Tracing the evolution of hand-held fans

The folding fan, traditionally used to cool down in warm temperatures, has become a must-have fashion accessory

FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 09: Hand fan with gallant scenes and landscapes, tempera painted on paper, carved and painted ivory ribs, ca 1760. France, 18th century. Modena, Museo Civico D'Arte (Art Museum) Palazzo Dei Musei France (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

If they're lucky, front-row guests at fashion week shows will walk away with all kinds of branded memorabilia. In the case of Christian Dior's autumn/winter 2017 haute couture show this summer, front-row VIPs like Celine Dion, Kirsten Dunst, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lawrence and Chiara Ferragni were treated to traditional folding fans, stamped with the words Dior Couture Fall 2017. Many were pictured using the stylish giveaway over the course of the rest of the week, since it provided a fashionable way to seek relief from the heat, while also attracting picture-hungry street-style snappers.

This isn’t the first time that a fashion house has appropriated the age-old, hand-held fan. A season earlier, for spring/summer 2017, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele styled his male and female models with Japanese-inspired iterations. Crafted from bamboo and silk, his Gucci fans were emblazoned with a red flower and bordered with the name of the Italian fashion house in a bold, gothic text. Those who wrote the fans off as runway gimmicks may have been surprised to see them in-store, where they retailed for Dh1,515 each. Beyoncé proudly displayed hers at an NBA All-Stars basketball game in New York.

MILAN, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 21:  A model walks the runway at the Gucci show during Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2017 on September 21, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Venturelli/WireImage)

Rihanna’s Fenty line for sportswear label Puma also included a fan for spring/summer 2016. Hers was a folding, accordion-style version, and featured the word Puma spelt out in pink lace, layered over lighter pink lace with scalloped edges.  

PARIS, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 28:  Rihanna is seen backstage during FENTY x PUMA by Rihanna at Hotel Salomon de Rothschild on September 28, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images for Fenty x Puma)

These modern, designer-made fans offer a more sophisticated way to cool down – but while it may have now cemented its status as practical handbag essential for concerts, sports games and the crowded front rows of fashion weeks, the accessory has been dipping in and out of the limelight for years.

Though they may be associated with Spanish flamenco dances or Japanese geisha performances, fans were first used for more fundamental purposes. Historians believe that rudimentary renderings of fans were utilised in prehistoric times to swat away insects or direct air towards a flame to keep a fire going. But portable, hand-held fans as we know them, originated in East Asia. The two main types are pleated or foldable fans, and the rigid variety – Rihanna's Puma Fenty design is an example of the former, while Gucci's popular style is a recreation of the latter. It remains uncertain whether the fan was invented in China or Japan, since both countries claim ownership of the idea. The foldable version was originally created from strips of bamboo, and was used by members of the middle class, who weren't fortunate enough to have hired help to fan them – a luxury enjoyed by the upper class.

1949:  Ballet dancer Dame Margot Fonteyn (1919 - 1991) in 'Apparitions'. Choreography by Frederick  Ashton with design by Cecil Beaton.  (Photo by Baron/Getty Images)

In the 1500s, they were introduced to Europe by the Portuguese, who had discovered fans in China and exported them for trade. The fan quickly became a trend, with its use peaking during the Elizabethan period – in her many portraits, Queen Elizabeth I is often depicted with a lavish fan in hand. Designs two generations later would be adorned with gold, silks, feathers and gemstones. Special varieties were created for funerals and widows, and these usually featured black lace.

Previously reserved for royalty and aristocrats, fans became accessible to the bourgeois when printing became popular in the 18th century. Formerly decorated with Biblical illustrations, new fans were printed with lighthearted riddles, fortunetelling games, maps and greetings.

Queen Elizabeth I, c1580, (1910). A 19th-century rendition from the Penshurst portrait, presented to her by Sir Henry Sidney, painted by Zucchero. The headdress is almost indescribable by reason of the great wealth of ornament on it. She was proud of her hair, so the hat is perched high on her head. Illustration from British Costume during 19 Centuries by Mrs Charles H Ashdown, (London, 1910). (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Although they went out of fashion for a while, in 1827, Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy launched his fan house in Paris, eager for his couture creations to inspire a rebirth of the trend. The notion of a “fan language” was born. According to Duvelleroy, if a woman fans slowly, it signifies that she is married, and if her fanning is fast, it means she is engaged. If she carries it in her right hand in front of her face, it means “follow me”, and if she twirls it in her left hand, it means “we’re being watched”.

By the 20th century, fans became a fundamental form of branding and advertising, and were often used for promotional purposes. These mass designs, sometimes fashioned from plastic as opposed to wood, lacked the couture touch and intricate artwork of their predecessors, and were used to present menus, catalogues and recital programmes.

Now, in 2017, hand-held fans are back in vogue, and promotion is yet again at the heart of the movement. After all, fans that feature covetable designer logos are hardly purchased for their practicality. If you’re going to wave your hand with a flourish to expose the inner secrets of your fan, what would you rather show the world – or your social-media followers? A picturesque cherry blossom pattern, or the name of a world-famous fashion house?


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