A Marriage of Frivolity and Fashion
by Elizabeth Kurella
“In the days when women yet blushed, in the days when they
desired to dissimulate this embarrassment and timidity, large fans were
the fashion; they were at once both a countenance and a veil. Flirting
their fans, women concealed their faces; now they blush little, fear not
at all, have no care to hide themselves, and carry in consequence imperceptible
fans.” In the nearly two hundred years since Madame de Genlis’ penned these
lines, young ladies stopped blushing entirely. Investment and collecting
have replaced flirting as a reason to possess fans.
While lace collectors may feel lace and fans are synonymous, lace was by no means the dominant form of fans, and lace collectors seeking to study lace fans will not have an easy time of it. Many texts on fans do not include lace fans at all; some relegate lace fans to the single chapter on “textile and other” fans. The mystery and complexity of antique lace seems to have intimidated many fan collectors, thrown others off balance. Uneven prices -- very high for some average quality lace, and rather low for others suggests many collectors have no idea which lace is rare, or what is ordinary.
The marriage between lace and fans would seem to have been inevitable. Both were acquired and flaunted more for their symbolic and fashion value than for function. Men and women alike adorned themselves with extravagant laces - and twirled fans. Indeed, it was not until Queen Victoria expressed a distaste for effeminate men that men entirely gave up the fan. Both fans and lace are clever repositories of craftsmanship, design, and beauty in small packages,
Surprisingly, few examples of lace fans exist from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the days when lace making was at its highest form and fans were at their flirtatious best. Whether few were made, or they simply did not survive is not explained.
Examples surviving from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries typically show the leaves to have been made by cutting lace strips to the shape of the fan, then sealing the edges with strips of vellum, just as painted paper leaves would have been cut and assembled. This is not surprising - it was not unusual for lace to be made as deep flounces, then cut to the shapes of collars, cuffs, and other items
A few examples of eighteenth century fan leaves are in the collections at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The Fan Museum of Greenwich, England does not claim any fans earlier than the nineteenth century, the most prolific time for lace fans.
The Laces of Fans
Every type of nineteenth century lace was used
on fans. Some, however, were more suitable than others, either because
the lace itself was fine and flexible enough to fold neatly; or because
the technique was easier to shape into the curve of the fan.
To have the flexibility and grace needed to make an effective fan leaf, the motifs must be small and fine. Bobbin laces assembled from small, separately made motifs joined together with bars or applied to net, are the easiest to make as fans, and the easiest to remodel, repair, and cobble together in the shape of a fan leaf. Duchesse is probably the most common of these bobbin laces. They are among the most available, and $200-$300 is a reasonable price to pay for a good example on good sticks.
Bobbin laces made with the background and design as a continuous piece are somewhat more difficult to make curved in the shape of a fan leaf. Chantilly, Valenciennes, Bedfordshire, and Bucks Point laces are typical examples. Because they are so delicate, they can make exquisite leaves. Chantilly makes a particularly attractive leaf, but look carefully at each Chantilly fan you see. Machine laces made effective copies, and a close look at the diagonal weave in the clothwork is the only way to effectively tell them apart. It is well worth the effort to take a close look, because prices for Chantilly fans often range between $500 and $1,000.
The needle laces which have little or no raised work, like Alencon, Point de Gaze and Youghal, are very suitable for fans. Embroidered nets, including the tamboured and Limerick-type embroidered nets, also may make excellent leaves.
Heavier laces such as the Battenberg-type tape laces are usually too coarse. When finely made tapes are appliqued onto net, such as in the tape laces usually called “Princesse” laces, they work better.
Techniques that do not easily lend themselves to fans, such as the particularly inflexible and fragile Carrickmacross, however, may make attractive targets for collectors. If an attractive one is found, it would certainly be rare. More often, these are found as leaves that never were mounted on sticks.
Collecting Lace Fans
Collectors must consider the properties of
the fan as well as those of the lace. First of all, a different group of
collectors will be competing for the fans - collectors who will evaluate
the materials from which the sticks are carved, the design and decorations
of the sticks and guards, as well as the lace. A significant amount of
money can be involved; fine quality lace fans regularly sell for several
hundred dollars, and an occasional special fan will reach into the thousands.
The serious collector must know a great deal about dating and evaluating
fans as well as evaluating lace.
Dating antique lace fans can be very difficult. Knowledge of the lace and its age must be combined with knowledge of shapes, sizes, and the materials of the sticks to determine if indeed they match. It is not uncommon to find mismatches: older sticks combined with newer leaves. And it is quite possible it is an original pairing: good, never used sticks assembled into a complete fan years after they were made.
The stick size is one indicator of the age of a fan: measure the length of the total sticks, including the part that is visible below the fan leaf, and the ribs that secure the leaf. The shape of the shoulder (top part of the visible section of the stick, just below where the leaf ends) is another clue.
Fan size and style reflected fashions. In the early nineteenth century, until about 1830, fans were relatively small, perhaps 8.5 inches long. (The “imperceptibles” mentioned by de Genlis were as small as two inches.) Dresses were small and simple, usually above the ankle. The fan’s span was about 120 degrees. Sticks were broad at the base, usually touching, and guard sticks were elaborate.
Fans got bigger from 1830 to 1860 as dresses got bigger and hoops were added to the skirts. The length of the fan sticks ranged to 10 inches, and the span increased to 180 degrees. The sticks continued to grow from 1860 to 1870, and became a little narrower with slightly more angular shoulders. By 1880 to 1890, they had reached 12 or 13 inches. The sticks were still narrower and more spaced out.
Many materials were used for the sticks; ivory, horn, tortoiseshell, and Mother-of Pearl were probably the most popular for lace fans. Mother-of-Pearl in particular seems to be paired most often with Point de Gaze lace, tortoise shell with black Chantilly. Not surprisingly, synthetics usually are paired with machine-made lace.
Focus makes a collection interesting and valuable. For a potential collector of antique lace fans, that might take any of several directions. Collecting only the leaf is one possibility, allowing the collector to avoid the complexities of the entire fan, and perhaps sidestep the competition from fan collectors.
One might choose to collect all the laces of the nineteenth century - an ambitious but not impossible task, as probably any lace imaginable was used as a fan leaf at one time or another. Or one might choose to collect examples of one type of lace. A great many fans were made of Point de Gaze, Brussels, and Bruges bobbin laces, as well as Chantilly. It is also possible to put together a collection of just one type of lace.
Among the laces that most often appear as fan leaves, the collector may seek out the more unusual pairings of lace and sticks. For example: black Chantilly paired with Mother-of-Pearl sticks is much more unusual than the traditional pairing of Chantilly with tortoise shell, or Point de Gaze with sticks other than Mother-of-Pearl. But be sure it is an attractive pairing - a curiosity for its own sake may be difficult to resell.
Condition is perhaps one of the most crucial considerations in evaluating a fan for purchase. Because a fan appears to be a simple thing - a few sticks and a leaf - it may be tempting to think it possible to pick up a bargain in a broken fan and to repair it. Beware! Fan repair is extremely difficult, and can be exasperating. Restoring antique lace fans requires specialized knowledge of sticks of all materials, as well as laces of all kinds. Looking at a few badly repaired fans will make a believer of the most ambitious collector.
The most prized of all lace fans? Art Nouveau lace from the late nineteenth through the very early twentieth century has it all. They were by definition designer laces. The lace industry was seeking a rejuvenating change of direction, and sought it in new designs. Many of these new designs required innovations in technique to produce. This gives the art nouveau lace fan points in all categories: design workmanship and technique, plus rarity. If you can afford the price tag, which often reaches over $1,000 for a good Art Nouveau lace fan, it is a rare prize indeed.
About the author: Elizabeth Kurella has pursued the study of antique
lace and developed her own course of study through extensive research of
the lace collections of museums throughout the U.S. and abroad. Guide to
Lace and Linens” (ISBN: 0-930625-89-7 * Retail $24.95 * 224 pages 8.5 x
11" SC), can be found in your local bookstore or ordered through Antique
Trader Books by calling toll-free 1.800.334.7165. Trade bookstores contact
Publishers Group West at 1.800.788.3123. Her latest book, “The Complete
Guide to Vintage Textiles”, (ISBN: 0-87341-676-7 * Retail $19.95 * 256
pages 8.5 x 11"), can also be found in your local bookstore or ordered
through Krause Publications by calling toll-free 1.888.457.2873. ext. 880.