambiguous were: carrying the fan in the right hand in front of the face (‘follow me’); drawing the fan through the hand (‘I hate you’); and dropping the fan (‘we will be friends’).

The heyday of the fan was probably the Victorian era, from which today’s example hails. Well-known artists including, notably, the Impressionists, began designing fans, and often included them in their paintings – take a look at Monet’s wonderfully vivid Eastern-styled portrait of his wife, La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), or various paintings by the great society portraitist of his day, John Singer Sargent, including the notorious Portrait of Madame X, who appears to be holding a folded black fan in her left hand.

Such is the popularity of the fan as both a fabulous example of the decorative arts and as a piece of social history that the UK boasts its very own Fan Museum, in Greenwich, with over 5,000 items in its collection – its fascinating website gives a lovely detailed history of the form: www.thefanmuseum.org.uk

You can find out more about ‘princess’ fashion and accessories in Fairytale Fashion at Scarborough Art Gallery on the evening of Friday December 11. This presentation from ‘costume-in-context’ specialists History Wardrobe – who last year brought the fascinating Women and the Great War event – explores the history of the ‘princess dress’, from Cinderella to Diana via some Disney favourites.

Tickets for the talk, which starts at 6pm, are £15, to include a Christmas cocktail. Places are limited, so booking is recommended. To book, or for further information, please call Scarborough Art Gallery on 01723 374753.

This gorgeous fan is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.