The fan, a simple device by which a person can wave air at his or her body in order to cool it, has been one of the most basic fashion accessories for thousands of years. There is evidence that some type of flat paddle used to move air had been used in ancient Mesopotamia (the region centered in present-day Iraq), Egypt, Greece, and Rome, but the Chinese are widely believed to have been the first to use the fan as a decorative item. Credit for the invention of the fan is disputed, but it is widely believed that the emperor Hsein Yüan, who ruled China beginning in 2699 B.C.E. , first introduced the fan.
The first Chinese fans were made of pheasant or peacock feathers mounted on a handle. Soon they developed several varieties of stiff, flat fans, made out of solid materials like palm or bamboo, or of silk stretched over a frame. As with many other Chinese costume traditions, fans were introduced to Japan in the sixth century C.E. The Japanese adapted the fan into the folding fan, which has since become the most popular form of fan. Folding fans have rigid sticks on the outer edges that provide a frame for a series of thin pleated or folded materials, such as silk or paper. The fan materials are attached at one end of the sticks, allowing the entire fan to be gently folded into a thin shaft. People could easily carry a folding fan and open it to provide a breeze when needed. Japan exported the folding fan back to China, where the Chinese made versions of their own.
Both Chinese and Japanese fans were and are highly decorated. Artists painted complex scenes that were revealed when the fan was unfolded, or calligraphers, who specialized in delicate handwriting, wrote messages across the unfolding blades. In both China and Japan, different styles of fan were used for different occasions. Special fans might be used for dancing or for a tea ceremony, for example.
Fans have remained a popular fashion accessory in Asia to this day. Europeans adopted fans beginning in the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500 C.E. ), and they were especially popular during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
De Vere Green, Bertha. Fans Over the Ages: A Collector's Guide. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1979.
Yarwood, Doreen. The Encyclopedia of World Costume. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.