There was a time when no lady would have been without a folding fan. A fan was a utilitarian accessory in an over-heated drawing room, as well as a useful weapon in the arsenal of flirtation. Fans could also be an extraordinary symbol of wealth and taste: a delicately hand-made status symbol par excellence.
Ladies throughout Europe recognized and desired the work of the most skilled fan making houses in Paris, and among the greatest was the House of Duvelleroy, founded in 1827 by Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy. Though the French Revolution had made fans with their aristocratic associations unfashionable, Duvelleroy gambled that the style pendulum would swing back. He gathered the best craftsmen – including workers in ivory, tortoise shell, exotic wood, and horn as well as engravers and painters and other artists skilled in mother-of-pearl inlay, enamel, and even feathers – and created beautiful fans to tempt a generation of ladies who had never known the opulence of the previous century. His gamble paid off. Soon every fashionable lady throughout Europe and America craved a Duvelleroy fan, and he was appointed the fan maker to many of the royal courts. The business continued to grow throughout the 19th century, remaining in the family until the 1940s.
Noted the style-conscious Art Journal in 1851: "No lady's corbeille de mariage [wedding gifts] is considered complete without one of Mr. Duvelleroy's fans. Some of them are indeed perfect bijoux, and are decorated with a profusion of expensive ornament which render them objects of the greatest luxury. Besides being studded with precious stones, the most eminent artists of Paris do not scruple to make their most finished designs upon them."
The fan above is a beautiful example from the 1880s, depicting a pair of romantic 18th c. lovers. The painting is believed to have been done by Alice Helen Loch, an award-winning water colorist. The scene is hand-painted on doubled silk leaves, and embellished with polished brass and steel sequins. The sticks are made from ivory, pierced and decorated with gilt silver and silver pique work, and the rivet is a button of carved mother-of-pearl.
Such exquisite design would seem to have no place in a modern world where it's an iPhone or Blackberry that nestles in a stylish female hand. But as Duvelleroy himself knew, the only thing certain about fashion is that it's always changing. Two young Parisian women have recently purchased what survived of the House of Duvelleroy (sadly reduced by the 21st c. to a service for restoring antique fans), and are determined to bring back the Duvelleroy fan as a must-have accessory. Here's a recent story about their plans, along with a sampling of their gorgeously contemporary designs. Are you tempted?
Above: Pastoral Reprise fan, Duvelleroy, Paris, 1880s. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Below: Photograph of the London showroom of the House of Duvellleroy, c. 1900.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.