Fan dancers

File:Folding Fan LACMA M.67.8.115 (1 of 2).jpg

I used to collect antique fans… I have a thing about them. Ever since I saw my great-grandmother’s little fan in the china cabinet as a girl, I have wondered about their stories. Grandma’s fan was a simple affair; pierced ivory brisé, threaded with a faded yellow ribbon to hold the sticks together and still wearing the ribbon hanging-loop she used to carry it over her wrist. She was a handsome woman when I knew her, already in her sixties when I was born, but there were some old, faded photographs of a young woman who had been more than handsome. Born when Queen Victoria was on the throne, she grew to womanhood  through the Edwardian era, she was married when George V became king. To a small child, this was ancient history! And Granny had been there!

It was with real excitement that I used to wait for the monthly Dusting of the China Cabinet, when Grandma would let me carefully take out the small antiques and curios, the memories in porcelain, ivory and silk and clean them with a soft cloth before rearranging them. I loved the paper-thin bone china of the tiny coffee-cups, the opaque glass Easter egg and, of course, the fan.

I could see the swirl of gaily coloured gowns, shy eyes meeting bold ones over the top of the fan, coy glances and maidenly blushes. Fans have a language all of their own and somehow I felt that I knew it. The little brisé fan, soiled now with the years, had been Grandma’s first and it was the first one to capture my heart. I learned to love them, from the social history of advertising fans, to the glorious feathers, mother of pearl sticks and ornately carved guards that protected their secrets. Many are exquisite works of art in miniature, incorporating many arts and crafts into a single, practical thing of beauty. Some of them were painted by people whose names have gone down in the annals of art history, others painted by the young girls themselves. They tell stories both in their design and in the hidden history of the hands that once held them. I always promised myself that I would collect fans one day if I could, and for a while I was privileged to be the custodian of such beautiful things.

There is more to my fascination, though, than their physical beauty. Before the onset of mass production, every fan was as unique as the hand in which it danced, rather like reality, fanning out before us from the single point of our unique perspective on the world. While I always wanted to be able to display my fans properly, I was always afraid of damaging them. The only way to put them on show long term is to stitch their spokes to a backing, hold their weight on a stand and encase them in a glass frame. This helps to stop them fading and warping… but while it preserves their form, it robs them of their mobility, stills their fluttering dance and puts them beyond reach…essentially rendering them useless… they can no longer fulfill their purpose.The best way to care for them is not to make a show of them, but to allow their own form to protect them, folded between the guards but ready to fly at the touch of a hand.

All things have their purpose and to fix and bind what should be free is to deny that purpose its free expression and its chance to be part of the dance of life. Where our own perceptions are fixed and blinkered, held in a showy rigidity that we can use to justify thoughts, words and actions, we too protect the outer form and cage the inner dance. We do not need the cold, glassy cage of fear. The outer layers of being with which we face the world are enough to protect us…and once those guards are opened, the true beauty that lies within is set free.

 Butterflies, late 19th century fan

19 thoughts on “Fan dancers

  1. I briefly started collecting fireplace fans, but realized that I was already collecting everything in the universe I had to draw a line somewhere. But you just reminded me how beautiful the fans are. And almost every culture made them or still does. Great post, even if it did reawaken my collecting disease.


  2. They are gorgeous. I never had any of this quality… but I love to see them. Spirit doesn’t suffer from such compasions… the quality and the need for untramelled inner freedom is the same. It is only the outer self that constricts. 🙂


  3. I love this post, Sue. I’m also a collector of fans, most from my grandmother and great grandmother. I display some in my china cabinet, other more fragile ones wrapped away. You describe them beautifully, the tiny works of art, some stitched on silk, other’s painted, all imbued with romance and imagination. I’m going to spend a little time with them this afternoon. ❤


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