A Fantasmagoria of Windmakers

Cooling Cleopatra
painting by Alexandre Cabanel

The historical use and creation of Fans date back to ancient times, primarily in a functional capacity as a ‘wind-maker’, to provide shade and to swat and deflect insects (lovely!); imagine the all-powerful Pharoahs in the muggy heat of Egypt being cooled by the breeze of those giant palms (and pesky bugs being swiped), held by personal slaves whose sole occupation was to fan and pander to the wellbeing of their master!   The history of Fan use has incarnated over the centuries from the functional, decorative and sublime to the current occasional use of the modern fly swatter or its more extravagant use in burlesque cabaret!

The mundane ‘fan’ shaped fly swatter

Barring fly-swatting, there is such a romantic and nostalgic affection for decorative Fans and their subsequent depictions in art and film that imbues them with an air of decadence, sensuality, languor, wealth and beauty.

A fan of idleness
painting by J.W. Godward

However for the purposes of my post, I am going to leap ahead to delve into the cosmetic and fashionable use of fans primarily between the 16-18c; when fans and fashion combined and they were used not only for their practical cooling/shading function, but also as a fashion accessory and (if history is to be believed), as a tool for flirting and communication.   Admittedly, there is something about a decorative fan that enhances coquetry and flirtatiousness, used effectively it could be used as a tool to seduce, repel, hide, reveal, reject, remonstrate or attract.   (If only things were that simple today – “get a Fan –  attract a mate”)

‘Political Lady’ by Tissot

So the flames of interest fanned lets take a peek into the art of decorative & perfumed fans.

Fan Tales and Peacocks 

Strut your colours -the glorious fantail of the Peacock
(image by noahhunt.org)

From being a merely practical tool for ‘wind-making’ the fan grew to become an indispensable element of feminine fashion and a social accessory,  with painted fans came via Japan and China  arriving in Europe via Portugal and Spain in 16c.   Fans as a fashion accessory became more sumptuous and decorative as new skills were developed and materials sourced.

Image of a Japanese paddle shaped fan – painting by Whistler

Fan-making was an artisan trade, with many fans created from costly materials such as sticks made from pearl, ivory; bone and laquered woods, with the mounts fashioned from the finest leathers (such as chicken skin – a very fine kid); silks; lace and feathers such as Peacock and Ostrich.  The fine leather and silk fans were painted with topical scenes from mythology, history, religion and nature.

18c painted fan, depicting a mythological scene – the reverse is painted with flowers (see reverse image below)

And this beautiful example of a 19c Brussels lace fan

Exquisite 19c Brussels lace fan
(image by mendes.co.uk)

Fanning the Scents(es)

The fragrant compounds and materials that would have been available from the 16c  would have included roses, carnations; violets; hyacinth;  jasmine; cloves; rosemary; orris root; lavender; pine; frankincense; cedar; sandalwood; anise; juniper; cardamom; fennel;  nutmeg; ambergris and musk.

From 17c all types of leather were perfumed, a tradition brought to France by Italian glove-makers and the coterie of Catherine de Medici in late 16c; there is mention of jasmine ‘butters’ for scenting gloves on a toiletries cargo list to the UK dated 1684.  If these fragrant materials were used by glove-makers, then it would take a small leap of the imagination to suppose that  the fine leather and/or silk fans  could have been impregnated with scent, either commercially to enhance the allure of the wearer, or for bespoke commissions to secure the favour of the wealthy socialites and beauties of the day?

It appears that many fine silk and leather fans of this era were often impregnated with scent, and a reasonable amount of fragrance would be given off when the fan was flapped by the user.  However, (typically) reliable information on this process is scarce.

Images of popular flowers were depicted and their fragrance used to perfume the scented fans; such as Rose

By the end of the 17c folding fans of every kind were at the height of popularity and could be seen in the great Courts of Europe, being available only to the wealthy they were the status symbol in the 17th century.  The folding, painted fans were often decorated on the reverse with flowers that were in vogue of the time, such as symbolic flowers depicting love, chastity etc.

Example flower meanings:

  • Jasmine – grace, elegance, wealth, sensuality and modesty
  • Lilac – first love, youthful innocence, beauty and pride
  • Lily – purity, beauty, coquetry, virginity, majesty
  • Narcissus – egotism, formality, self-esteem
  • Orange blossom – innocence, eternal love, wisdom
  • Rose – happiness, beauty, I love you, desire, grace and joy

Popular flower depictions included the ubiquitous rose, tulips, and sweet smelling flowers such as honeysuckle, sweet peas, carnations, hyacinth and jasmine.

There would seem to be a natural synergy between the use of fragrance, flowers and fans; for example this fan – depicting Roses, Tulips and Carnations –  could be scented with these flowers, underpinned by a musk and, or civet, which would be a heavenly fragrance to fan  and waft at great coquettish affect!  It would also help to mask the possibly more aromatic body odours that would be hanging around at a 17c Court or Salon of infrequently washed bodies.  Quelle odeur!

This fan is the reverse of the earlier mythological scene, the lady in question would have the mythological side facing out to enhance social status and denote their cultivated  sensibilities, with the floral motifs for their eyes only!

Image of the reverse of an 18c fan, depicting Carnations, Tulips and Roses – one might imagine it would also be scented with similar aromatics!

And just for the pure decadence of it, here is a close up detail of a 19c fan, carved from mother of pearl.

Decorative detail, showing gilded carved figures and mother of pearl sticks
(image mendes.co.uk)


About The Perfume Mistress

"If the eyes are the windows to your soul, then the nose is the doorway to your imagination" The Perfume Mistress Hello, by day I am a clinical aromatherapist and tutor, with over 10 years of working with natural materials and essential oils, by night I delve into the art of botanical perfumery, reading and smelling all things olfactory. I have set up the 'Nosetrodami Club' offering scentsory talks, discussions and master-classes on all topics and themes olfactive. I also offer one and two day workshops in the art of natural perfumery, natural and organic body & skincare. My inspirations range from the mundane to the metaphysical, the hum-drum to the hyperbolic which you may see reflected in my posts.
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