“We had the day before yesterday a subscription ball on account of the news of our good King’s reestablishment in health […] There were 113 ladies, mostly English, greatest part of the Nobility […] they wore bandeaus round the head, or the waist, embroidered in gold, with ‘Long live the King,’ or ‘God save the King’” (Diary or Woodfall’s Register).
This excerpt is taken from a news report recording a letter from an English gentleman who was in Lisbon, in the Diary or Woodfall’s Register publication on May 11, 1789. Aristocratic society of the eighteenth-century was much preoccupied with appearances and social ranking, and this showed through in every public gathering possible. Ladies, as seen in the above excerpt, wore elegant clothing in an unspoken competition for being the most fashionable; this would often manifest in extraordinary clothing, but also in messages designed directly onto their clothing and accessories. In this 1789 fan titled, “Recovery of George III from Illness”, this subtle message was a statement for ladies to proclaim loyalty to the crown, and also to conform to the cult revolved around the British Crown.
The 1789 fan was crafted in Great Britain by an unknown artist. It is composed of paper and is mounted upon a frame of ivory, brass, and mother-of pearl. Painted upon the paper in gouache along the edge is written “Health is restored to ONE and happiness to Millions”, and the two scrolls below state “On the King’s” and “Happy Recovery”. There is a royal crown in the middle, and a rose and thistle below symbolizing the Union of Scotland and England (Victoria and Albert Museum).
King George III of the United Kingdom was a cult figure for eighteenth-century Britain. The fashion of the day was to emulate those of higher power than you; by imitating those with more presence in society, one may seem more established than the next. In the Diary, there is mention that “the Ladies tried who could exceed in elegance of dress”, mostly by covering themselves with statements of tribute to the king (Diary of Woodfall’s Register). These women may have felt true love for their king, but their motives are more complex; by adorning themselves with words and images in praise of the king, they are attempting to emulate royalty. Neil McKendrick notes that “[…] there was a constant restless striving to clamber from one rank to the next, and where possessions […] symbolized and signaled each step in the social promotion” (McKendrick, 20-21). The fan in question is much the same; by using inscriptions of praise to the king, the woman holding it is attempting to promote herself by appealing to those higher than her.
But why may have fans with political statements have been so profound? Particularly, fans were a strictly female-oriented type of accessory, which says much considering that fans could be used to portray messages. In the eighteenth-century, there became a huge preoccupation of gender roles in society; men had business in the public, political sphere, while women were resigned to private spheres (Koscak, 1.14.14). However, aristocratic court, parties, and balls were an opportunity for women to be involved in public society. Take, for example, the fictional Lady Delacour from Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda; she dresses magnificently as Queen Elizabeth for a ball, and in this exudes temporary power and royalty (Edgeworth, 114). In this instance, Lady Delacour utilizes fashion to establish power in a subtle manner at a social gathering; though she cannot outright claim a political statement lest she be shamed, her dress itself is a political statement and attracts attention from all those present. Therefore, women often made themselves present in the public sphere through accessories and dress, and stating allegiance to the king through an accessory like a fan would be perfectly acceptable for a woman. Additionally, fans were very noticeable when used; by accenting body language and utilizing a complex “fan language”, a person could not ignore a political statement written upon a fan. Fans could be conversation starters in this way, potentially leading to more involvement of women in the public realm.
Similar to the studied fan, Antonio Poggi’s fan glorifies George III’s family. A woman who would hold this fan would be supporting George III’s positive image. Other examples of objects that used powerful figures in society to emphasize one’s own political power were household items such as the jug above, which were commonly used and therefore commonly seen. George III himself encouraged this positive depiction upon objects, as he understood that the way his family was portrayed would affect public opinion on him (Victoria and Albert Museum).
Edgeworth, Maria. Belinda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.
“Extract of a Letter from an English Gentleman at Lisbon, April 22,” Diary or Woodfall’s Register [London] Monday, May 11, 1789, Issue 37. Web.
“Jug.” 1790. Earthenware transfer-printed in black enamel and moulded. Victoria and Albert Museum. 414:1232-1885. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O229178/jug-unknown/
Koscak, Stephanie. “A Revolution in Fashionable Life: Radical Whigs and Radical Fashion.” University of Los Angeles, California. 14 January 2014.
McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and P.H. Plumb. The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-century England. London: Europa Publications, 1982.
Poggi, Antonio. “Fan.” 1790. Engraved and hand-coloured paper, with carved and pierced ivory sticks and guards. Victoria and Albert Museum. T.56-1933. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O87218/fan-poggi-antonio/
“Recovery of George III from Illness.” 1789. Gouache painted on paper, pleated, carved and pierced ivory, brass, mother-of-pearl. Victoria and Albert Museum. T.203-1959. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O87225/recovery-of-george-iii-from-fan-unknown/