The brief for context was to write an essay on an object of our choice. I decided to write about a fan which I saw in the Victoria and Albert museum as the bright colours of the flowers amazed me. I wanted to research into it further and how fans were used during the Victorian era and how they are used now.


Whilst looking through the fashion collection on my visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, I came across an interesting hand-held fan with large, bright orange and yellow pansies which were painted by French artist, Ronot-Tutin. The fan was most likely created for an English woman to wear with a certain ball gown. It appears that a lot of precision and effort was taken into painting the pansies to ensure they were a high enough quality to be worn with a luxurious dress. I believe the soft, white lace and metallic effect of the sticks work well with the contrasting and more vibrant colours of the pansies. Although the pansies are very realistic, they were not approved by the French during the 1890s, when the fan was produced, as it was not in keeping with the French style at the time.

The fan was an essential fashion accessory, used by wealthy women to keep cool in opera theatres, balls, dances and churches. Fan production was specifically large within Paris where it became the centre for fan production, and they were even smuggled in from Paris to England.

What intrigues me was how the fan was used during the Victorian era, as it had many functionalities. This included to keep cool, display social status, cover the face, swat insects and send romantic messages. Today, the fan has one main function which is to keep cool in high temperatures. The invention of air conditioning and powerful electric fans which are highly accessible can now be used as an effective alternative.

New fashions came out for women in the 1890s and they became more dynamic and active. They had more freedom and began expressing themselves by cycling, smoking cigarettes and playing with the fan. During this period, they began engaging with the language of gesture as an expression of desire. Cycling and smoking were activities that women traditionally did not do as the female identity was transformed around a notation of modesty. Before the 1890s, women felt inferior and there was a general assumption that a woman would lower her eyes and face herself. After this period, women became more confident looking people straight in the eye. This was famously represented by impressionist, Manet who produced a painting called Olympia. It was a portrait of a woman lying naked on a bed, but the important and most controversial part was that she was staring right out of the painting as though she was looking at you in the eye; it is almost as though she is unembarrassed of being naked.

The fan was part of a language, that people, specifically woman used socially. There were secret messages that the fan conveyed. For example, presenting the fan shut meant, ‘Do you love me?’ and twirling the fan in the right hand meant, ‘I love another’. I find this soundless method of communication intriguing as it was one of the only ways that a woman would be able to get to know a man. These gestures had to be kept secret, so women did not get caught by their chaperon or another onlooker. This reminded me of detectives who use secret codes at work as they must be careful when transmitting messages.
The fan was used to tease and obscure the face during the 1890s. It is now commonly used by Spanish flamenco dancers and Japanese geisha performers which is another way the fan develops its own language of gestures to become the ritual of modern life. The postures created whilst dancing with the fan expresses the woman’s femininity. The fan is still used to keep cool from the intense weather in Spain as well as being a huge part of their culture and dance.

Fans reduced in size and were almost half the size they were during the 1890s. This was due to the huge sleeves and extravagant dresses which women wore and it appeared that large, dramatic fans would match them idyllically. Today, the fans are much smaller as women do not wear such huge dresses, so it appears a smaller fan will complement their outfit just as well.

The fan has been used numerous times in the present-day fashion world. Gucci’s fashion designer, Alessandro Michele showcased his female and male models holding fans produced from bamboo and silk. The fans were decorated with a red flower and printed with the name of the fashion label in a black, gothic font. These fans were not only used on the catwalk; they were seen being used by Beyonce whilst at an NBA basketball game in New York. During the Victorian era, the folding fans were created from bamboo strips and only the middle class could afford them, whereas those of a higher class were able to enjoy the luxury of being fanned by someone else. I was surprised by this as bamboo seems to me it would be an expensive material.

During Dior’s 2017 autumn and winter collection, guests in the front row at fashion week, including Celine Dion, Jennifer Lawrence and Kirsten Dunst received fashionable hand-held fans. Across the week of receiving them, they were seen using the fan as a way to keep cool from the heat.

Rihanna is another celebrity who has been seen with the old-fashioned fan. She created a line for the brand, Puma and incorporated a fan into the spring and summer collection. It was created using pink lace; a common material used in fans in the 1890s. These fans give people an excuse to cool themselves down in an elegant and sophisticated manner, especially during the summer months.

The change the fan has gone through has amazed me. From the traditional fan being worn by elegant women with their gowns to now, celebrities using them as a fashion statement. They are not only used to create fashion statements but can now be received as favours at weddings.


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World Wide Web Documents

4. (n.d.). Ladies and their Fans - Victorian Days - [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Jan. 2019].

5. Camerlengo, L. (2018). The Language of Fans. [online] de Young. Available at: [Accessed 16 Jan. 2019].

6. (2017). Fan | Ronot-Tutin | V&A Search the Collections. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Jan. 2019].

7. Cottrell, R. (2011). The Language of the Victorian Fan. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Jan. 2019].

8. (2019). 20th & 21st Century Fans | The Fan Circle International. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Jan. 2019]. 

9. (n.d.). Fans and large fans for Flamenco dance. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Jan. 2019].

10. Lawton Johnson, C. (n.d.). articles - brief history of fans. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Jan. 2019].

11. Lodi, H. (2017). Tracing the evolution of hand-held fans. [online] The National. Available at: [Accessed 15 Jan. 2019].

12. Sydney Living Museums. (n.d.). Keeping cool. [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 Jan. 2019].

13. The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles. (2017). Fans and Fashion - The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Jan. 2019].

Context writing

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