THATMuse

Amazing Accessories: The Language of the Fan

By Masha Voyles

Just a handy hint: the bits in bold might be the answers to bonus questions on your hunt! Buy your tickets to the Fashion Hunt at the V&A here.

If there’s one wardrobe item that I’m praying fashion will eventually bring back, it’s the hand-held fan. They’re greener than air conditioner, a good workout for the arm, and often really, really pretty. There were floral fans, feather fans, ivory fans and printed fans, mask fans and even map fans (which were among the first tourist souvenirs).  

Fans also often had hidden messages in them. This ‘Royalist’ fan, pictured below, would have shown the holder’s support for the Stuart royal family after George I, Elector of Hanover seized the British throne in 1714. It shows members of the Stuart royal family in its folds. On the left, Charles II is shown hiding in a tree after having been defeated by Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester, and next to him Queen Anne is shown ascending to heaven. Who would need to read books about English history if everyone carried educational fans?! The fan both reveals and conceals the wearer’s allegiances: once slightly folded, it would only have shown a demure floral design. But that design also has a meaning: the white and red roses were actually the Stuart coat of arms. Pretty sneaky stuff, right?  

Royalist handheld fan from V&A collection showing support for Stewarts, 1700's
Royalist fan at the V&A 

There was even an entire fan ‘language’: for example, holding it with your little finger extended meant ‘goodbye’, presenting it shut meant ‘do you love me?’ and carrying it in the left hand in front of your face meant ‘we are watched’.  My personal favourite is ‘I love you’—you would draw your fan across your cheek—difficult to do this subtly, I think. Here’s a Vogue article linking a whole table of fan-language & its fun, secretive translations. Expanded vocabulary can of course be found at the V&A, where there are three British Royalist fans on display! Might want to memorise a few of them to up your flirting game!  

Are you signed up for our upcoming new hunt, the Fashion Hunt at the V&A (Kicking off Thanksgiving week from 2-4:30 pm on Sunday 24 November)? You may just have read the answers to some embedded bonus questions in this post! Tickets are limited, but can be bought on Eventbrite & find bonus answers in posts about fashionista Josephine Bonaparte (yes, Napoleon’s Empress) or the Pandora Doll, the predecessor of our runway sampling (which Napoleon banned, incidentally, frightened state secrets were sewn in and exported with these dolls!)

Historical Fashionistas: Josephine Bonaparte

By Masha Voyles

Just a handy hint: keep an eye out for answers to bonus questions on your hunt! Buy your tickets to the Fashion Hunt at the V&A here.

The Empress Josephine—Napoleon’s wife—was a massive shopaholic, and was always getting into trouble with her hubby for overspending. On the other hand, this was somewhat unfair, considering the fact that he would then make snarky comments if a woman wore the same dress twice in front of him. It was also part of Josephine’s duty as empress to restore the French luxury industry, which had been all but destroyed during the French revolution. She needed to be a trendsetter to convince the French people that conspicuous consumption was cool again (and that it wouldn’t lead to one getting one’s head removed!) 

Safe to say, Josephine took this part of her job description extremely seriously. She often wore white, both because Napoleon would often say how much he loved her in white, and because it was a luxurious colour (imagine how difficult it would have been to keep spotless in the days before washing machines!) Her style of dress was inspired by flowing, high-waisted Roman and Greek styles, thus differentiating herself from the ‘corrupt’, flowery 18th-century rococo styles of Marie-Antoinette and the Ancien Régime. 

François Gérard portrait of Empress Josephine on a throne in a crown and white dress, at the Museum of the History of France. 1800s
François Gérard portrait of Josephine at the Museum of the History of France

Take note of the high ‘Empire’ waistline in the portrait of her, and the gilded laurel-shaped embroidery at the bottom of the dress. The laurel is a symbol of triumph in Greek mythology—for example, the god Apollo is always represented wearing a laurel wreath. Might she also have been inspired by her husband Napoleon’s crown? (he’s often shown wearing a gold laurel crown in imperial portraits). 

Marble bust of Empress Josephine from the V&A Collection 1808 Joseph Chinard
Josephine in all her glory at the V&A

Want to learn more about Napoleon and his circle? Have a look at our blog post on the Borghese Beautyat the Louvre. It’s about Napoleon’s scandalous sister Pauline Borghese (of course posed as Venus Victrix), who was a feisty fashionista herself (when she fluttered down to keep her exiled brother company she brought her enormous wardrobe). The little corporal certainly did like trouble-making women! 

Are you signed up for the launch of our new Fashion Hunt at the V&A on Sunday 24 November? You may just have read the answers to some embedded bonus questions in this post! Tickets are limited, but can be bought here. You can also find bonus answers in our posts about Amazing Accessories (fans & their secret language!) and the Pandora Doll, the predecessor of our runway sampling (which Napoleon banned, incidentally, frightened state secrets were sewn in and exported with these dolls!

Before Anna Wintour? The Pandora Doll

By Masha Voyles

Just a handy hint: the bits in bold might answer bonus questions on your hunt!  Buy your tickets to the Fashion Hunt at the V&A here.

How on earth was a fashionable lady in the 18th century able to keep up with the latest trends? The answer was the Pandora, or miniature dolls dressed up in the latest modes. Keep in mind, this was long before magazines were invented—and the first ones were incredibly rare and expensive, as they were hand-painted by groups of (probably shockingly underpaid) little girls and young women! Clothing was also far more expensive than it is today, so it was important to know all the details of the cut, colour and fabric that you wanted.  

18th Century French Pandora fashion doll wearing gold dress with colourful details and with a creepy face

In 1712, when Britain and France were at war with each other, Pandora dolls were exempt from the ban on enemy imports, and even received a military escort! Marie-Antoinette, when preparing to go over to France from Austria, got sent a host of these dolls in different fabrics and fashions.  

An English 18th –century fashion doll in the Fashion Gallery at the V&A. There are 6 fashion dolls in the same room.  

With the advent of cheaper, ready-to-wear clothes and fashion magazines, fashion dolls seemed like a thing of the past. However, they made a brief return in 1945 in France just after WWII. The French economy—and the haute couture industry—was in tatters. The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris decided to commission designers to dress these knee-high fashionistas in their creations, and to display them against lavish sets. The dolls were sent on tour all around the world and were called the ‘Theatre de la Mode’.  

fashion dolls from the ‘Theatre de la Mode’, now at the Maryhill Museum of Art in Washington State.
fashion dolls from the ‘Theatre de la Mode’, now at the Maryhill Museum of Art in Washington State. 

Are you signed up for the launch of our new Fashion Hunt at the V&A (Kicking off Thanksgiving Week at 2-4:30 Sunday 24 November)? Bonus questions are embedded in your treasure text. You may just have read the answers to some embedded bonus questions in this post! Tickets are limited, but can be bought here & find bonus answers in upcoming posts about Amazing Accessories (fans & their secret language!) and the feisty Fashionista, Josephine Bonaparte (yes, Napoleon’s Empress) the predecessor of our runway sampling, the Pandora Doll!

Paranoid Napoleon banned the Fashion Doll, because he was scared that state secrets could be sewn into the dresses & exported with spies!