Fans and Fashion

Fans and Fashion

By Kathryn Hanna

Quick History of Fans.
The ubiquitous cooling instrument for hot weather and making a fashion statement – ahhhh, the hand fan. Over the millennia, hand fans have evolved from simple implements of cooling to courtly status symbols to essential fashion accessories and much more. Evidence for the use of hand fans dates back to the Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, and many other cultures. Early civilizations around the world used fans for ceremonial purposes, but the Japanese and Chinese have the longest history of fans for personal use.

Early fans were made of bird feathers or plant materials such as palm leaves and were flat or fixed. It wasn’t until the 7th century that folding fans appeared after the Japanese invented them. Legend has it that a man was nagged by his wife to kill a bat that had invaded their bedroom. Obliging her, he noticed that the dead bat’s wing folded open and shut. He applied this idea to paper and sticks: thus, the folding fan came into being.
In Europe, fans were reserved mainly for the clergy and royalty until trade with the Far East was established in the 1500s and fans became more readily available. This is when fans were established as a necessary fashion accessory. One can follow the changing styles of fans as adornment by looking at portraits of women (and in some cases men) across the centuries. For example, early portraits of England’s Queen Elizabeth I show her holding fixed fans, while in later portraits she is portrayed with folded fans.

Types of Fans
Active imaginations have created a wide variety of fans. Generally, fans can be classified as either fixed or folding.

Early fixed fans were often made of vellum (processed calf skin), plant materials (straw), or feathers. Later ones would be constructed of paper, silk, leather, woven ivory (plaited), and other materials. Many fixed fans-or handscreens-were used to protect one’s face from the heat of a roaring fire. They are still popular for use in advertising a sponsor at an event or as an inexpensive give-away today.

Folding fans came to Europe from Asia in the early 1500s and quickly became the favorite for the masses due to their practicality. Folding fans have sticks and guards (the two outer sticks). The many types of materials used to make them include bamboo, sandalwood, ivory, metals, tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl, lacquer, papier-mâché, celluloid, horn, plastics, and numerous other materials. The sticks are held in place with a ribbon, string, or leaf and are attached at the base with a rivet. In the royal courts, guard sticks were often embellished with jewels and monograms. A majority of folding fans have a leaf, the material attached to the ribs which are the upper end of the sticks. Leaves, too, are composed of a variety of materials including, paper, vellum, and a wide variety of textiles including lace. If a fan is only made up of sticks and guards, it is a brisé fan.

Special types of folding fans include cockade fans that open around a central rivet to complete a 360 degree format. A number of novelty fans are cockade including “cigar” fans, which are still marketed. Palmette fans, also known as Jenny Lind fans, are similar to brisé fans but have palmettes: individual leaf-shaped blades made of paper, fabric, or feathers that are attached to the sticks. Fontange folding fans are more arched because the center sticks are longer than the outer guard sticks.

Use of Fans
The use of fans in Western fashion has ebbed and flowed over time. European royalty always had access to fans; once inexpensive fans were marketed in the 17th century, they became available to the general population. Fan-crafting shops soon cropped up across Europe.

The style and size of fans changed with the fashions. As women’s dresses incorporated panniers (an oval framework used to distend a woman’s dress at the waist) and had expansive skirts, fans grew larger and more majestic; as women’s dresses became slender, the accompanying fans became smaller, too. By the Great Depression of the 1930s, fans became less of a fashion necessity. After all, women were taking up smoking. It certainly was difficult to hold a cigarette, purse, and fan all at once! Also, with the advent of air conditioning, there was an alternative for staying cool.

18th and 19th Century Fans
Many fans of the 18th and 19th centuries were painted with religious or mythological subject matter and are true works of art, although not usually painted by well-known artists. Fans taken to church might feature a scene of Ruth and Boaz or Jacob and Rachel. As a distraction from everyday life, wealthier individuals might purchase a fan with a mythological scene such as Bacchus and Ariadne or Diana and her maidens. Often images painted on fans were copies of well-known paintings from the period. Wedding fans were popular during this period and might include scenes of Hymen leading couples with rose crowns.

With advances in the printing process, fans with printed leaves became popular in the late 1700s. The subject matter was quite varied covering current events, politics, satire, geographic areas, grand tours, fortune telling, dance steps, commemorations, and more. Printed fans (especially older English ones) often include the date they were made. One popular event for printed fans featured the new sport of ballooning-these are now very collectible, but also quite expensive. Other rare historical event fans include those featuring prominent events such as the French revolution or Lincoln’s assassination.

In the late 1800s, when women’s dresses featured large bustles, fans increased in size to balance an outfit, with an average stick length of about 13 inches. Beautiful feather fans were popular as exotic feathers became available for fashion accessories such as hats and fans. As the century came to a close hand fans were getting smaller as dresses were slimming down.

Fans of the 20th Century
Until the Depression, fashion fans remained popular. Beautiful, exquisite fans were being made around the world. No longer was the subject matter showing pastoral scenes, mythology, or copies of old paintings. In their place, sequins, spangles, feathers, and lace, were the fashion of the day. But as dresses shortened, fans lost their appeal. In place of lovely fashion fans, advertising fans became prominent. They proved to be a useful marketing strategy by encouraging fan users to buy everything from liquor to sewing machines. Free advertising fans were doled out by airlines, cosmetic companies, hotels, department stores, ships, cafes, and casinos. Cardboard advertising fans with religious images were usually available in churches, often promoting funeral homes. Advertising and fashion fans from the last century are the ones that are most often found when antiquing. Many of them can be found for very reasonable prices.

Language of the Fan
When surfing the internet to investigate fans, one often reads about the “Language of the Fan.” For example, you can find fan etiquette lists describing how a lady might use her fan to communicate, i.e., fanning slowly means “I am married;” holding the handle to the lips means “kiss me.” There is not good evidence that communication between the sexes actually occurred this way. We do know that fanology fans facilitating silent parlor games (a lady’s conversation fan) were manufactured in London in the late 1700s. Fanology fans featured a number code system to spell out words (just think, an early form of texting).

In the mid-19th century the prominent London fan seller, Duvelleroy, did publish a specific Language of the Fan brochure that was included with a purchased fan-a wonderful marketing strategy. It’s highly unlikely though, that a 19th century man would actually learn the language of the fan. After all, aren’t eyes a better way for couples to communicate? This notion of fan communication is an enduring myth. It has perpetuated into the 20th century and beyond. For example, a paper advertising fan made in 1939 to help market Shulton Old Spice talcum powder can often be found in antique shops. The front of the fan describes actions a woman can do with her fan to convey thoughts such as draw the fan across her cheek to say ‘I love you.’ The reverse side of the fan links the fan and powder with the statement:

The Early American lady found the fan an indispensable aid in keeping cool and a weapon of coquetry. She waved it gently to and fro-cooling herself but fanning flames of love into the hearts of gallant swains. Today’s indispensable aid in keeping cool is EARLY AMERICAN Old Spice Talcum, enchantingly scented with roses and spice. With it use this quaint fan to speak your own language of coquetry & charm.

The language of the fan makes for a good story, but it wasn’t used to arrange clandestine meetings in the dark corners.

Collecting Fans
Today there are many active collectors of these whimsical mechanisms and fancy adornments employed in the day-to-day life of times gone by. Some collectors focus on a specific era, form, subject, or type of hand fan. Those with limited budgets might collect advertising fans from the last century. For example, there are collectors who only buy airline fans. Other collectors might be passionate about mythology scenes, fans with cats, or fans from the South Pacific cultures, while others might focus on novelty, WWI, dance, feather, 19th century, Art Deco, erotic, political, world’s fair, or mourning fans-the list is endless.

Fans also become a cross-collectible for people with an interest in advertising, Japanese and Chinese items, feminine accessories, period dress, artistic style, European history, cultural understanding, and social commentary. Trends of fashion, world events, new experiences, past glories and foibles are all played out in miniature style with this one accessory, the fan, which is easily collected today.

Where to Find Fans
As is true for most collectors, the thrill is in the hunt. Quality, antique and vintage fans, or just plain fun ones can be found at auctions, antique stores and shows, better thrift shops, specialized shows, and sometimes word of mouth. A recent Financial Times article stated that fans are again showing up on the runways of Paris and they are “cooler than ever.” Also, there are several contemporary fan designers (e.g., Rockcoco in London and Sylvain Le Guen in Paris) who are providing high-end custom fans for special occasions. Many of their fans will be future collectibles.

Connecting With Other Fan Enthusiasts
Internationally, there are three very active organizations for fan collectors: The Fan Association of North America (US), Fan Circle International (UK), and Le Cercle de l’Even-tail (France). The Fan Association of North America (FANA) is a nonprofit organization of domestic and international collectors. It is devoted to studying every aspect of fan history, creative fan design, fan materials, production, preservation, the crossover influence of fans with fashion/costume, and its varied uses in society.

Through its fundraising efforts, FANA has awarded grants to museums, historic societies, and individuals for fan-related research, publications, conservation, and exhibits. Benefits of membership include newsletters and semi-yearly magazines that are devoted to sharing both knowledge and educational information among members. FANA also maintains a library of fan-related materials available to members and sponsors discussions on Facebook – just search for “Hand Fan Collectors.”

The annual FANA meeting is the opportunity for all fan collectors and enthusiasts to meet for workshops, lectures, fun, and sharing of fan study. It’s also a great time to acquire fans through the member fan sale or the FANA charity auction. Consider joining us for the next annual meeting in San Diego, California on April 25-29, 2018. If you have an interest in fans, visit to complete the membership process. FANA welcomes all to explore this fascinating part of our past and object of adornment.

Kathryn Hanna is a retired biology faculty member from the University of Minnesota and long-time fan collector. Her interest in hand fans started in second grade when she visited San Francisco’s Chinatown with her parents who bought her a beautiful pierced bone fan. She now collects mostly 20th century and contemporary artists’ fans, as well as hand-fan memorabilia. Kathryn is currently the Public Relations Chair for the Fan Association of North America (FANA). She regularly attends their annual conferences, along with many other knowledgeable fan enthusiasts. She may be contacted at


Fans and Fashion