‘Women are armed with Fans as Men with Swords, and sometimes do more Execution with them’.  The Spectator, 1711

Portrait Of A Lady with a Fan - James Tissot

Portrait Of A Lady with a Fan – James Tissot

Throughout the Georgian and Victorian eras, up until the First World War, hand-held fans were considered a indispensable lady-like accessory.  Made from an endless assortment of hand-painted silk, lace, feathers, fabrics, vellum, bone, shell, mother of pearl, tortoiseshell and ivory, as well as often being adorned with jewels and fine inlay, fans may not have been strictly speaking jewelry but there were certainly worn, collected and admired in the same fashion.   They were often worn as bridal and bridesmaid accessories and there are also many examples of small, children’s fans, often for flower girls and bridesmaids.  Many fans displayed a strong Asian design influence.

Although fans may have had some practical purpose in warm climates, generally speaking they were held for show and displays of opulence. Fans were often associated with flirtation and scenes of pastoral dalliance were a popular subject for their decoration. Cupid often appears in French and English 18th century fan decoration, alluding to the role of the fan as an instrument of romance and flirtation. A fan was an important accessory for a wealthy woman, particularly when in formal attire. The fan was an important tool in non-verbal communication. The manner in which a lady held and moved her fan conveyed her feelings toward those around her and could display boredom, disapproval, flirtation and shyness, among other nuanced expression. This is referred to as ‘The Language of Fans’ and was practiced by some as a developed art-form.

Although not often carried today, antique and period fans are considered collector’s items and are coveted for their artistry and beauty.

Lady with Fan - Gustav Klimt

Lady with Fan – Gustav Klimt (1917)

Parts of the fan:

The Leaf: this is the part that’s most visible to the eye, and the source of the most decorative expression for fan makers.  It is usually creased so that it compacts when the fan is closed.

The Monture: this includes the sticks, the ribs and the outside guards.

The Pivot or the Head: this is the part that anchors the bottom of the fan.

Decorative Sticks

The sticks of the fans could often be highly decorative with delicate piercing or carving work which gave the appearance of lace or filigree. They could be made from bone, ivory, shell, mother-of-pearl, bamboo, wood, celluloid, lucite, tortoise-shell, and, later on, Bakelite and plastic. Many fan sticks were produced in China for import into Europe. The wide, closely spaced ivory sticks of this hand-painted fan below are typical of the 1750s:


France, c. 1750-1760
Fan, gouache on vellum, with carved and pierced ivory sticks and guards.
V&A Museum

Souvenir Fans

During the period 1750-1790. the English Upper Classes brought back souvenir fans when they went to Italy on their ‘Grand Tour’. England also produced many souvenir fans throughout the 18th and 19th century, such as this ladies ‘Traveling Fan’ decorated with hand-colored maps:

Fan mount - The Ladies Travelling Fan, of England and Wales

UK, c. 1788
Fan, Engraving and soft-ground etching on paper, coloured by hand
V&A Museum


Rome, c. 1770-1780
Gouache painted on vellum, carved, inlaid and pierced ivory
V&A Museum

Brisé fans

These had no fan leaf and are made of fan sticks held in place by a silk cord or ribbon.

The sticks of brisé fans are often exceptionally decorative.


France, c. 1775-1800Fan
Tortoiseshell pierced work, gilding and painting
V&A Museum

Painted Fans

Many fans were as finely hand-painted as masterful wall art and indeed many were replicas of famous works. Lithographed fans were also popular, as well as printed and hand-colored fans.


Great Britain, late 18th century.
Fan, tortoise shell, vellum, water-color and gilt
V&A Museum


France, c. 1900
Silk painted with gouache, applied mother of pearl, sequins, mother of pearl inlaid with gilt, pierced and painted, brass
V&A Museum


France, 1760-1770
Gouache on vellum, with insertions of cotton net; carved ivory sticks and articulated guards
V&A Museum


Feathers were a popular material for fans.  During the Victorian era, ostrich feathers dyed in a rainbow of colors were popular, particularly black. During the later part of the 19th century, the use of feathers could be taken to quite an extreme and whole stuffed birds would sometimes be used, despite many protests from conservationists and nature lovers of the time.  The fashion for whole birds reached a height in the 1880s.


Brazil, c. 1880s
Stuffed bird, feathers, wrapped silk, ivory, glued beetle
V&A Museum


China, c. 1935
Feather with bone
V&A Museum


Many fans were made from hand-made lace, often very finely made and representing hours of labor. Machine-made lace was widely available to everyone through the second half of the 19th century.  However, the fashion for high quality hand-made lace saw a boom in the 1890s and 1900s, peaking between 1895 and 1905. During the 1850s and 1860s, black Chantilly-style lace was immensely popular, much of it made in France.

Fan leaf

England, 1878
Hand-made Bobbin lace fan leaf
V&A Museum

Fan leaf

France, 1899
Chantilly lace fan leaf.
V&A Museum


Embroidery is seen on many fans throughout both the 18th and 19th centuries.  Between the years of 1850 to 1900, machine embroidery was developed and soon rivaled hand-embroidery in popularity.  In the 1870s and 1880s, fans and dresses were usually made of the same matching fabric.


UK, 1880-1890
Machine-embroidered satin in silks, edged with bobbin lace, backed with silk, mother-of-pearl, metal
V&A Museum


UK, c. 1820-1830
Silk appliqué, hand-embroidered with copper-gilt thread and spangles, insertion of silk net, with carved and pierced ivory sticks and guards decorated with silver foil
V&A Museum


The handscreen was another form of fan. Women generally used them indoors to protect their faces from fireside heat. Handscreens were often produced in pairs and placed one on either end of the mantlepiece.


France, 1870-1880
Gauze, applied paper, silk and, carved and pierced ivory handle
V&A Museum

Chinese Fans

Towards the end of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, Chinese fans became popular.  These generally had a rounded shape and didn’t fold. The early ones were hand-painted and the later ones were printed.


China, 19th century
Embroidered silk appliqués on gilt thread gauze, tortoise-shell and bamboo frame with enamel plaques
V&A Museum

Art Nouveau and Art Deco Fans


Paris, c. 1911
Printed and hand-coloured paper, with painted silk, bone, metal and silk thread
V&A Museum


Paris, c. 1920-1929
Printed paper and wood
V&A Museum

Novelty Fans

During the first part of the 20th century, many novelty fans were created.  This bird shaped fan below is a typical example. Cat’s heads and butterfly shapes were also created.


UK, c. 1910
Textured paper painted with gouache, and cedar wood
V&A Museum


As the use of fans declined for personal use in the 20th century, designers and businesses increasingly used them as a medium for advertising and self-promotion. The asymmetrical shape of this fan below is typical of the 1950s.


France, c. 1950-1955
Hand-painted paper and with wooden sticks
V&A Museum

Fan cases

The fan cases themselves were also often highly decorative, created to match the fans.

Fan case

China, c. 1880-1930
Velvet weave fan cases
V&A Museum

Sources / further reading:

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