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Trac­ing the evo­lu­tion of the hand-held fan

I f they’re lucky, front-row guests at fash­ion week shows will walk away with all kinds of branded mem­o­ra­bilia. In the case of Chris­tian Dior’s au­tumn/win­ter 2017 haute cou­ture show this sum­mer, front-row VIPs like Ce­line Dion, Kirsten Dunst, Natalie Port­man, Jen­nifer Lawrence and Chiara Fer­ragni were treated to tra­di­tional fold­ing fans, stamped with the words Dior Cou­ture Fall 2017. Many were pic­tured us­ing the stylish give­away over the course of the rest of the week, since it pro­vided a fash­ion­able way to seek re­lief from the heat, while also at­tract­ing pic­ture-hun­gry street-style snap­pers.

This isn’t the first time that a fash­ion house has ap­pro­pri­ated the age-old, hand-held fan. A sea­son ear­lier, for spring/sum­mer 2017, Gucci’s Alessan­dro Michele styled his male and fe­male mod­els with Ja­panese-in­spired it­er­a­tions. Cra ed from bam­boo and silk, his Gucci fans were em­bla­zoned with a red flower and bor­dered with the name of the Ital­ian fash­ion house in a bold, gothic text. Those who wrote the fans off as run­way gim­micks may have been sur­prised to see them in-store, where they re­tailed for Dh1,515 each. Bey­oncé proudly dis­played hers at an NBA All-Stars bas­ket­ball game in New York.

Ri­hanna’s Fenty line for sports­wear la­bel Puma also in­cluded a fan for spring/sum­mer 2016. Hers was a fold­ing, ac­cor­dion-style ver­sion, and fea­tured the word Puma spelt out in pink lace, lay­ered over lighter pink lace with scal­loped edges.

These mod­ern, de­signer-made fans of­fer a more so­phis­ti­cated way to cool down – but while it may have now ce­mented its sta­tus as prac­ti­cal hand­bag es­sen­tial for con­certs, sports games and the crowded front rows of fash­ion weeks, the ac­ces­sory has been dip­ping in and out of the lime­light for years.

Though they may be as­so­ci­ated with Span­ish fla­menco dances or Ja­panese geisha per­for­mances, fans were first used for more fun­da­men­tal pur­poses. His­to­ri­ans be­lieve that rudi­men­tary ren­der­ings of fans were utilised in pre­his­toric times to swat away in­sects or di­rect air to­wards a flame to keep a fire go­ing. But por­ta­ble, hand-held fans as we know them, orig­i­nated in East Asia. The two main types are pleated or fold­able fans, and the rigid va­ri­ety – Ri­hanna’s Puma Fenty de­sign is an ex­am­ple of the for­mer, while Gucci’s pop­u­lar style is a re­cre­ation of the lat­ter. It re­mains un­cer­tain whether the fan was in­vented in China or Ja­pan, since both coun­tries claim own­er­ship of the idea. The fold­able ver­sion was orig­i­nally cre­ated from strips of bam­boo, and was used by mem­bers of the mid­dle class, who weren’t for­tu­nate enough to have hired help to fan them – a lux­ury en­joyed by the up­per class.

In the 1500s, they were in­tro­duced to Europe by the Por­tuguese, who had dis­cov­ered fans in China and ex­ported them for trade. The fan quickly be­came a trend, with its use peak­ing dur­ing the El­iz­a­bethan pe­riod – in her many por­traits, Queen El­iz­a­beth I is o en de­picted with a lav­ish fan in hand. De­signs two gen­er­a­tions later would be adorned with gold, silks, feath­ers and gem­stones. Spe­cial va­ri­eties were cre­ated for fu­ner­als and wid­ows, and these usu­ally fea­tured black lace.

Pre­vi­ously re­served for roy­alty and aris­to­crats, fans be­came ac­ces­si­ble to the bour­geois when print­ing be­came pop­u­lar in the 18th cen­tury. For­merly dec­o­rated with Bib­li­cal il­lus­tra­tions, new fans were printed with light­hearted rid­dles, for­tunetelling games, maps and greet­ings.

Although they went out of fash­ion for a while, in 1827, Jean-Pierre Du­velleroy launched his fan house in Paris, ea­ger for his cou­ture cre­ations to in­spire a re­birth of the trend. The no­tion of a “fan lan­guage” was born. Ac­cord­ing to Du­velleroy, if a woman fans slowly, it sig­ni­fies that she is mar­ried, and if her fan­ning is fast, it means she is en­gaged. If she car­ries it in her right hand in front of her face, it means “fol­low me”, and if she twirls it in her le hand, it means “we’re be­ing watched”.

By the 20th cen­tury, fans be­came a fun­da­men­tal form of brand­ing and ad­ver­tis­ing, and were o en used for pro­mo­tional pur­poses. These mass de­signs, some­times fash­ioned from plas­tic as op­posed to wood, lacked the cou­ture touch and in­tri­cate art­work of their pre­de­ces­sors, and were used to present menus, cat­a­logues and recital pro­grammes.

Now, in 2017, hand-held fans are back in vogue, and pro­mo­tion is yet again at the heart of the move­ment. A er all, fans that fea­ture cov­etable de­signer lo­gos are hardly pur­chased for their practicality. If you’re go­ing to wave your hand with a flour­ish to ex­pose the in­ner se­crets of your fan, what would you rather show the world – or your so­cial-me­dia fol­low­ers? A pic­turesque cherry blos­som pat­tern, or the name of a world­fa­mous fash­ion house?

FAN­NING THE TREND Above, a hand-painted paper fan with dec­o­rated ivory ribs from 1760’s France. Le , Queen El­iz­a­beth I’s por­trait in­cludes a fan fash­ioned from feath­ers

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