Fabric was another material used to fashion hand fans. Silk, often produced in China, was commonly used for fans belonging to the aristocracy or royalty. Its soft and lustrous finish made it a symbol of luxury between the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Yet, the Industrial Revolution, which roughly occurred between 1760 and 1840, brought changes to fabric production with the rise of textile factories. These factories surfaced in India, Europe and the United States. They brought speed and ease to the fabric manufacturing process. As such, fabric became more widely available for purchase.
The leaf of this small hand fan is made from blue silk (fig. 29). Flowers, birds and branches are elegantly painted onto the fabric, which is supported by twenty ivory sticks. The designs are very light—they appear almost translucent on the thin fabric (fig. 30). A white silk tassel hangs from the handle, adding sophistication and additional ornamentation.
Hand fans of the 1870s were almost always made with silk leaves that were either embroidered, trimmed with lace or painted. As such, these fans took on individual customization depending on the varied tastes of the user. In addition, artists decorated fabric fans depending on the cultural motifs, values and beliefs of the customer.
This customization could also be due to the ephemerality of the physical artifact. Decorated hand fans made of fabric (and of other materials like paper) were generally not built to last more than a summer or two. Wealthy clients could commission a new fan (or series of new fans) every summer if they desired a change. Therefore, the decoration could easily be customized to the varying tastes and artistic preferences of the user and geographical region.
Decoration breathes life into this black silk fan. Colourful flowers, painted in vibrant pink, yellow and blue, stand out against the black fabric. The silk leaf is attached to fourteen wooden sticks. Each stick is carefully painted with flowers, vines, and dragonfly motifs. The top edge of the fan is trimmed with black lace. In the nineteenth century, black fabric fans that were embroidered or painted with light-coloured flowers were particularly fashionable. However, floral patterns were not limited to hand fans. For example, this dress, made by Canadian fashion designer Marjorie Hamilton, features flower prints on blue synthetic fabric. Paired with a fan, the outfit would be complete!
This particular fan comes with a dance card and a miniature pencil attached by a cotton thread. The word, “Programme” is written on the front of the paper, along with a countryside image. The back of the card features a list of types of dance including the polka, valse (French term for waltz), and barn dance. Typically, a woman would write the names of the gentlemen with whom she intended to partner on this card for each successive dance.