THE PROPER maiden in 18th-century Spain would sooner be seen in public without shoes than without a fan. Depending upon which cheek she let it rest, she could say "yes" or "no" among other things, to an interested gentleman across the room.

The hand fan is re-emerging as a novel accessory, collectible and a conversation piece. Many gift shops (especially Oriental) and department stores are selling them again, or still.

Lotus Imports has a perfumed, carved sandalwood fan for $8.50; one of silk and bamboo for $9.50. Neiman Marcus has among its collection a bridal fan, all white lace and Pearls for $20. When you think about it, it's not a bad way at all to say "yes."

The beautiful, centuries-old hand fans of world cultures are now priceless objects d'art seen only in museums. The Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology has fans of past presidents' wives on display in its First Ladies exhibit.

"A Collector's History of Fans" by Vancy Armstrong (Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., $15), traces the origins of fans and their uses to as early as 600 A.D., then follows the development of the fan as a cultural mainstay up to the present.

The Far East is credited for the beginnings of personal fan use - China for the first painted fans, Japan for those that fold. The fan had a sturdy reputation in the ancient civilizations of Africa and Egypt as a prop for civil and religious ceremonies.

Fans were the products of laborious artistic creation involving precious metals, stones, carved wood or ivory and brilliantly colored feathers. They were often presented to the victor of a battle. The fan is still associated with religion, remaining as familiar as heat itselt to the faithful cardboard-waving congregation who donated to the church's air-conditioning fund. Several area churches, as well as funeral homes, use this cardboard-and-wooden stick variety as an advertising medium.

The hand fan, not unlike most historically manual objects, has not escaped the fate of modern technology. Today its electrical counterpart is a necessary ventilation appliance, as an alternative or supplement to air conditioning.

The common electric varieties for home and industrial use can be bought in the appliance centers of most major department stores, or at electrical supply companies which also offer discount prices.

Familiar models include the airspread - big (50-to-80-pound) fans that rest on pole stands or mount on walls, tables, ceilings or beams, and are generally used for cooling large areas such as stores and offices. Others are the window fan, oscillator, and rollaway. Prices of these fans vary from store to store, but none of these models usually exceeds $100. For special ventilating jobs, there are several kitchen and bathroom fan-light combinations and attic designs.

A disc-shaped attic exhaust mounts inside on the roof and, as it skims rising heat away from the attic, reduces the total house temperature by, the maker says, at least 10 degrees. This design is about 14 inches in diameter and made of aluminium, often coated with baked enamel. It automatically starts when the attic temperature rises to 95 degrees farenheit, and stops when the temperature drops to 90, raising and lowering its own lid in accord with the motor. Manufactured by NuTone, it is available at the Atlantic Electric Supply Co., 3726 10th St. Ne, and Maurice Electrical Supply Co., 1134 11th St. NW. Prices range from $105 to $165.

One of the most interesting of fans, the old-fashioned ceiling fan, is again becoming an important interior decoration. Samuel Malickson, proprietor of the Atlantic Electric and Supply Corp., says "the demand for these Casablanca fans has increased tremendously. I can't even keep them in stock now. People like them because they're different, they move the hot air up in summer, and in winter, they circulate the warm air collected near the ceiling downward." Atlantic sells the Hunter ceiling or "paddleboard" fan. Hunter was the company that invented the ceiling fan in 1903 and still makes it in two sizes (36 or 52 inch), five motor finishes and three blade finishes that can be ordered in any combination. Hunter's ceiling fans cost between $175 and $500.

Ceiling fans also are available at other Washington area electrical stores and by mail. For example, Sears offers two models of ceiling fans, with sturdy plastic wood-colored blades in either 36-inch ($99.99) or 52-inch ($129.99) sizes and variable-speed control. Both models can be fitted with a light fixture (for an additional cost of $16.99) and can be installed so that the light and fan can be operated together or independently from either a wall switch or pull chord. Both are special-order items, and directions and materials needed for installation are included. CAPTION: Illustration 1, Once an essential, hand fans are re-emerging as a novel accessory. Drawing by Charles Dana Cibson; Illustration 2, Neiman-Marcus includes in its collection a bridal fan of lace and pearls for $20. Photo by Joe Helberger - The Washington Post; Illustration 3, Hand fans belonging to the wives of President Hoover left and President McKinley., Photos from the Smithsonian's National Museum of History and Technology