This summer I dropped in to the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul to see an exhibition which is the first of its kind in Turkey. It included a rare and indeed priceless collection of 120 hand fans from the 1720s to about 1900, mostly French, along with some exquisite oil paintings, postcards and sketches that depict the fan throughout this long period. Also included were opera binoculars from the Director’s own collection of intricately designed gold, enameled and porcelain pieces.
The thought of fans tends to conjure up images of a stylish tool for producing a cooling breeze, usually held coyly in the exquisitely manicured hand of a woman in black Spanish lace. But the fan has been many things to men as well as women since its invention – an object of desire, a work of art, an essential accessory as well as an object which could instantly determine one’s place in polite society.
Fans have had a prominent presence at humanity’s main events of fashion, war and ceremonial. Stunning workmanship has gone into their production and they have been adorned with every material from tortoise shell, bone, ivory and silver to peacock feathers, mother of pearl, wood and lacquer, and been decorated with the most exquisite pictures. Taffeta, organza fabrics, chiffon, tulle and the exclusive Chantilly lace have been fitted into the frames and a variety of precious stones and gems used in their cases.
On the grand historic scene the Pharaohs were cooled by giant ostrich fans and Japanese samurai generals used the snappy gumbai variety to direct their troops in battle.
Queen Victoria famously held black lace fans for many years as a sign of mourning – as if she didn’t have enough – for her departed Albert.
Young ladies also carried white guipure or feather fans in wedding ceremonies. Fans reached their apogee as far as flamboyant decoration is concerned in the age of Marie Antoinette and Madame de Pompadour.
Fans are starting to make a comeback in Turkey and they’re ideal for coping with the summer heat, although I’ve had a few odd glances when using mine. They certainly beat that terrible air conditioning which gave me bronchitis a few years ago and which I only use in an emergency, such as sweat dripping into my eyes when I’m lying down trying to read a book – one of the very few unadulterated pleasures in life.