Ever since folding fans appeared in 17th-century Spain, they have come to symbolise traditional Spanish culture, hot Andalucian nights and flamenco. Yet the populist image of the fan has, ironically, been to its detriment. Since its decline in use from the late 19th century, it has become little more than a kitsch tourist souvenir. By the 21st century, the fan was on the brink of extinction in global mainstream fashion.
Of course, this was not always the case. In Europe, folding fans were originally the preserve of royalty. By the 18th century, they were a must-have for the fashionable set and essential for stuffy, crowded ballrooms. Fans were lavish: their montures (sticks and guards) were made from ivory and tortoiseshell, and studded with gold and precious stones; their leaves were hand-painted silk. Louis XVI of France even gave Marie Antoinette a diamond-encrusted fan as a wedding gift.
By World War I, the fan was out of use in most of Europe, except in Spain. Rather than dying out, the humble fan played an important social function. In deeply conservative Spain, where open flirtation was frowned upon, fans were used to exchange secret codes between lovers. The main gestures and their meanings became known as ‘the language of the fan’. A woman need only put her fan to her lips to let a man know he should kiss her, or draw the fan across her cheek to let him know that she loved him.
A recent revival, led by Spanish designers, suggests this elegant accessory is making a comeback. In 2009, Louis Vuitton produced a collection of fans that sold for €400 each. In conjunction with actress Rossy de Palma, Vuitton also designed an exclusive one-off that fetched €9,500 at a Madrid auction.
Last autumn in Paris, the city’s only remaining fanmaker, Duvelleroy, presented fans that were a combination of classic sophistication and contemporary style. The first collection by new owners Eloise Gilles and Raphaelle de Panafieu wowed with exquisite fans handmade from silk, feathers and state-of-the-art carbon fibre. ‘Fans are not only elegant and feminine, but they’re also super-practical,’ says de Panafieu. ‘Whenever I go out, to parties, to restaurants and especially to clubs, I always have mine.’
In Spain, the country’s cutting-edge designers are also paying homage to the fan. Ágatha Ruiz de La Prada reimagined the fan with colourful daisy and tulip prints and lollipop-stick montures. Meanwhile, the Association of Spanish Fashion Designers (ACME) recently launched Fans by Great Designers, a collection of 52 fans by 26 stars of Spanish design, including Ailanto, Alma Aguilar and David Delfín. Available in Madrid and Barcelona kiosks and online at planetadeagostini.es, these fans offer fashionable designs at affordable prices.
The fans from Barcelona-based Ailanto, designed by twin brothers Iñaki and Aitor Muñoz, have a delicate 19th-century air, with intricate flower designs set against a powder blue background. ‘We loved the idea of capturing Ailanto’s typical patterns in an object as iconic as a Spanish fan,’ says Iñaki Munoz.
Madrid-based designer Alma Aguilar used her trademark pastel pinks to create a pretty, feminine fan. ‘I enjoyed helping to reinvent something that we associate with our childhood and grandmothers on summer evenings. It’s a wonderful idea to upgrade the fan – to reconnect it to present and future generations.’
ACME president Modesto Lomba says fans have an ‘elegant and seductive’ appeal. ‘The fan is a timeless accessory that every woman customises to her personality and to her style of life.’
With major design houses, including Ágatha Ruiz de la Prada and Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, leading the fan renaissance with this summer’s collections, this classic accessory’s appeal looks set to soar once again.