Hand fans: a functional and decorative ancient art

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Katerina Bulovska
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Fans have been used since ancient times to serve functional, decorative, and ceremonial purposes. They were primarily used to create a cooling breeze and to clear the air of insects. It is believed that their origin dates back to 2000 BC in ancient Egypt. Egyptian fans were large and fixed, with long handles and feathers. As time passed, instead of being used simply as a tool, they became more of a social accessory. For the Egyptians, a fan was a symbol of power and status, as many archeological sites reveal. The walls of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s 3300-year-old Egyptian tomb were depicted with two elaborate fans, one with a golden handle and ostrich feathers, and the other made of ebony, decorated with precious stones and gold.

Fans were also popular among the ancient Greeks and Romans. They are mentioned in many literary classics; for instance, in Euripides’ tragedy Helena, a eunuch uses a fan in order to protect Menelao’s wife from insects while she sleeps. In the 2nd century BC, fans gained a more elegant look, decorated with rich silks imported to Greece from the Orient. On the other hand, Roman fans were more opulent, with peacock feathers, and were some of the most elaborate fans ever made.

Ancient Egyptian Fans and Oars

On the other side of the world, both China and Japan have different legends about the creation of the fan. The Chinese claim that the sight of a woman fanning her face mask at a festival served as an inspiration for the creation of the fan, while the Japanese believe it was created by imitating the folding wings of a bat. In both Chinese and Japanese societies, fan-making was an art and they are considered the first to invent the folding hand fan between the 7th and 10th centuries.

A portrait of a lady holding a rigid (oval) fan from the painting Appreciating Plums by Chinese artist Chen Hongshou

In Japan both men and women used fans, while the men favored plain white and undecorated fans, women were fond of a decorated rigid fan. The wealthier bought more sophisticated painted folding fans, while the lower classes used simple and cheap rigid fans that were made of bamboo.

Japanese rigid fan (uchiwa). Author: Haragayato. CC BY-SA 3.0

From China and Japan, folding fans were introduced to Europe in the 16th century. Initially, merchant traders brought them to the ports of Lisbon, Venice, and Genoa, and they were largely only available to royalty and nobility. Their leaves were made of the finest silk, hand-painted with delicate motifs or adorned with fine embroidery, while their sticks and handle were made of carved ivory, tortoiseshell, and mother of pearl, decorated with gold, silver, and precious stones. Eventually, fans became something of a status symbol.

Handheld fan from 1800

Queen Caterina De Medici turned them into a fashion statement as she was often carrying with her some of the most intricate fans at the French Court. Also, Queen Elizabeth I is portrayed in many paintings holding a variety of diamond fans. Fans became a necessity for aristocratic women and they tended to have more than one, using them depending on the occasion.

Folding fan from France c. 1850

In the 1700s, women developed a “secret” language of fans, that both men and women understood and used to communicate secretly at social events. For instance, hiding the eyes behind an open fan meant I love you while slowly waving with a fan meant I am not interested.

Japanese foldable fan: Painted by Hokusai.

With the advent of mass production of printed fans in the 18th century, they became cheaper and more affordable, and so lost their role as a status symbol. Although their popularity declined, it rose again with the fashion trends of the Victorian era when fans were a must-have item for any established lady.

Flamenco dance. Author: Hernán Piñera. CC BY 2.0

In the 20th century, fans followed fashion and remarkable items were produced in Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. Today, despite electric fans and air conditioners, hand fans are still used, although not as widely as in the past though and only on special occasions and for decorative purposes, rather than functional ones. Perhaps it is most recognizable as a symbol of Spain, due to their use in flamenco, where the dancers use a wide variety of fans.