Exhibition: Some of our greatest fans

Fans have a very long history, stretching back 5000 years or more. They were used in ancient Egypt, China and by the Romans amongst others The earliest examples were used for religious / political ceremonies, as well as more practical functions such as fanning fires, winnowing grain or keeping off flies. These early fans were of the fixed type, either hand held or in the form of large screens. Materials used included leaves, wood, peacock feathers and silk.

The more familiar folding fans seemed to have been invented in Japan, perhaps during the 7th century AD. These can be of pleated form, the “brisé” type (sticks only, joined by a rivet at the bottom and linked by a ribbon at the top) or cockade fans (which open out into a full circle). Often elaborately decorated and using exotic materials for the sticks e.g. ivory, tortoiseshell, mother of pearl, fans became an essential fashion accessory (especially, but not exclusively for ladies) in both Europe and Asia. European fans were heavily influenced by Oriental fans and often bore Chinese style painted designs. The peak of popularity was in the 17th and 18th centuries, with fans being made of animal skin, paper, lace or silk and often exquisitely decorated. Fans largely fell out of use after the First World War, except as a form of advertising.

This online display features a selection of fans and related items from our permanent collections.

Related Objects

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Feather fan
1920-1930 (c)
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Parchment fan
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Parchment fan
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Feather fan
1920 - 1930 (c)
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Ivory / paper fan
1880-1920(c)
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Feather fan
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Silk fan
1882
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Ostrich feather fan
1932
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Fan with oriental scenes
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Textile fan
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Chinese bamboo / paper fan
1889-1920(c)
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Silk fan
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Chinese fan
1880-1920(c)
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Ostrich feather fan
1920-1930 (c)
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Paper fan
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Framed ivory fan
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