Few historic accessories combine function, decoration and fine art as elegantly as the hand-held fan. This exhibition challenges the notion that hand fans were frivolous objects in colonial society between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. In the Victorian era, fans were used to protect eyes from the sun’s glare, to serve as an air-conditioning device and to prevent unwanted exposure. A traditional feminine adornment, the fan was also regarded as a work of art. Fan makers fashioned their creations extravagantly, employing sequins, tortoiseshell, feathers, paper and fabric—five materials this exhibition focuses on. Many were intricately painted with floral designs or everyday scenes.
This transformation of hand fans into artistic objects coincided with, and contributed to, nineteenth-century trends of social status, ephemerality, health, freedom of expression and consumerism, which all orchestrated the development of modernity. As an artwork, the fan became a must-have fashion accessory that reflected the individuality of the owner. In addition to being both practical and beautiful objects, hand fans came with unwritten rules regarding ritual, sartorial, fashionable and social behaviours.
The objects in this exhibition come from the Agnes Etherington Art Centre’s Collection of Canadian Dress at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON. This collection holds over 2500 fashion items spanning the late 1700s to the 1970s. This exhibition features ten fans separated into five categories, and each section aims to highlight the symbolic and artistic weight associated with hand fans and what they were made from.