Victorian fire-screens

Each month, we’ll be revealing the history of a different fashion accessory in the museum’s collections, to complement our new exhibition Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories. This month: Victorian fire-screens!

This beautiful hand-held fire screen (above) is one of the star items in the Victorian section of Completing the Look. Up until the late 1800s, most homes were heated by open coal fires – there was no double-glazing, insulation or central heating as we have today! Close to the fire, the heat could be intense so women used fire screens to protect themselves. Elegant, wealthy ladies were expected to have pale, delicate skin so they used fire screens to prevent their cheeks from becoming flushed. The screens also stopped their wax-based make-up from melting in the heat!

An embroidered fire-screen from the museum’s collection

Fire-screens became an important piece in the Victorian parlour. They were hand-made, often from painted papier-mache or from metal with an embroidered design. They were used to show off the needlework or artistic skills of a woman. Both sewing and painting were seen as very desirable attributes for a middle or upper class woman and they signified that a woman had plenty of leisure time, another marker of social class. Fire screens could also be mounted on slender wooden poles and placed on the mantelpiece as decorative items.

‘La Toilette’ by Francois Boucher

Fire screens were used from the 1700s, as shown in the painting ‘La Toilette’ by Francois Boucher (1742), where a fire screen can be seen on the floor in the bottom left hand corner. However, they became especially popular in the 1800s, with mostly hand-held screens being used in the early part of the century, and mounted standing screens being used in the later part of the century.

It has been suggested that women used the ‘language of the fan’ whilst holding their fire screens.  Unspoken communication could be made by the way a fan or fire screen was held: holding the screen to the right cheek meant “yes”; to the left cheek meant “no”; and holding the screen in the left hand meant a woman wished to speak with you.

You can find out more about the language of the fan, and see our beautiful Victorian fire screen, in Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories, open until 30 July 2017.