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

42 thoughts on “Fan dancers

  1. This was just lovely. I had my mother’s jewelry box. There wasn’t much in there, but I loved looking through at all the treasures she kept within. Looking back, I’m surprised she let me. The risk was pretty high that I would have dropped or lost something. But, no, I guess I treated them with the respect they were due. And, again, my mom did not have a huge collection. It was a smattering of this and that, a half of a pair of earrings. One had a black, shiny sort of mesh-covered dangling ball. It looked like a disco ball that had been painted by goths. It hung from a tiny gold chain. It may have even been a clip-on and perhaps, at one time, I did wear and lose its mate. What a tragedy that I can’t recall what happened to it. Perhaps I’ll see a pair somewhere, someday, while hunting in my favorite second hand stores. I hope you find the fans you cherish. Maybe I’ll keep my eyes open for those as well!

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    1. My grranddaughters love going through my jewellery… most of the things in there are just pieces collected as part of costumes over the years, rather than decent jewellery, but that means there are weird and wonderful things in there that keep finding their way home with the girls. Including a pair of souvenir fans the last line they were here 🙂

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  2. Fascinating, Sue, and that final paragraph packs quite a punch. My grandmother had several fans that I loved to hold. She gave them to me but the silk has disintegrated on many of them. My own daughters love them and when they were younger I bought them more robust versions from Spain that they still bring out and use sometimes.

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    1. How lovely to be able t pass them on, Alex. There are ways to strengthen and restore the silk. It takes time and patience, but it is worth it to preserve thselovely old things.

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  3. I have three fans that I have kept, carefully packed away, ever since I was small. Well, one since I was about eight, one from about three years later and one from my twenties. 🙂 The latter one is sandalwood and produced envious glances whenever I remembered to take it with me to things like the Proms at the Albert Hall, which got very hot in days past. The first and third have the filigree type of pattern all over like your top one has, and the second is black with a paper Chinese-type painting, in wonderfully vibrant colours.
    Thanks for the memories. Now, where have I put them?

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    1. The sandalwood ones smell wonderful. I believe they used to dip them in water to produse a fragrant, co breeze… but I would not want to try that with some of the mass produced sandalwood ones you can buy today in case they warped.

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  4. I have a fan that belonged to my mother-in-law. Not an expensive one, but still beautiful. They are such wonderful things. I, too, love fans and had one of those plastic ones when I was a child. I also had a Spanish mantilla and loved dressing up as a Spanish lady, complete with fan.

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  5. Such a lovely post, Sue. I also have a fan collection, including some one-of-a-kind fans from my great grandmother and grandmother. They’re so fragile now that I keep them carefully wrapped in my grand mother’s china cabinet. But I think you’re right that they need to be unwrapped and imagined over once again.

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  6. Fans are something we don’t see anymore, but they are quite handy to have on a hot day. 🙂 I have a few myself. My most unusual one is of woven vetiver root, which you moisten to give an extra cooling and scented breeze.
    My sister once worked for an elderly woman who had amazing collections and one of them was fans from all over the world, plain to precious. Her collection of Native American dolls was what I remember most, they were exquisite.

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  7. What an incredible piece of art! They are not only pleasing to the eye, but I have to imagine it is the stories behind each fan that is quite alluring.

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