s Fans - Functional, Fashionable and Flirtatious - Hull Museums Collections

Fans - Functional, Fashionable and Flirtatious

Detail of fan


There are many different types, shapes and sizes of hand held fans in Hull Museums costume collection. They range from the plain and practical to the ornate and decorative, and can incorporate many different materials including lace, silk, feathers and even stuffed birds! Stuffed Birds on feather paddle fan Essentially fans are functional objects; a flat surface that, when waved back and forth provides an airflow that cools you down. However, in different societies over time, fans have developed into a fashionable crafted accessory and have even developed a language of their own. There are four main types of fan; Rigid fans, usually paddle shaped with a handle, often decorated with feathers. Brise fans, made from separate sticks which are linked together at the top with a ribbon threaded through. Cockade fans, made from a folded main leaf which forms a circle when the two guards join to form one handle. Folded fans, made from a main folded leaf attached to a series of riveted sticks and a guard at each end.


Fans have a long history dating back to ancient times, and large feather fans can be seen in ancient Egyptian images, held by slaves to cool the pharaohs. China and Japan also have a long history of using hand fans, with the folding fan becoming popular during the Ming Dynasty in China. The folding fan was introduced into Europe in the 17th century from China, and was considered a very high status gift. These, along with rigid fans, were often decorated with feathers and jewels. By the 18th century, the fan had become an essential fashion accessory and fan painting became a recognised art, with scenes on the leaves of the fan including country landscapes, classical figures and religious subjects.

Peacock Feather Fan

A variety of materials

Sticks and guards could be made out of ivory, tortoiseshell, mother of pearl and wood, whilst the main body of the fan could be silk, paper or animal skin. In the last quarter of the 19th century, feather fans became popular, starting out brightly coloured and later becoming more neutrally shaded. This trend continued into the 1920s with one large ostrich feather plume dyed to match the colour of the wearer's dress. After this fans were used more for advertising purposes.


The fan was also useful for another purpose - flirtation! In a society where men and women could not easily converse, the fan developed a language of its own to allow communication. The way a lady held and positioned her fan could mean the difference between declining a man's attentions and accepting a proposal of marriage! Fan messages included: - The fan placed near the heart: "You have won my love" - Fanning quickly: "I am engaged" - Hiding the eyes behind an open fan: "I love you" As social etiquette changed, the language of the fan for forbidden communication became obsolete, and the language of the fan was lost.