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Fans of fans

May 19, 2014

This post is focused on fans of ‘fans’ – traditionally accessories that were used to make a breeze, to protect the face from heat, to flick away flies and insects or objects to be used in certain ceremonial circumstances.  Perhaps such fans are rather a rare breed amongst many and various types of fan, but if you are read on. I am writing from The Fan Museum in London, a museum that has an eclectic and large collection of these types of fans – to avoid confusion, I shall refer to them as handfans!

Coconut leaf heart-shaped fixed fan  Tokelau Islands (probably Fakaofo), NZ, 20th century

Coconut leaf heart-shaped fixed fan
Tokelau Islands (probably Fakaofo), NZ, 20th century

To answer the question: ‘what does a handfan look like?’ is not simple since handfans come in a large variety of shapes and sizes – and materials. But to give some idea, the most basic is known as a ‘fixed’ handfan – a shape of material attached to a handle. The material shape, which can be round or rectangular or something much more complex, could be made from woven grasses, paper, silk, feathers, wood, lacquer – to list a few – and attached to a handle typically made of wood or metal. Depending on their form, these could be used to perform all four functions given above.

Much less basic are ‘folding’ handfans, objects that were specifically designed to be held in the hand and gently wafted back and forth to cool the face of the handler who, in days gone by, was likely to have been a European lady of society. Folding handfans, in fact, unfold from two ‘guards’, spreading open to reveal delicately painted images or richly designed and decorated textiles in ‘fan’ shapes ranging from not much wider than a cone through 180° to 360° – the latter called a ‘cockade’ handfan.

The folding fan mechanism, probably first developed before the 10th century by the Japanese – the pleating technique is reminiscent of Origami – came to Europe by way of China in around 1500 and by the end
of the 16th century a sizeable European industry had grown up. If in the 17th century only a courtier’s lady would have had the privilege of fanning herself, by the 18th a handfan was a must-have accessory of all European society ladies and by the mid 19thcentury society was of the opinion that  the bigger and more lavish the fan the better!

Rhea feather fan, 20th   century

Rhea feather fan, 20thcentury

The handfan has not died since the invention of more efficient electrical cooling devices. Instead, rather than remaining a fashion accessory, it has become a collector’s item and an object of considerable interest for
art, social and cultural historians. A handfan’s imagery can tell us much about fashion, traditions and trends that are often not visually described in any other form – what more exciting challenge can there be for a ‘fan’ fan than trying to decipher what their handfan says to them.

Mary Kitson, Freelance Art Historian and Consultant to The Fan Museum, Greenwich, London. For further information about The Fan Museum, visit

All images © The Fan Museum


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