The hand-held fan, as with many fashion accessories, has its origin in a simple practical need: the desire to keep cool. Since ancient times a wide variety of fans developed to fulfil this straightforward requirement, from the palm-frond fans of Ancient Egypt to the ostrich feather fans used by the Elizabethans. The significance of the fan as a fashion accessory, however, goes far beyond the simple matter of creating a cooling current of air at will. The fan is also an expression of style and personality, a focus for decoration and ornament, a means of conveying wealth and status, and, for the ladies with whom hand-held fans have come to be particularly associated, an important component of feminine social identity and communication.  

At no period were these aspects of the fan of more importance than in the eighteenth century. Fans in earlier periods were fixed and had long handles, but the arrival in Europe in the late-seventeenth century of inexpensive Chinese folding fans greatly increased the portability, attractiveness and popularity of the fan. The folding fan was much easier to carry and offered far greater potential for expressiveness in both decoration and use than the cumbersome fixed fan. By the later-eighteenth century domestically produced fans – many mass-produced and very cheap – were widely available in Europe, so that almost every woman was able to afford a folding hand-held fan. At the other end of the market from paper fans costing pennies were elaborate luxury fans of carved and decorated ivory, pearl and tortoiseshell, with sumptuously painted mounts of silk.  

Pastoral scenes were highly popular and echoed the British love for outdoor pursuits and rural life. Classical scenes, myths and engravings of great works of art equally displayed a level of education and sophistication desirable in a society lady. The growing fascination for objects from the East likewise saw chinoiserie decoration become a much sought after style.  

It was also not uncommon for fans to be more personalised. They might include miniature paintings of a lady’s children, dressed in their best clothing. Sometimes they included coats, arms or initials. Alternatively if a fan was being given as a gift, the giver may have requested a particular scene or portrait to be included, so that the receiver could be reminded of that person each time it was opened. Popular current games or dances were also depicted. For amusement they might even contain cryptic puzzles or riddles. One puzzle fan asked the question, “Why don’t we go to bed?” To which the simple answer is, “Because the bed won’t come to us”.  

French and Italian fans were the most fashionable and popular, either being exported by the manufacturer or coming to English shores via the Grand Tour. France alone boasted around 150 master fan makers during this period. Nevertheless England also established its reputation for fan making and in 1709 the Guild of the Worshipful Company of Fan-makers was formed.  

Fans were always in high demand as they did not always last very long due to their delicate construction; a lady could wear her fan out with only a few uses at the height of the season. This meant that they were in constant demand, and a big drain on a lady’s wardrobe allowance.  

Ladies were accustomed to carrying fans from girlhood, and they became indispensable at all kinds of social occasions, from daytime promenades to evening dinners and assemblies. The fan concealed the face but permitted the gaze and could be used for a wide range of non-verbal communication. In company, fans might have a practical use of covering a lack of conversation or even moments of embarrassment. One commentator remarked: “Women are armed with fans as men with swords, and sometimes do more execution with them” (Joseph Addison).  

Fans might be a weapon in a lady’s social arsenal, but the etiquette surrounding them was a double-edged sword for the unwary. Whether a fan was carried closed, or held open, the rules governing its use were complex. A wrong gesture could illicit derision from the elite society being navigated. It is therefore not surprising that instruction manuals were printed to guide the un-initiated. It was equally important to choose the right fan for the right occasion; black fans were carried by ladies in mourning, and in church the subject matter had to be religious. At court the rules were stricter still. In France it was forbidden to open a fan in front of the Queen.  

A language of flirtation developed around the fan, with particular motions and postures intended to attract or divert attention, express or deflect interest. Fans given as a gift might be a lightly gallant gesture, or indicate something more serious if marriage were in mind. While allowing a lady to screen her face modestly, they also enlivened social proceedings with opportunities for mild seduction. Fans might be placed on a table as a means of gentlemen randomly choosing their next dance partners. It was not unknown for a fan to be dropped on purpose, allowing a gallant suitor to return it.  

In return, a woman could let a man know exactly how she felt by using her fan. A complex system of recognisable signals was used. Rapid fluttering might suggest anger at a suitor while the following signals were important to learn:  


A half open fan on the lips = ‘You may kiss me’  

Fan held over the left ear = ‘I wish to be rid of you’  

Drawn across the cheek = ‘I love you’  

Twirled in the right hand = ‘I love another’  


It is just as well that these signals were not to be taken too seriously, as chaperones would understand them just as well as the gentleman at whom they were aimed.  


Links to collections:

The Fan Museum