More Than a Tool for Keeping Cool

Exhibitor Diane Ashman has been showing at Art & Antiques for Everyone for longer than she usually cares to remember. She looks forward to the fair having built up a formidable list of friends and clients that includes leading fashion designers and celebrities from the stage and screen from the past fifty years.

Trading from a shop on High Street, Welshpool, Ashman’s Antiques & Old Lace is also top on the list for many movie and TV producers looking for original vintage costumes and accessories. From top hats, fur coats, Victorian camisoles to needlework samplers, Diane has something for everyone in the fashion and decoration stakes.

At the recent summer NEC fair, Diane sold two very pretty lace fans. Antique and vintage fans of quality, as collectors will know, are now few and far between. Not so many people realise just how important the fan once was.

In 18th and 19th century society circles, when highly coiffured ladies and gentlemen gathered together for musical recitals and evening balls flirting involved a much more proscribed form of etiquette than a fling on the dance floor or a few suggestive text messages.

The fan was a courting necessity with great romantic power in the hands of a lady. As Diane will explain, the secret language of the fan was a highly sophisticated form of intimacy and entertainment during the 18th and 19th centuries. A lady could ask an admirer “When may I see you?” by discretely touching her right eye with a closed fan. Or she could set the pulses racing by covering her eyes with an open fan to say, “I love you”. And by carefully covering her left ear with a fully open fan she could even implore her lover not to betray their secret assignation. But drawing the fan smartly closed through the hand conveyed the devastating message ‘I hate you’!

While rarity, provenance, and quality of workmanship and decoration all contribute to the desirability and price of a fan, condition is paramount. Splits in the folds of a leaf substantially diminish value. 18th-century lace fans in good order are rare and much sought-after. Many more machine-woven lace fans have survived from the mid-19th century onwards.

Most collectors display fans in glass cases, and this is often how they are sold by dealers.