The Changing Use of the Fan
Fashion and the use of hand-held fans has changed over the centuries. At first, the fan was a simple tool for coaxing a fire into life, for keeping away insects and flies, or for cooling the face in hot weather. Then more elaborate fans were made and they became things of beauty, fashion accessories for the elite. In Victorian times in Europe, the Language of the Fan developed.
The need for a fan (and therefore its design) has changed over the centuries. Fans made of feathers were used over three thousand years ago. In different cultures they have been used to add pomp and ceremonial significance, and in the middle ages they gave grace and charm to court dancers. They have been used by both men and women.
China: The early fans were paddle fans. Silk and satin became more available in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D), with wood and ivory appearing around 990 B.C. and plainer fans began to be used by the common people. In some areas palm fans were made in the Jin Dynasty (264 - 420 A.D.). Silk and satin fans continued through the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 A.D.) and they became the fashion among scholars and artists, when they would write a poem or paint a picture on the fan.
Egypt: Fans were used in ancient Egypt. Some were quite large, as can be seen from ancient frescoes.
- Europe: In the middle ages fans were used in the Christian liturgy and continued to be used in the Roman Catholic church until Vatican II. There are religious pictures of holy men holding fans. Sometimes religious pictures were painted on the fans, or lists of saints or holy days were written on them.
- Egypt: Fans were used in ancient Egypt. Some were quite large, as can be seen from ancient frescoes. Fans were used in ancient Greece in the fourth century B.C. and probably before that.
- Japan: Fans were used by the military to send signals on the battle-field, but were mainly used at court. The Japanese invented the folding fan and it was introduced into China about a thousand years ago. They were made with fine paper and bamboo.
- Spain: Fans were, and still are used, especially in Flamenco dancing. They are often trimmed with lace.
Types of Fans
The Folding Fan: The folding fan was introduced to China from Japan around 1,000 A.D. In the late sixteenth century they were introduced to the West by Portuguese travellers.
Parts of a Folding Fan
- The ribs: The ribs are also known as sticks or slats. Ribs had been made of ivory, bone, camphor-wood, sandalwood, tortoise-shell, silver and gold. They are sometimes pierced with intricate designs, making up the whole of the folding fan.
- The sticks: The two end ribs are usually known as sticks; they are wider and are often decorated with patterns, pierced, or painted with gold.
- The head: The screw or swivel that holds all the ribs together is known as the head. This is often threaded with ribbon and decorated with beads, even pearls.
- The cover: The cover on folding fans are made of a variety of materials and this is sometimes double, so that the decoration can be on both sides of the fan.
Materials Used in Fan Making
The cover: A wide range of materials have been used to cover the fan, including paper, hand-made paper, silk and other fabrics.
The ribs: These have been made of a variety of materials, too. They include ivory, bone, mother of pearl, saldalwood, tortoiseshell.
The decoration: Decorations vary, often according to the country and culture. Chinese fans were often hand-painted; Spanish fans had the edges trimmed with lace, while wooden fans were often pierced with intricate patterns along the ribs.
The tassel: Tassels were often added and these were especially long on important occasions, such as weddings.
The Chinese fan used in dancing was usually made of thick paper that had the family crest imprinted or painted on it and the fan had ten ribs. Fans used in other Asian fan dances are similar.
In Papua New Guinea and other places where palm-trees and long grasses are abundant, fans have been made using those materials. The strands have often been dyed and then woven together in intricate patterns. Some have been decorated with shells and feathers.
The Language of the Fan
In Victorian times the fan became a necessary fashion accessory and the language of the fan developed. It was ideal for communicating as the Japanese military had found centuries before.
There were many meaningful movements of the fan, and coupled with the young lady's use of her eyes, a great number of clandestine meetings were arranged right in front of the chaperone, without her knowledge.
Uses for Fans
Fans were often used for storing information. It may be a poem, a list of holy days, or (like an autograph book) for people's signatures, especially at dances where young people met.
They have also been utilised as menu cards, as in one of the fans above, and as a souvenir, as in the fan from Bali below.
Fans are still useful today. A folding fan is a convenient addition to a lady's handbag in case of warm weather. Fans can be an elegant addition to a wedding, perhaps matching the coordinated colours of the wedding and with a message printed on them as a favour for guests. A lovely idea and reminder of a more leisurely and graceful age.