Fans were a key fashion accessory during the late 19th Century and ranged from the purely functional to something far more decorative than functional and were art pieces in their own right. Below is an account of our visit to a small exhibit of fans at the FIDM Museum a few years back.
During the late 19th Century and early 20th Centuries, were considered an essential fashion accessory and especially for any woman who wanted to present herself in the best possible light. Recently, we had an opportunity to take a look at some as part of the A Graceful Gift: Fans from the Mona Lee Nesseth Collection Exhibition at the FIDM Museum in Downtown Los Angeles. Introduced into Europe during the 17th Century from the Far East, the folding fan evolved from a functional item designed to keep the user cool to something that was more decorative than practical.
Folding fans came in a variety of materials ranging from the very simple and utilitarian to the ornate and materials ranged from wood to brass and ivory. The fan itself was usually made from a treated parchment (although other materials such as silk were used) which often featured painted or printed scenes. Below are two fans from 18th Century France and the variation in style is readily apparent, from the practical…
To the ornate…
Now, from the FIDM Museum exhibit:
The frame appears to be made of mother of pearl. All manner of scenes were painted on the fan leaves, many focusing on Oriental themes, a reflection of the then-current fascination for Chinoiserie. Painting scenes on the fan leaves were also popular as an at-home pastime and blank leaves were readily available.
Below is another example:
Finally, here is a fan that is attributed to having once belonged to Phoebe Apperson Hearst:
Overall, it was a small but interesting exhibit. Fans are an easily overlooked fashion accessory but were considered an essential element in any respectable woman’s wardrobe. As applied to recreating period fashions today, vintage fans are readily available at a variety of price points but it must be noted that many of these are fragile with age and are not able to withstand any sort of prolonged use. There are also reproductions and restored originals but it’s been our experience that the reproductions are for the most part, substandard and a faint echo of the originals. We hope you all have enjoyed this brief overview of fans and in the future we’ll be posting more in regard fashion accessories. 🙂
Throughout the ages, Western fashion has incorporated foreign influences and the late 19th Century was no exception, most notably with the advent of Japonisme. Originally coined in 1872 by Philippe Burty, a French art critic, “Japonisme” was used a term used to encompass the idea of the popularity and influence of Japanese art and design on Western European (and later by extension, American) culture.1Philippe Burty, Renaissance Littéraire et Artistique, May 1872-February 1873
Originating as an artistic movement, interest in Japonisme stemmed from the re-opening of Japan to the world, a process that began in 1854 with the forced re-opening of trade with the West. One of the foundations of Japan’s participation in the world economy was the export of textiles, both in the form of raw fabric and finished goods designed expressly for the Western market. Along with this, there also a flood of Oriental bric-a-brac that was exported in the form of fans, kimonos, lacquers, bronzes, and of course, silks, which began to attract much interest by Westerners, especially in Great Britain and France.
During this time, Japanese designs began to attract the interest of various artists who began to incorporate them into their work. One area of special interest were woodblock prints in the Ukiyo-e Style (“Floating World”) and these designs influenced artists such as Tissot, Monet, Degas, and Whistler, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Below are some examples of these woodblock prints:
Along with woodblock prints and other Japanese artwork, interest in the Japanese design aesthetic also included fabrics which incorporated motifs such as plants, flowers, insects, birds, and geometric patterns. Below are a few examples of textile designs from the 1880s:
We can see further examples depicted by various notable Western artists themselves:
So how does this translate into fashion? Well, garments of the period began to use traditional Japanese fabrics, largely in the form of kimono fabric. In many instances, the garments themselves were made from re-worked kimonos which were largely made from silk. Below are some examples:
The above pictures are interesting in that they illustrate typical Japanese design motifs that would normally be found in Kimonos. Also, interestingly enough, the two above dresses were made from re-worked Kimono fabric which suggests that new markets were being found for kimonos that normally would be worn by a small class of upper class Japanese, primarily the wives of Samurai. Below is another interesting dress that utilizes a quilted habutai silk fabric:
House Dress,, Japanese c. 1875; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC989 78-30-3AB)
Moving forward into the 1880s, Japanese design influences still remained strong as can be seen in these examples:
What is interesting about the above dress is that this one appears to have been made for the Japanese market. In this case, the dress reflects Japan’s increasing westernization and is a mix of traditional fabric design with western dress style. Note that the line of the cuirass bodice has fringe running along the bottom, creating a visual effect of elongating the bodice’s lines, covering the hips completely.
The use of kimonos as dressing gowns and even tea gowns was popular in the West and it allowed women to be able to wear something that did not not require the use of the corset, or at least having to lace up the corset to the degree normally required when wearing a dress. As the bustle disappeared from use in the 1890s and the lines of women’s dresses became more upright, kimonos began to be incorporated into designs for evening wear and some day wear and this is especially evident during the years from 1900 – 1913. Here’s one example from 1894-1896:
The above example is a day dress typical of the mid 1890s with the characteristic leg-o-mutton sleeves, thin waist, and open bodice designed to appear to be a coat with an exposed shirtwaist (which was often a fake one that was actually part of the bodice itself). What is interesting in terms of Japonisme is the geometric pattern of the fabric which follows a fairly standard Japanese design motif. The provenance of the fabric is unknown but it’s clear that it’s not material from a reworked kimono.
Finally, we end this series with a wonderful example of Japonisme in the form of a Visite from Paris, circa 1890:
The above illustrations and descriptions barely touch the range of Japanese influences that were found in Western fashion during the late 19th Century but even from this limited sample, it can be seen that they served to create some stunning effects that only served to enhance the aesthetics and sheer beauty of the period styles. This is an area that has been largely neglected by those striving to recreate the fashions of the period and it merits further consideration.
One of the key elements of working with historical costume is the ability to properly date items, or at least fix an approximate time frame. Although we tend to accept how museums date their collections, sometimes there are items that just do not seem right for the period that is being attributed to the item.
Recently, I came across the following dress on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website:
According to the description on the Met website, the dress dates from 1867. However, in looking at the silhouette of the dress, it just reads Early Bustle Era, sometime between 1870 and 1874 or thereabouts.
Specifically, in looking at the skirt, it is evident that it was expressly designed to flow towards the rear, thus creating a defined train. But this train is not some haphazard arrangement of fabric but rather it is constructed of several separate panels joined together separated by rows of ruffles. The overall effect is that skirt naturally flows and the eye is drawn from front to rear. It is clear that the skirt and train were deliberately constructed to give this flowing effect. Finally, the rows of ruffled trim also help to accentuate the effect and the striped fabric also plays a role in this.
Now before going any further, we need to consider that there could be a number of different reasons why the date of the dress may be incorrect. It is always possible that perhaps it was not displayed correctly or that it’s missing key components underneath. Perhaps it was reconstructed and as a result the silhouette has changed. Like people, museums can make mistakes. With that said, let’s proceed.
So what do some later 1860s dresses look like?
According to the Kent State University Museum website, the date is attributed to the entire decade of the 1860s (perhaps they are hedging their bets). However, knowing that the crinoline silhouette was characteristic of dresses of the early 1860s, it is fairly safe to say that this one is from the mid to late 1860s.
That said, let’s look at the skirt in some detail. first, like the first dress, it also flows in a rearward manner and the hem is also elliptical rather than circular (which also helps place this in the med to late 1860s). The thin stripes and the trim help to give a flowing effect but it is nowhere as refined as that in the first example.
Let’s look at another example:
Once again, we have an elliptical skirt that is drawn towards the rear in a somewhat minimalist train. The effect here is a bit more confused than the previous example but in both cases, we have dresses that can be that can be placed in the mid to late 1860s and one can see the beginning of the evolution towards the elaborately trains characteristic of the later Bustle Era.
Just to round things out, below are some fashion plates representative of the period:
For 1866, one sees very little difference between these and dresses from the early 1860s.
For the above two plates, one can see the beginnings of the train as the skirt starts to shift towards the rear…
Victoria, April 1869
For 1869, we finally are able to see a more completely defined train but it’s still fairly rudimentary compared to what was to come later.
And finally, we reach the 1870s:
Here we see a more complete transition. In the above plate, the dress third from the right is especially striking in the use of a striped front panel to create a flat, vertical look to the front of the dress while at the same there’s a well-defined train in the rear.
In the above illustrations, we have traced the transition from the crinoline to the bustle, or at least a good part of the process. One can seen not just a transition to an elliptical hemline and the development of the train, but a more sophisticated version of this style. This is not a process of gathering up some fabric and creating a crude trailing effect but rather, it’s precisely engineered to achieve a specific effect, an effect more characteristic of the early 1870s.
Naturally, much of the evaluation process is subjective and open to varied interpretation and that is all right. In the absence of hard data such as information about the dressmaker, we can only speculate but we definitely can narrow down the date. Thanks for bearing with us through this somewhat academic exercise and we welcome your comments. Let us know what you think. 🙂