“The Grand Odalisque”, orientalist painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1814.
“The Grand Odalisque” is nude but for jewellery, a turban and an ornate fan made of peacock feathers, much like those used in ancient Egypt. Orientalist painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1814. Musée du Louvre

A little history of the fan

Article of daily use and fashion accessory, artwork and status object: the fan has had a range of functions as varied and colourful as the history of its development, which extends far back into the past.

Murielle Schlup

Murielle Schlup

Freelance art historian and cultural scientist

The oldest representations of fans show large, long-stemmed fronds made of palm or lotus leaves, or bundles of straw, animal hair or feathers, especially peacock and ostrich feathers, with which servants and slaves in warm countries – from Egypt to Greece, from China to India – protected their overlords against overheating and warded off pesky insects. The fan has always been more than a purely functional tool for keeping cool in hot and humid climes. For early advanced civilisations, the fan was also a ritual and ceremonial object and a symbol of sovereignty for rulers and high officials. Basic hand fans were also widely used among the common people, for tasks such as cooling hot food or to fan the flames of a fire.
Male servant using a hand fan to cool food or kindle a fire. Painted wood, Egypt, between 2200 and 1800 BC.
Male servant using a hand fan to cool food or kindle a fire. Painted wood, Egypt, between 2200 and 1800 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The development of fan manufacture in Europe

Hand-held fans from the Orient, especially wheel, flag and feather fans, were first brought to Europe via Venice by the Crusaders in the 12th century. Initially their use caught on mainly in northern Italy, where over time Europe’s first independent fan making industry developed. Over the course of centuries, hand-held fans have appeared in countless portraits of high-born women, where they functioned as female status symbols – feminine “sceptres of sovereignty”, as it were. Catherine de Medici’s (1519-1589) penchant for fans, for instance, is evidenced in a number of portraits.
Catherine de Medici with a small feather fan. Miniature by François Clouet, France, c. 1555.
Catherine de Medici with a small feather fan. Miniature by François Clouet, France, c. 1555. Victoria & Albert Museum
Through her marriage to the Duke of Orléans (1519-1559), later King Henry II of France, she introduced the fan to the French court, where it became established as an indispensable fashion accessory for aristocratic ladies and quickly spread to other European courts. The fan emphasised its holder’s sophistication and sense of style, and signalled a refined way of life as enjoyed by society’s upper echelons. At the same time, emotions could be concealed behind the fan, as could a goitre, an unsightly sore or bad teeth. During the 16th century, the hitherto common types of fan had a rival that soon dominated the market: Portuguese traders brought the folding fan from East Asia to Europe. The existing lively demand for fans increased significantly, especially at the French court; at the same time there was an influx of fan makers from northern Italy to France, driven by this surge in demand. French craftsmen took up apprenticeships with these experts. A growing number of “éventaillistes”, as the fan makers were called in France, established their own independent profession. Louis XIV (1638–1715) protected the growing national production of fans in France by cracking down on Italian imports.
“The Triumph of Alexander the Great” on an Italian fan produced for the French court between 1690 and 1700.
“The Triumph of Alexander the Great” on an Italian fan produced for the French court between 1690 and 1700. The scene is taken from a series of five paintings done by Charles Le Brun between 1661 and 1668 on commission from Louis XIV. Victoria & Albert Museum
By not later than the mid-18th century, the heyday of the fan in Europe, France had risen to become the main centre of fan manufacture in the Western world. In England, the immigration of Huguenots after the declaration of the Edict of Nantes (1685) boosted the fast-growing domestic industry on the island, centred in London.

The folding fan – a portable work of art

The folding fan, probably a Japanese invention, has remained the best-known and most common type of fan. Not only because it’s very clever and convenient, but also because its construction has enabled makers to introduce countless variations in material and design. In particular, however, its wide-opening leaves offered a platform for virtuoso portable works of art. There was almost no limit to the imagination and attention to detail with which each fan maker sought to outdo the others. In pricier versions, the sticks and the two guards of the monture (the fan’s framework) were often made of ivory, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, exotic woods and precious metals. They were embellished with elaborate carvings and fretwork, as well as appliqués made of diamantés and precious gems.
Rococo fan made of silk, embroidered with sequins, with sticks made of mother-of-pearl with motif appliqués in silver and bronze, France, c. 1770.
Rococo fan made of silk, embroidered with sequins, with sticks made of mother-of-pearl with motif appliqués in silver and bronze, France, c. 1770. The subject of the fan is love. Fans like this one were popular wedding gifts. Victoria & Albert Museum
The leaf made of silk, paper, vellum (very thin parchment) and “Schwanenhaut” (fine leather, e.g. from lambs), which was semi-circular when opened, was decorated with silk and silver threads, pearls, sequins, lace and tiny paintings. These paintings were usually in the centre of the fan leaf, and popular subjects included scenes from classical Greek mythology and the Bible, as well as chinoiseries; pastoral, genre and harbour scenes were added to the repertoire later on, along with scenes of contemporary political or social relevance, and copies and variations of famous paintings. As small gifts or souvenirs of Bildungsreise – cultural trips such as the famous Grand Tour – people commissioned fans depicting historic cities and famous buildings such as St Peter’s Basilica and the Colosseum.
Souvenir fan featuring three coloured views of Rome
Souvenir fan featuring three coloured views of Rome: from left to right, the Forum Romanum, the Capitol and the Colosseum. While the “Schwanenhaut” fan leaf was made in Italy between 1775 and 1795, the ivory sticks with metal ornaments come from France. The British Museum
Some fans incorporated short poems, charades, conversational games or rebus puzzles with which the ladies could occupy themselves when bored. In the later 18th century, events such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the French Revolution were also depicted.
Fan referencing the French Revolution, around 1793.
Fan referencing the French Revolution, around 1793. The city wall of Koblenz, to which many of the French aristocracy fled, is shown in the background. In the foreground the Prussian king and the Emperor of Austria converse with a French expatriate playing with a yo-yo, a popular amusement among the wealthy classes of the era. Musée des arts décoratifs
At this time, promotional fans advertising events, products and companies were increasingly in circulation. These were inexpensively manufactured, mass-produced items, such as those fans that acted as “reporters”, documenting and disseminating day-to-day political events in the style of a leaflet that could be passed on. Large numbers of such fans were circulating on the eve of the French Revolution. It was an era in which the emerging middle classes, whose women could now also afford the pricier fans, entered the arena. With these newly acquired accessories, they were able to step out confidently in the public eye. At the same time, simpler versions which became adjuncts to middle class women’s clothing came onto the market. From then on the fan ceased to be a “privilege” of the titled classes, and thus increasingly lost its appeal. In addition, demand for the status symbols of the Ancien Régime, which included the fan, declined dramatically after the French Revolution. This trend was further accelerated by the newly emerging women’s fashions, which were a lot lighter and required less in the way of “cooling down” than the Baroque and Rococo styles. The days when fans were kept at hand to prevent wig- and corset-wearers in heavy, multi- layered dresses from fainting in stuffy ballrooms were well and truly over.

Swiss fan painter Johannes Sulzer

Arguably the best-known fan maker in Switzerland was Winterthur painter and engraver Johannes Sulzer (1748-1794). Sulzer was descended from a patrician family and is believed to have spent seven years working as a gold worker in Paris. The Swiss National Museum owns about a dozen of his fans. In his capacity as artist, Sulzer signed his works “Peint & mont par J. Sulzer au Rossignol à Winterthur”, which refers to the house “Zur Nachtigall” (Stadthausstrasse 31, Winterthur) demolished in 1949.
Folding fan by Johannes Sulzer, c. 1780 to 1790, signed. The fan leaf shows various genre scenes on its obverse.
Folding fan by Johannes Sulzer, c. 1780 to 1790, signed. The fan leaf shows various genre scenes on its obverse. Swiss National Museum
Sulzer was first and foremost a painter, a master of the miniature. He turned the leaves of his fans into works of art of stunning quality and distinctive style. Sulzer’s fans depict masterly genre scenes, the peasantry at work, very fine, meticulously detailed drawings of costumes, traditional outfits, accessories, tools, leaf and flower tendrils, as well as birds and beetles, all rendered with scientific precision. His speciality was delicate silhouettes cut out of the paper leaf, which depict bird cages, nets, baskets and aviaries and are often additionally accentuated with sequins and silk threads. He also liked to cover his fans with a fine layer of silver dust so that the paper imitated the lustre of real silk.

Aids in non-verbal communication

Non-verbal communication was another of the areas in which the fan was used. Loaded with symbolism, connoting the feminine, relating to the physical body and therefore also to a certain extent quite intimate, the fan could serve as an aid to self-expression and coquetry when it came to social appearances and flirting. Body language, gesture and facial expression could be accentuated with the fan, the eyes of a third party could be drawn to a plump cleavage or a man’s attention could be gained by deliberately dropping the fan. “Women are armed with Fans as Men are with Swords, and sometimes do more Execution with them”, Joseph Addison wrote in The Spectator in 1711 – this may be a satirical comment, but it was not entirely unjustified either. As with a veil in a seductive dance, the fan could be used to orchestrate an enticing interplay of hiding and emphasising, covering and revealing. Obviously, the inept or imprudent use of a fan could also, on occasion, be the trigger for awkward misunderstandings – if the affected teasing of an adored girl was incorrectly interpreted by an overeager admirer as a perceived sign of love, for example.

On the legendary “language of the fan”

The so-called “language of the fan” which, in the 18th century, was said to have been widely known but at the same time a secret language – a contradiction in terms – comes not from the theatre but from the realm of legend. According to this “language of the fan”, the way the fan was held and how it was used was subject to well-defined, universally applied rules, or rather, secret codes, by which a society lady could transmit secret messages to an admirer without the use of words. The closed fan held to the left cheek was supposed to mean “I love you”. The oldest written document in which the “language of the fan” can be found, broken down by gestures with corresponding explanations, is a printed leaflet dating from the mid-19th century. This leaflet was published by the London branch of fan maker Duvelleroy, founded in Paris in 1827. Most current research suggests that the content of this leaflet is the original source of the “language of the fan” and that it was a shrewd sales promotion measure by a fan maker who had profitably mastered “storytelling” as a marketing tool: Duvelleroy’s fans were sold to wealthy customers as far away as Asia and the Emirates. In London, Duvelleroy was appointed fan maker to the queen. The company still exists in Paris as a luxury goods retailer.
English version of the “Langage de l’eventail”, the language of the fan.
English version of the “Langage de l’eventail”, the language of the fan. mosaic.gr

Revival of the fan – and another fall from popularity

It is thanks at least in part to Duvelleroy’s sales skills that in the second third of the 19th century a fan revival began in fashion. Prosper Mérimée’s “Carmen”, published in 1845, also played its part in giving the fan a renewed popularity boost, and the item once again became an indispensable accessory for the elegant, fashion-conscious woman.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898), portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1865.
In the second half of the 19th century, Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898) was a well-known fan lover. She liked to use a fan to hide her face from prying eyes and – after the advent of photography – from cameras. Portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1865. Wikimedia
In Oscar Wilde’s comedy “Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman”, which premiered in London in 1892, the fan had another leading role in the theatre. During the Art Nouveau period, new types of fans adapted to the fashions of the time were produced, but feather fans also increasingly made a comeback. Promotional fans were by now in widespread use.
Promotional fan made of paper and simple wooden sticks in the shape of a balloon (known as forme ballon), manufactured by Parisian fan maker Chambrelent for the French champagne producer Louis Roederer, c. 1925-1930.
Promotional fan made of paper and simple wooden sticks in the shape of a balloon (known as forme ballon), manufactured by Parisian fan maker Chambrelent for the French champagne producer Louis Roederer, c. 1925-1930. The female figure in the picture is holding aloft a sumptuous red ostrich feather fan. The Fan Museum
At the same time, however, the ever-increasing import of mass-produced items from China added to European fan makers’ woes. And as the 1920s progressed, the fan began to face tough competition from a new accessory with which the sophisticated lady now liked to be seen: the cigarette. The cigarette exuded a “fresh” touch of cosmopolitan glamour and liberated extravagance. The fan, by contrast, seemed very old-fashioned and outdated. However, the fan still hasn’t disappeared completely. It is still actively used as a stylistic device and means of expression in dance, especially in flamenco. Cheaply manufactured “made in China” fans can be found in souvenir and tourist shops, particularly in Spain. In addition, the fan still makes occasional appearances in commercial photography, in fashion magazines, in films and in prominent hands – such as those of Karl Lagerfeld (1933-2019). The iconic fashion designer made the fan his trademark in the 1980s, like his big sunglasses and, in later years, his snow-white ponytail. For Lagerfeld the fan is also believed to have had a very particular utility: reputedly, he used it to shield himself from the bad breath of people around him.
Karl Lagerfeld with a fan, 1997.
Karl Lagerfeld with a fan, 1997. Dukas / Steve Wood / Rex Features

Further posts

Address & contact
Swiss National Museum
Landesmuseum Zürich
Museumstrasse 2
P.O. Box
8021 Zurich
info@nationalmuseum.ch
www.nationalmuseum.ch

Design: dreipol   |  Realisation: whatwedo
Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).