‘Democratic and a great way to flirt’: wave hello to the handheld fan

Hiding behind sunglasses is so last year. With the UK and Europe facing a heatwave while rising energy prices drive up the cost of keeping cool, the It accessory for summer 2023 is a handheld fan.

In Seville, where temperatures soared above the June average to top 40C (104F) this week, concertina-fold fans were the standout style takeout from a Dior catwalk show. Abanicos Carbonell, a 200-year-old fan factory in Valencia, collaborated with the Parisian house of Dior to make black lace fans which swung from the models’ belts.

The cost of living crisis, a heatwave, the return of the sweaty commute after two summers in varying degrees of lockdown, and rising awareness of over-reliance on energy are conspiring to make the humble handheld fan cool. David Beckham posed with a pink and white one on holiday in Venice this week, while at Ascot, colourful fans have overtaken the Royal Enclosure’s top hats as the power accessory.

Lace top and flounced skirt
A black lace fan swings from the belt, paired with a lace top, by Dior in Seville this week. Photograph: Rex

Designer Maria Grazia Chiuri said before the show that she planned to introduce fans as “a new accessory category” in her Dior boutiques. Forty local dancers, performing a radical modern take on flamenco in a Seville square festooned by ropes of red carnations and roses, took centre stage in a show which was conceived to echo Seville’s traditional fiestas. Chiuri said she wanted the show to have dancing and live music so that it would “feel like one of those moments of communal celebration that are so strong in the lives of cities. A city is defined by those days when everyone comes together. Fashion is about both the everyday, and the extraordinary.”

The fan is a symbol of Spanish style which also has deep links to Venice, and to China. “Mediterranean culture has so many connections, within this area and outside, nothing is completely separate,” Chiuri said. “But there is still something formal about Spanish style that I find very beautiful.” She added that the clothes worn by younger generations were “not so contaminated by streetstyle”.

Decorative fans, still visible as a utilitarian accessory for keeping cool in the heat on the streets of Spanish cities, are now breaking free of their costume-museum image elsewhere.

Model wears hat, jacket and trousers with a partial skirt
A model on the catwalk at the Dior Cruise show on Thursday in Seville. Photograph: Rex

Daisy Hoppen is co-creative director of London-based Fern Fans, a label she launched with Amanda Borberg five years ago after seeing “a gap in the market” for paper fans. “They are accessible at any age, shape, size or gender, which makes them modern,” she says. “They are a democratic fashion accessory – my mother uses one on the train, my sisters take them to festivals. They are sustainable, not disposable. A well-made one can be kept in your handbag for ages. They are also a great way to flirt.”

Dior’s Spanish-themed show celebrated both the iconography of the Madonna – “When I was growing up in Rome, the Madonna, she was like our supermodel,” said Chiuri – and the more subversive story of the flamenco star Carmen Amaya, who scandalised 1950s Spain by dancing in the short jacket and high-waisted trousers of the male dancers, rather than the traditional flounced dress.

Chiuri took Amaya, who she said embedded “a conscious and plural femininity”, as her muse for the show. Jackets cropped high at the waist for freedom of movement brought together disparate elements of Spanish culture, from flamenco and traditional Andalusian horsemanship to bullfighting. Stills from Pedro Almodóvar films were also on Chiuri’s moodboard, because “those films were so important to women of my generation when we were growing up. These were incredible female characters who we recognised so strongly from our own families. I know, very well, these kind of women.”

The fan has a long history as a fashion accessory, as well as a device for keeping cool. Queen Elizabeth I liked to carry fans, believing they drew attention to her hands, which she believed to be one of her best features. The Darnley Portrait, painted in around 1575, shows her dressed in gold lace and pearls, while holding a fan of brightly coloured ostrich feathers. Karl Lagerfeld, a longtime devotee, prized fans for the privacy they offered in the spotlight, describing them as “like a wall between the world and myself”.

Fans have been reentering fashion’s atmosphere since 2017, when a rigid, paddle-shaped style Gucci version appeared first on the catwalk at Milan fashion week and, soon after, being wafted by Beyoncé in court side seats at packed basketball games. Rihanna included concertina fans in an athleisure collection for Puma, while Lupita Nyong’o carried a rainbow-coloured feather fan to the Met Gala in 2019. London designer Christopher Kane sells paper fans which, unfurled, read “More joy”, or “Sex’”.

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