At a time when it could be compromising for a lady to thoughtlessly blink in church, fans, like gloves, were ‘mobile communication’ accessories, using coded language for secret messages and intricate erotic play: a fan carried in the left hand meant, “Come and talk to me”, when open and shut, “You are cruel”, whereas a fan held wide open sent the unequivocal invitation: “At what hour?”…something of a vintage SMS!
The hand fan is a thousand-year-old invention, which provided the King with shade and a cooling breeze, while keeping away flies. The Cairo Museum of Egyptian Antiquities exhibits two unique rigid fans with ivory, gold and precious stone handles, and fully preserved white and brown ostrich feather trimming, that belonged to Pharaoh Tutankhamun, as in Egypt, the sacred use of the fan dates back to 3200 BC.
Ancient pottery shows that fans, made of myrtle or lotus leaves, known as rhipis, were used in Greece since the IV Century BC, while in China woven bamboo fans date back to the II Century BC. However, the folding fan as we know it today, said to have been inspired by bat wings, was invented in Japan in the VI Century A.D., and introduced in Europe from the Middle East and the Far East in the XVI Century by Venetian and Portuguese traders.
Queens Caterina de Medici’ and Elizabeth I were famous precious fan collectors as fans became court etiquette accessories, social status indicators and marked all major events in a lady’s life: mourning, court balls, weddings, childbirth…
Less fashionable at the time of the French Revolution and under the Empire I, the XIX Century showed a renewed interest in fans, as artists like Manet, Renoir, Pissarro and even Gauguin painted miniatures on them.
The materials used to make fans were always precious: African or Indian ivory, mother of pearl, exotic woods like makassar, ebony, rosewood, tortoiseshell, bone and horn for the frame and ‘swan skin’, the finest kid leather, silk, organza, lace and gold for the leaf. This makes the restoration of these items difficult, as the production of many materials used, like ivory, is now controlled and specialized craftsmen are seldom.
At auctions, collectors can choose between XVIII Century pastoral and romance settings, mythological tales, Art Deco flowery themes, precious Fabergé enamel decorations, Italian Grand Tour celebrations, XIX Century political or humorous scenes.
In France, amateurs can admire a collection of around 1000 fans at the Musée de l’Eventail, led by Anne Hoguet who belongs to a family of éventaillistes since 1872. In her atelier, Hoguet restores antique fans, teaches Fine Art students and also creates special pieces for the Opera, theatre, cinema (Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette) and Haute Couture, having worked with Dior, Gaultier, Lacroix, Nina Ricci, Torrente and Karl Lagerfeld.