Stay cool! The History of the Hand Fan
October 22, 2015
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Hand fan by Jarvier Garcia

There is barely a culture or a time in history I don’t associate with the expressive, ever stylish and practical hand fan. Whether it is an ancient Egyptian king languishing in the breeze generated by an ostrich feathered wave; a coy Geisha peeking from behind her folding wing, or a fiery flamenco dancer passionately gesturing with her lace creation, there are so many gorgeous versions of this artistic accessory. The folded fan that forms the “D” in the Duende logo was chosen for this very reason. Fans are high on my souvenir shopping list, and I imagine one day having a collection of exotic specimens that span the length and breadth of my travels. So let me take you on a brief flutter through the varied history and geographical journey of hand fans, proof they make a perfect theme for a worldly souvenir collection.

Ancient history

There is pictorial evidence of fans being used 3000years past in the courts of Egyptian kings. King Tut himself was entombed with ostrich feathered samples with gilded handles. The Greeks and Romans caught on and the flabellum, as it was known, was used in the Christian church for some time to wave away insects and cool worshippers.

The trend for fans wafted across China around 2697 BCE after, it is said, that the emperor’s daughter fanned herself with her mask at a ball. This simple gesture from a flustered princess brought the fixed fan en vogue. Across the Yellow Sea, the Japanese claim that the wing of a bat-inspired their creation of the first folding fan, designed in approximately 670 ACE.

Fan firework

A flutter across the globe

Trade routes linking the east and west during the 1500’s carried the exotic accessory to Europe and popularised it with high society. Parisian fan ateliers produced chic fans for western tastes, mixing it up with the foreign spice road imports. Famous artists put their hands to work decorating silken leaves with dainty paintwork, alongside ivory carvers who sculptured elaborate ribs and handles. The trend trickled its way down to the masses, as fans became easier and cheaper to produce.

Around the same period, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was gifted, among other things, feathered fans by the Aztec emperor Montezuma II. No doubt, a well-chosen gift for an overdressed colonialist in the equatorial heat.

Art and expression

Through the 1800’s and 1900’s, fan decoration followed the artistic movements of impressionism, art nouveau and art deco. Victorian era ladies developed coded gestures using their fans to communicate with admirers. Fans were often gifted to the fairer sex on special occasions and developed a stigma for representing feminine frailty. This association saw fan popularity waver throughout the rise of feminism.

As mass production was simplified through industrialisation, and printing technology developed, fans became vehicles for commercial merchandising. They were emblazoned with advertising for items ranging from the luxurious Cordon Rouge champagne to common Coca-Cola.

The Fan Museum

Throughout history, fans have taken on many forms and been constructed by countless means. The fashionable flourishes delicately composed from materials such as leaves, feathers, leather, silk, paper, ivory and lace, have been revered by the rich and famous and carried on by the masses. Both their practical uses and expressive style saw them develop from within a number of cultures and adopted by plenty more. Each cultural custodian placed their unique stamp on the objet d’art, making hand fans the perfect theme for a comely collection of travel mementos.

For more souvenir ideas, get Duende’s Soulful Souvenir Guide and shopping list.

Peace, love & inspiring travel,

Madam ZoZo


Cover image by Jarvier Garcia via Flickr.

Stay Cool! The History of the Hand Fan

About author

Madam ZoZo

Hi! I'm Madam ZoZo, aka Zoë, an Australian designer, creative consultant, blogger and digital nomad. I'm passionate about travel, design, dance and new experiences that fuel my creativity. I strive to travel in a style that is gentle on the earth and that contributes to the communities I visits, even if it is merely to take away a greater understanding of a different culture. Duende by Madam ZoZo, is where I share the stories of my travels and the duende (soul/inspiration) I find along the way.

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