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Special Travel Issue | A fan's notes

Shrine to a Coquettish Accessory

Side Trips: Travel Tips, Trends and Tools

October 12, 2003|Susan Davidson

The fan is presumably as old as hot weather and insects, but we're guessing here. When it comes to hard evidence, we're relying on pictorial evidence dating to about 3000 BC, and flutterings from the ancient Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, Chinese and other early adaptors. One learns this at a little-known gem of a museum in Greenwich, in southeast London. The Fan Museum, in two adjoining townhouses, a short walk from the Greenwich Tube stop, offers an eye-popping look at beautiful art masquerading as a fashion accessory.

The collection was assembled by Helene Alexander, wife of the late English financier A. V. "Dicky" Alexander. A former volunteer in the textile department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, she started collecting fans in the 1960s. There are more than 3,500 fans in the museum, though only a small number are on display at any time. Temporary exhibits, too, come and go: "An American Collection" is on view until Jan. 4.

The first Asian fans, made of wood, opened into a complete circle, a design known as a cockade. Then came fans made from sticks held together at the base by a pivot. The outermost sticks, called montures, were originally made of ivory, tortoise shell or mother of pearl and either carved or pierced. Over this skeleton, paper or a light silk or kidskin was interwoven between the sticks. Engravings at the Fan Museum show how it is done.

In England during the Middle Ages, fans (called flabella at the time) were used to keep flies, then considered signs of the devil, from the Eucharist during the liturgy. In 17th century English society, fans were considered an essential part of one's outfit. Fans created breezes and hid bad teeth or skin. No lady of fashion appeared in public without a reticule, which contained a handkerchief, fan, money and a bottle of essence. Fans also served as a way of sending unspoken messages. A fan held in the right hand in front of one's face meant "follow me." Twirling a fan in the left hand meant "we are being watched." By the 18th century, Britain had a guild called the Worshipful Company of Fan Makers.

French craftsmanship dominated fan making, which is why many technical terms used in describing fans are French. Brise, for example, is a fan with no fabric or paper, just sticks that have been embellished with jewels. Vinaigrette means a very small container within the fan's monture that was used to hold the sharp-smelling liquid m'lady might require should she come down with a touch of the vapors.

What most impresses a visitor to the Fan Museum is the exquisite imagery on the fans. Currently on view are items such as an 18th century Chinese ceremonial fan and a telescopic fan.

The Fan Museum, 12 Crooms Hill, Greenwich; 011-44-208-305-1441, Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Admission includes a recorded tour ($8, adults; $4, children and seniors).

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