‘The fan is back’ declared the Financial Times this month. Meanwhile, British Vogue devoted two thirds of a page to the accessory in its February issue. Fashion writer Susie Lau admitted that it was the ‘one accessory that I’ve not had the opportunity to touch upon in all of Style Bubble’s ten year history’ in spite of the many modern day instances where one was required – namely fashion shows, on the underground, and wherever there is a lack of air conditioning in the summer months.
What prompted such headlines? The highly symbolic accessory appeared on the Gucci catwalk for Spring/Summer 2017 – a flat, rigid Japanese éventail style. All three articles referenced a just-launched brand called Fern Fans established by London-based PR Daisy Hoppen and Danish textile designer Amanda Borberg, who have revised the traditional pleated concertina style in birchwood and textured cottons for the contemporary consumer.
The fan is an accessory with a rich and whimsical history, with pictorial history suggesting their use as far back as 3000BC. Their purpose is not just keeping oneself cool – fans have long had a ceremonial role, with the Greeks, Romans and Etruscans using them in this way. European folding fans came much later – introduced by merchant traders and religious orders from China and Japan – and regarded as status symbols, reserved for Royalty and nobility. They were often highly ornamental, using materials such as mother of pearl, ivory and tortoiseshell for their sticks and guards, decorated with precious metals and gems, and hand-painted; craftsmen dedicated to producing fans gradually formed guilds such as The Worshipful Company of Fan Makers (established during the reign of Charles II in London and incorporated by a royal charter in 1709).
After the swift rise of the accessory in the late 16th and 17th century – often pictured in the hands of ladies in portraits from this time, including Elizabeth I (see the ‘Darnley Portrait’, c. 1575) – increased imports together with new methods developed by manufacturers to print fans meant that they became cheaper to purchase and available to a wider audience. The Fan Museum in Greenwich documents the fan’s continued history and craft and a significant number of examples on show in the Fashion and Textile rooms in the V&A. These include an 18th and several 19th century fans; the former is French, made of hand-painted paper featuring leisure scenes, the latter range from pierced ivory to horn, and painted flowers on silk gauze. There’s even a peacock-printed plastic and paper fan for sale in the shop.
Beyond ornament and temperature-regulation, the fan developed an altogether more intriguing role in concealing and revealing the wearer’s emotions in delicate social situations. It holds the potential to do much more than hide a blush, illicit smile or veil boredom. Behold: a guide to speaking the language of one of fashion’s most enduring accessories.
To hold the fan with the right hand in front of the face: follow me
To move the fan with the left hand: they are watching us
To throw the fan: I hate you
To hold the fan closed: do you love me?
To move the fan with the right hand: I love another
To open and close the fan: you are cruel
To hold the fan open, covering the mouth: I am single
To fan slowly: I am married
To fan quickly: I am engaged
To hold the fan on the lips: kiss me
To open the fan slowly: wait for me
To open the fan with the left hand: come and talk to me
To strike it closed on the left hand: write to me
Pithers, Ellie, ‘Do you speak fan?’, British Vogue (February, 2017), p. 57