A very brief history of fans

history of fans

Fans are costume accessories from the repertoire of a different, more gracious way of living, and are hence evocative of past elegance, embodying a lost language of both ceremony and coquetry. In addition, they often have an air of oriental mystique, a legacy of their Japanese heritage and the huge quantities imported into Europe from China by the East India Company from the 17th century onwards.

Images of punkha wallahs waving enormous branches from palm trees in the warmer outposts of the Victorian Empire also reveal the natural origin of the very idea of a fan, to move and cool the air, and pamper the delicate skins of the leisured classes. While in the East and Spain fans have been employed by both men and women, in England only fops and dandies might risk their fellows' ridicule, where fans have been an exclusively female preserve.

Their practical purpose in English tradition since at least the 17th century has certainly been to regulate ambient air temperature, by providing a means of self-cooling, but this facility was soon found useful to hide, or temper blushes. In addition, fans could shield the eyes from the glare of the sun and prevent an unfashionable tanning of the skin outdoors, or prevent the ruddy complexion arising from too vigorous a fire indoors, hence the development of the hand-held fire screen. 18th century Georgian fans often represent the most exquisite objets d'art which were the perfect gift for a lady, in an era which cultivated good taste, and connoisseurship of the hand-crafted object. Fans also had a particular place in the traditions of masquerade developed across Europe in that century, masking the faces of their owners, as part of an elaborate ritual of flirtation.

Smaller, delicate ivory and tortoiseshell fans graced the Regency period. By 1865 fans were an indispensable fashion accessory for the emergent middle classes; some of the grander ones were clearly historicizing; others cheaper examples displayed the perceived delights of the industrial age- vibrant aniline dye colours, machine lace, gaudy prints and painted leaves.

Keeping cool and one's cool, at balls and the theatre seems to have been the main reason for the proliferation of fans towards the end of the century and in the 1880s mass-produced fans also became the but of jokes for their often indelicate size. The availability of fans to all and sundry led to an extraordinary snobbery about the fan, exposed in the Diary of a Nobody first published in Punch in the 1890s:

Mrs James was most kind ,and lent Carrie a fan of ivory and feathers, the value of which, she said ,was priceless, as the feathers belonged to the Kachu eagle - a bird, now extinct. I prefer the little white fan which Carrie bought for three and six at Shoolbred's, but both ladies sat on me at once.

Fans survived into the 20th century mainly as gifts and souvenirs, or as a means of advertising. The fan shape became variously a darling of both Art Nouveau and Art Deco styling. Until c1950 a debutante would hold an ostrich feather fan when presented at Court. Today we are most familiar with the paper and fabric tourist export market fans produced by China, Japan and Spain.