A story told in a whisper of fans...
How many exotic lands should we visit to follow their trail throughout centuries of history? How much of human history is hidden inside this apparently completely innocuous and frivolous object?
The earliest fans date back to the days of the ancient Egypt, where they were initially reserved for pharaohs and priests. Fans played a significant role in the ceremonies of the court; they were a sign of power to be carried behind the pharaoh in processions. To have a fan held for you indicated a high position in the state hierarchy. Large fans of leaves or feathers, mounted on long handles, sometimes bent at a right angle at the base of the plume were used. Fans also accompanied the deceased in their post-mortem journey. Two handles of fans found in Tutankhamen’s tomb, now located in the museum in Cairo, made from ivory and gold (with visible depictions of scarabs) indicate an accomplished artistic level that the Egyptians achieved in the creation of such items.
In Greece, fans borrowed from the Egyptians were originally made from leaves mounted on a long handle. They were used by both men and women, but due to their large size, were carried by slaves. Their form began to change in the 4th century BC when their size was reduced and they became more compact so that they could be carried alone. Other materials began to be used in their production: thin boards, fabrics and leather stretched on a frame. In the Hellenist period, feather fans were also made and magical properties were often attributed to them. The most common form was the semicircular fan, which was reflected in the decoration of Greek ceramics.
The Romans invented their own type of a fan called musicarum (Latin musicas – a fly) which was used to flick insects away. Around the 4th century BC, small fans resembling simple flags appeared.
While following the trail of the fan, we cannot forget about imperial China and the Land of the Rising Sun where this object was created in an extremely beautiful form and played an important role in a daily life of the court and its inhabitants.
One of the Chinese legends concerning the creation of a fan refers to the beautiful daughter of the mandarin Kan-Si, who, during the Torch Holiday, started to fan herself with a mask very quickly, hoping to cool her face hidden behind the mask. She was followed by the other 10,000 ladies who were also tired of the heat. Thanks to this, their faces remained in hiding and there was pleasant coolness all around...
At the imperial court and in the hierarchy of state officials, stringent rules on the use of fans were applied. However, if a person abode by these rules, the fan became a useful tool to evade etiquette. One could avoid endless ceremonial bows by hiding their faces behind a fan. Another practical use of a fan, probably pretty amazing to the youth, was using it to discipline students at schools. There were also “war fans“ made of metal, designed for soldiers as well as large decorative ceremonial and presentable fans used, for example, during parades or processions.
Fans were made of paper, silk, feathers, wood, palm leaves, and ivory, as well as white nephrite which was especially valued in China. The handles of precious specimens were created from silver, gold or mother-of-pearl. Colours were often monochromatic, and the decorations were derived from the art of calligraphy. In China, India, and Mesopotamia fan feathers were impregnated with fragrant oils so that a pleasant scent emanated from them every time they moved. A significant development in the field of this artistic craftsmanship occurred after the form of a folding fan was adopted from Japan.
In Japan, this form was invented around the 7th century. It was accompanied by a legend which told about a married couple into whose flat a bat flew at night. An observation of the animal’s wings made when it was taken out of the house contributed to the invention of the folding fan. The oldest forms of this were named Komori (bat in Japanese). Fans arrived to Japan from Korea. The material they were made from indicated the social and property status of their owners. Different fan forms were associated with different purposes. Materials similar to those used in China were used, but fan decorations were further developed by introducing ink drawings and woodcut reproductions, as well as the inscribing of short poems. Fans were also covered with scenes from court life, and picturesque landscapes or calligraphy. It was also possible to purchase an undecorated fan and to decorate it on one’s own.
In China and Japan, the most popular fan was the Brise folding fan. Their frames were uniquely charming, due to their floral, landscape, and architectural, as well as anthropomorphic ornamentation, which was intricately carved. Another fan form, which was developed by Japanese culture, was the pleated fan. The demand for fans was huge, so small factories, often with a high degree of specialisation, were established. The technology of production changed and improved; fan painting schools were opened, and various decoration techniques were introduced (including incrustation and openwork patterns). Considered to be everyday objects, they were regarded as an inseparable attribute of, for example, a samurai costume. They also played an important role in Japanese theatre.
The folding fan didn’t reach Europe until as late as the 17th century; earlier, around the 15th century, they appeared in the East. Fans spread across European courts thanks to Portuguese sailors. Before that, European women had used small flags or fans of bird feathers. Fan fashion reached all social classes, so production facilities began to be established. The best-known production centres were located in Italy. In Milan, Genoa and Siena, fans were made of bird feathers (fans made of long-tail parrot feathers were a novelty). Their handles were made from precious materials such as ivory, gold, and silver, as well as precious stones. In order to secure the fan to a dress, a chain or a ribbon was attached to it. Flag-fans used by wealthy women were manufactured in Venice. Those decorated with Venetian lace and made of white vellum were intended for young betrothed girls. In Naples and Bologna, there were popular screen fans with geometric decorations.
One of the most beautiful collections of fans was owned by Elizabeth I, the Queen of England. She used to say that this was the only object that could be given to her by her subjects. However, it was the 18th century which became known as the golden age of fans.
This practical, fetching and entertaining item quickly became an irreplaceable and ever-present accessory of every elegant lady. French Rococo introduced a fashion for meticulously crafted fans; ivory became very popular. Themes were derived from Italian comedies; pastoral, love, and hunting scenes, as well as depictions of landscapes and portraits. Eighteenth-century fans were true works of art. Made of paper, thin leather, tortoiseshell, ivory, and mother of pearl; they were carved and lacquer painted – they were an elegant complement to the wardrobe of that time. The most common decorations were landscape, genre, and mythological scenes, and sometimes erotic scenes. The Marquise de Pompadour ordered her fans from the most famous painters of the era. In social life, a domino-type fan was useful, with cut-out holes through which a lady could observe the surroundings, while remaining unseen. Lenses could also be fitted in a fan, which served as glasses in a very elegant setting; such fans were used by Marie Antoinette.
A fan could enable one to escape difficult situations. During an audience with Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, an embarrassing incident occurred. The queen, known for her passion for fashion, noticed an extremely charming bracelet on the hand of one of the ladies, the German Baroness d’Oberkirch. So she asked the Baroness to show her the trinket. However, according to the Versailles etiquette, the Queen could not be given an object in a public place with a bare hand not wearing a glove. Therefore, the Baroness took off the bracelet and put it on her spread fan. With this manner of handing the jewellery, etiquette was observed, and the queen was delighted.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, fans of the aide-mémoire type could be seen, reminding people of the words of popular songs, dances or game rules. During the French Revolution, prints on fans made comment on current political events.
In the 19th century, delicate lace fans were intended for young girls, whereas dignified ladies had a liking for elegant fans made from feathers, matching the colour of their dresses. Scenes depicting an elegant group during a game and a walk, known from paintings by Fragonard, Boucher, and Watteau, became a popular decoration. Interestingly, a famous Polish painter of horses, Wojciech Kossak, also decorated fans: A knight paying homage to the queen, Yankel’s polonaise and concert, A wedding in Kraków.
The 20th century saw a decline in the popularity of the fan; after World War I only old ladies who remembered the days of splendour of the fan and their own experiences could not be parted from this sophisticated object.
Today’s fans, enclosed in museum showcases, still enchant with their unique charm, and visitors continue to fall into a reverie over the ephemeral beauty of bygone eras.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.
See also: Woman’s fan