This has been an extraordinarily punishing summer in the northern hemisphere. Sweaty people from Shimanto, Japan to Salamanca, Spain are desperate for any relief from the daily inferno.
Air conditioner units are flying off the shelf in China; Finns are holding sleepovers in cool grocery stores; and the looming electric fan shortage in the UK threatens to unhinge the usually unflappable Brits. Worse, it appears that heatwaves are here to stay. A 2017 study published in Nature suggests that three out of four people in the world will soon have to endure about 20 days of extreme heat and hair-frizzing humidity each year, if greenhouse gases levels continue rising at their current levels.
All this calls for the revival of a genius centuries-old cooling device: the hand fan. An evolution from palm fronds in ancient Egypt, hand fans offer an effective and stylish way to quickly cool oneself, no batteries or electricity required.
A good folding hand fan can be found online for under $10. E-commerce sites Amazon, Oriental Trading Company, and Etsy offer an assortment of styles and materials. In the US, hand fans are often sold in bulk as wedding favors. So for the best deal, buy a few to share, and be the hero of any sweaty situation. Sandalwood varieties are plentiful but know that they can sometimes emit a dizzyingly strong odor. Also skip small, flimsy paper fans that are more decorative than cooling. For those willing to invest in a designer-label fan, you can get a Supreme “Sasquatchfabrix” hand fan for about $100.
People in countries that have always had warm climates know better than to leave the house without a hand fan. In Thailand, colorful woven fans not only banish hot air, but also serve as an impromptu sun shades and insect swatters. Similarly, in the Philippines the “abanico” or “pamaypay” is especially useful during the country’s frequent power outages. When the AC fails, parents or nannies fan children to sleep and shoo away mosquitos with great sweeping motions. In Mexico, foldable fans are essential in long queues. “If you didn’t plan ahead, your best bet is to dig a random piece of paper from your purse or pocket to fashion into a makeshift version to move the air, however slightly, between you and your line-mates,” writes Quartz’s Ana Campoy.
A hand fan is also useful in long ceremonies. Churchgoers in the American south, Spain, and the Philippines wield fans for air circulation and for warding off weird smells. Vigorous fanning can also be the only activity keeping bored parishioners from nodding off during lengthy sermons.
A fan is not just an accessory for ladies. Men use them to cool themselves or gallantly fan their companions and girlfriends. The e-commerce site “a Cool Breeze” even has a selection designed to fit in a man’s shirt pocket.
For three decades, fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld brandished an old-fashioned Japanese hand fan as his signature accessory. According to one protégé, Chanel’s creative director also occasionally wielded it as a weapon. “When you were being difficult he’d hit you with it,” designer Julien Macdonald told Vogue. “He’d taunt you then hit you with it—it was all done in a joking way and never done very hard, but I do remember it quite clearly. It was his alternative to a stick I suppose.”
Lagerfield wasn’t the first to weaponize fans; they have a history in warfare. Samurais used metal “war fans” as covert weaponry. Tessen or gunbai fans were used to deflect arrows, flying knives or to signal to troops.
Still, Westerners came to consider the fan a frivolous object. Blame European aristocrats who used the fixed fans called pien-mien models from China and the folding “akomeōgi ” format from Japan to showcase their wealth. When they first arrived in Europe, hand fans were considered toys for the elite. Queen Elizabeth I, in particular, loved posing for portraits holding an elaborate and not particularly functional-looking fan. Made of exotic feathers and studded with jewels, the Tudor queen established the fan as the quintessential fashion accessory for the leisure class.
Victorians even developed a secret language of fans. In the 1900’s, several pamphlets outlined how fans were used in the courtship rituals. A fascinating segment from the 1955 film Fans decodes some of these secret cues: A fan held in front of the face means “follow me,” for instance. And a fan placed near the left ear is a signal that the woman wants her suitor to leave her alone.
Similarly, a 1932 silent film from British Pathé’s archives titled Language of a Fan decodes more romantic shenanigans conveyed via fan signals. A closed fan pointed at the lips meant “I’m married but you may kiss me.”
The hand fan’s coy sign language probably won’t work in the #MeToo era. But its original function, as a personal cooling device, remains undiminished. When the planet feels like it’s melting, an elegant, eco-friendly hand fan is just the thing.