During an early summer trip to Japan several years ago, I was fascinated to see that folding paper fans were more than just a tourist souvenir. Stores of all types and sizes sold paper fans printed with imagery ranging from cute children's characters to scenes borrowed from iconic woodblock prints. It quickly became obvious that many women, and even some men, actually used these fans to create a small breeze in the punishingly humid Japanese summer weather. I even purchased a fan and used it frequently during my trip. On returning to the US, I tried to use my fan with the same unselfconscious freedom I had enjoyed in Japan. Given the complete absence of folding fans in contemporary western culture, I eventually caved. My paper fan is now tucked away in its patterned silk case, awaiting my next trip to Japan.
My experience in Japan highlights the position of folding fans within western culture. Though once considered part of a complete wardrobe, fans are now almost entirely archaic and very rarely used. Contemporary representations of folding fans usually symbolize the past, or suggest a link with Asia. This may change with the rebirth of Duvelleroy, a Paris fan maker established in the early 19th century. Duvelleroy was once the premier fan maker, creating fans for European royalty and collaborating with artists and couturiers to create fashionable fans. Will the new Duvelleroy generate a surge of interest in folding fans? Readers, what would it take to make you carry and use a fan?
Paintings and clothing inventories indicate that rigid fans, often made of feathers, were used as fashionable accessories by well-to-do European women in the 16th century. Folding fans weren't widely known in Europe until they were brought back in small quantities by travellers who had journeyed to Japan and China; this probably occurred sometime in the late 16th century. By the late 17th century, European manufacturers had mastered the folding fan.
Like the hand-painted silk fan pictured here, the earliest European folding fans were hand-painted paper or silk. Later fans featured a variety of printed images, ranging from pastoral scenes to fans printed with rules of popular card games, dance steps or historical facts. Given their association with Japan and China, imagery evocative of these cultures frequently appeared on fans. With its hand-painted motif of birds and bamboo-like foliage, the fan pictured here is clearly meant to suggest Japanese or Chinese scroll paintings. Almost certainly crafted in the west, this fan dates from the late 19th century, when a wave of interest in all things Japanese swept Europe and North America.
By the 1920s, folding fans were rarely used as fashionable accessories. Though extravagant feathered fans were a popular complement to slim 1920s evening dresses, fans rarely made an appearance during the day. Retailers and advertisers, however, frequently used inexpensive folding paper fans to promote their products. Throughout the 1920s, Parisian department stores were especially prolific in the production of advertising fans. Fans printed with advertisements were given away for free with a purchase or as a promotional event in itself.
This fan promotes the Galeries Lafayette, a Parisian department store established in the 1890s, with the bold slogan, "I buy everything at the Galeries Lafayette." The reverse of the fan sings the praises of two types of stockings: Gina and Rym. The Gina is an "economical dazzling artificial silk stocking, strong and elegant," while Rym is a "natural silk stocking [of] incomparable fineness and quality." The unique shape of this fan, peaked in the middle and shorter on the sides, is called a balloon or fontange shape. Due to it's popularity throughout the decade, it can help date folding fans to the 1920s.