DECORATIVE FANS for women--and for men--have always been popular and admired in Asia and in other parts of the world as well, from the days of ancient Egypt to Elizabethan England. There are three types: fixed, brise and folding fans. Most 18th-Century fans are either the brise type (composed of overlapping sticks radiating from a pivot and joined with ribbon threaded through slots at the top) or the folding variety, with an elaborately painted leaf (the face of the fan). Materials used include lace, silk, mother-of-pearl, tortoise-shell, lacquer, ostrich feathers, ivory, vellum (the finest was called "chicken skin") and even buffalo hide from Java.
Many fans found today date from the 19th Century and are not very expensive. The exceptions are fans that were made with unusual materials or precious jewels--or that had something to do with the Empress Eugenie, who was responsible for the renewed popularity of fans in the Victorian era. No expense was spared decorating them for the ladies of Napoleon III's court.
From about 1860, fan fashion changed from lace fans with mother-of-pearl mounts to Japanese-style fans decorated with birds and flowers and then to sequined fans of black-and-white lace in the Spanish style. In the late Victorian era, many fans were made of papier-mache. Often there is more to a fan than meets the eye: Fans have concealed mirrors, eyeglasses--even daggers for self-defense. There were aide-memoire fans, almanac fans, domino fans--even fans with hidden sewing kits.