As part of my FANtastic Fiesta, running until 14 August, I’m giving away three lovely wooden Spanish hand fans, as featured on the covers of my Andalucían Nights trilogy:
No doubt you know that the hand fan is a classic object that blends both fashion and function. But how much do you know about the history of the fan? In this article I will share what I’ve learned through my research. I hope you find it interesting background, and you feel inspired to enter my FANtastic giveaway at http://hannahfielding.net/fan-tastic-fiesta/ and have your own beautiful fan.
The first recorded hand fans date back to Ancient Greece, but they were not widely used until the 17th century: Japan and China led the way in developing fans, and once traders introduced them to Europe, they were widely adopted as objects of beauty and practicality. Fans were soon deemed the accessory to have, especially for noblewomen and royalty; they feature in several portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, for example.
Many of the fans at this time were rigid, and ladies would hang them from their skirt belt, but soon the more practical and enchanting folding fan came into favour. What was painted on your fan when extended was of great interest, and it became quite the art form to design the leaves: challenging, because at that time the sticks of the fan, made from ivory or tortoiseshell, were closely spaced.
By the 18th century, specialist fan makers existed, and they used a broad range of materials for their art, including silk, while the painting on each fan was more intricate and artistic. The fan really had become an object d’art.
The handheld fan was now an integral part of a lady’s attire for dedicated followers of fashion, but it was not only used to impress and beautify. The fan served other core purposes: to cool, to conceal and to communicate. In the 18th century, pallor was considered beautiful in a woman, thus at the fireside they would use a fan to conceal flushed cheeks and to protect heavy makeup. At the same time, in regal courts fans were used to communicate non-verbally. At the end of the century, print designer Charles Francis Badini created the ‘Fanology, or Ladies Conversation Fan’, which featured instructions for how to use the fan to spell out messages. Here is the fan, as featured by Christies of London:
Of all the European countries, Spain is most associated with the hand fan to this day. The Spanish embraced the fan, and it would become an integral part of the emotional, sensual flamenco dance that evolved in Andalucía. An entire ‘language of the fan’, the abanico, evolved. For example, holding your fan open and covering one cheek meant ‘I like you’; holding your closed fan over your heart meant ‘I love you’; waving your open fan quickly at your side meant ‘Keep a distance; we’re being watched’.
There are some spectacular hand fans on display at the Museum of Costume in Madrid. This one, for example, dates from 1880–1890 and has beautiful peacock detailing:
Here is another, painted in 1829 to commemorate the marriage of King Ferdinand VII with Maria Cristina of Naples:
Beautiful, don’t you think? If you’re interested in fans and you’re based in the UK, you can visit a museum dedicated to these items of beauty, practicality and communication: the Fan Museum at Greenwich: https://www.thefanmuseum.org.uk/. There you can see fans from all over the world, such as this one by the iconic Spanish artist Salvador Dali, inspired by Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.