(this site offers reproduction period fans for cheap !!!)

Costuming in the Renaissance


Excerpt from


By Katherine Morris Lester and Bess Viola Oerke

Chapter 33


The fan, like the sunshade, originated in tropical countries. Here it was in daily service as a protection against the sun, as a means of cooling the air, driving away bothers insects and, when necessary, fanning the fire into a flame. In the Far East the fan was extensively employed in the service of religion, but its use as a costume accessory also dates back to remote antiquity. Some authorities state that the fan was known in China three thousand years ago. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Hebrews, Chinese, Japanese, and the people of India used fans as far back as their records of history go. 

Among Eastern potentates, the fan was a badge of rank. The dignity of these rulers required that their fans be carried by slaves or attendants. The ancient form of the fan is therefor pictured with a long handle, and resembles a standard. Figure 529 A wall painting at Thebes pictures twenty-three sons of Rameses the Great in a procession, each carrying a ceremonial fan of semicircular shape attached to a long staff. The office of fan bearer to an Egyptian king was one of high honor, one to which only princes and other sons of the highest nobility could aspire. Figure 529. These attendants served standing at the right and left of the monarch as he sat in state; they attended him when he rode forth and during ceremonies in the temple. When not serving in the capacity of the fan bearer, they waited upon the king as members of his staff or in some other service of distinction.



Another ancient record of the fan is seen in an Assyrian bas-relief, now in the British Museum. This pictures a king of 880-860 B.C. being fanned by attendants. Figure 530. A Persian relief likewise represents the king of that country seated on his throne with attendants behind him bearing fans. In China, at the palace of Peking, a number of fans sawed from ivory are exhibited which date from about 1000 B.C. They have handles of gold and silver filigree combined with mother-of-pearl. It is the Chinese, in fact, who claim to have invented the fan, and they trace its origin to legendary sources. According to the tale, Langsen, the daughter of an all-powerful mandarin, was present at the Feast of Lanterns. About to succumb from the heat, she broke all traditions by removing the mask, which she wore. She held it near enough, however, to hide her features, waving it rapidly to and fro. Immediately, says legend, this caprice set the fashion of fans.

Europe acquired the fan from the East. Ancient Greek writers often refer to fans, and illustrations of fans may be seen on Greek vases. Figure 531. Here, as in oriental countries, the large fans with long handles were usually carried by slaves in the service of their masters. In Orestes, the words of the Phrygian slave affirm: "I fanned Helen’s cheeks and airy curls with a winged fan of round and graceful shape" – Euripides, Orestes

However, small fans carried by Greek women occasionally appear in vase paintings. About 500 B.C. the fan made of peacock feathers was in use. Some of these were probably only a tuft of feathers set in a handle; others no doubt were arranged so that their color and markings formed a pattern. The peacock was known as the bird of Hera (Juno, to the Romans) and was held as a symbol of refinement and luxury; hence it is not difficult to understand the Grecian woman’s preference for the fan of peacock feathers. During the late centuries, fans were made by stretching linen or silk over a frame shaped like a leaf. According to Winckelmann, the first fans in imitation of leaves were triangular in shape. They were inspired, without doubt, by the palm leaf and other fronds, which had been used in earliest times and had furnished the original idea.

Roman authorities refer to the fan as being of service in keeping away the flies. Their fans continued the curved leaf shape but were made of thin, delicately carved wood elaborately gilded and painted. The patrician woman of Rome was provided with slaves who attended her as fan bearers, for no highborn lady was even to be suspected fanning herself. We hear, however, that later Roman beauties carried their own fans. For general cooling of the air within the lofty apartments of the Roman villas, great bunches of ostrich plumes tinted in various colors were suspended from gilded ceilings.

Middle Ages



In Western Europe during the Middle Ages nothing is heard of the fan in the everyday life of the people, and the inference is that it had disappeared. The old ceremonial use, however, coming down from the ancients, was kept alive in the churches. The long-handled, disk-shaped fan was held by the deacons and used by them to drive away insects from the sacramental vessels. In the early inventories, the flabellum, this large fan carried by church attendants, is frequently mentioned as used in this service. These ceremonial fans were radial in form, with long handles. The fan proper was made of various materials, feathers, parchment, silk, and wood; many of them could be folded, a la cocarde, and resembled the wheel-shaped fan of later days. One of the most famous of these early fans is that from the Abbey of Tournus, dating from the ninth century and now preserved in the National Museum of Florence. Figure 532. This remarkable example is formed of a strip of vellum folded a la cocarde. It is painted on both sides. The outer border consists of a continuous scroll of Romanesque ornament. Inscriptions in Latin fill in the three concentric circles. Figures of the saints separated by little conventional trees fill the second large space. The handle is formed by four cylinders of white bone. The two larger pieces are ornamented by semi-naturalistic foliage and running spirals; the two lower are fluted. The cylinders are joined by pommels painted green. The upper one supports a capital with four figures of saints. On the capital rests the long guard or box, which receives the fan when closed. The four sides are white bone elaborately carved. This famous specimen, one of the few which has been preserved, may be regarded as a characteristic type of the ancient flabellum.

The gradual reappearance of the fan in Europe during the early thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was due to the many unique examples of Eastern fans brought into the country by returning Crusaders. Japan is credited with having invented the folding fan about 670 A.D. In the tenth century it was introduced into China, and from there it undoubtedly reached Europe. Authorities disagree as to which of the European countries first introduced it, though a general feeling exists that Italy was probably the leader.

Among the earliest records of fans are the esmouchoirs or "fly whisks." This particular type of fan seems to have been employed for the same purpose as the modern fly brush – so generally used in Egypt-to keep away insects. Figure 533. Following the flywhisk there probably came the fly fan, that is a fixed fan with the blade set firmly in a handle. Proof of these fly fans in the fourteenth century is contained in a record of 1316 in which it is stated that the Countress Mahant d’Artois had a "fly-fan of cloth of gold fleur-de-lis ornamented with the arms of France and Navarre, with a bastion of ivory and jet valued in the will of Jeanne d’Evereau. An inventory of Charles V of France (1364-80) records a "fan of round form which folds." These two types, the fixed fan and the folding, wheel-shaped or cockade fan were the earliest forms in use on the continent. These were in the possession only of the wealthy and may not have been considered a part of personal costume, for they were always carried by servants or used as part of the furnishings of private chapels. Fans did not become a distinct part of costume until milady carried her own fan in her own hand. This came to be general in the early sixteenth century. Miniatures of this period begin to show women with long-handled, disk-shaped fan, tuft fans, and a little flag fan.




The flag fan, the long-handled, disk-shaped fan, and the tuft fan were in use in the fourteenth century and even earlier. Figures 534,535,536. The tuft fan had been in use as early as the twelfth century. In the sixteenth century these were made of the plumage of the ostrich and peacock dyed various colors, with feathers varying in number from one to twenty. Sometimes feathers were arranged in overlapping series suggesting their natural growth. They were set in beautiful handles of carved ivory, gold, or silver, frequently richly jeweled. Figure 537. These costly handles were a very important item of permanent value. The feathers, vellum, or parchment were less durable, and could be replaced from time to time. For the folding fans, which appeared later, the precious metals were not so suitable and consequently ivory, bone, tortoise shell, and mother-of-pearl come to be the popular materials for sticks.



The flag fan, sometimes called the "key" or "weather vane" fan, Figure 534, seems to have been in use during the earlier centuries. Its form had undoubtedly come from the East, where a similar type was in use. It was during the early sixteenth century that it came to be very fashionable in Italy, particularly in Venice. This was a fixed fan of oblong shape with the handle attached to one long edge. The blade was made of plaited straw of various colors, of linen painted or embroidered, of parchment, vellum, or silk. Figure 538. The more ornate of these were carried by matrons, while newly married women or those betrothed carried flag fans of a dainty whiteness. Since the popularity of these fans were largely limited to Italy, they are always associated with the fashions of this country, Lavinia, the daughter of Titian, in her portrait as a young girl (1550) carries a flag fan; some years later she is pictured with a feathered fan, significant of venetian nobility. Figure 540. In several famous portraits both Titian and Veronese have each preserved the exact type of flag fan.

In 1550 screen fans, which resembled the disk fan, reached France. These were called "screen fans" because they served admirably as a screen, shielding the eyes of the fair bearer from the hot rays of Parisian sunshine. Many of these resembled a folding fan but did not fold. They were spread in deep, permanent pleats. During the same period Catherine de0Medici brought the new folding fan from Italy into France. These fans of heavily scented leather coming from the Orient had been in use from some time in Spain and reached the continent through that country.

The earliest form of folding fan used in Italy was probably the so-called "duck’s foot" fan, so popular with the ladies of Ferrara. Figure 538. This opened only a quarter of a circle, and instead of being made of leather it was formed of alternate strips of mica and vellum, sometimes daintily painted, Others were formed of paper, the surface cut in geometric patterns of circles and lozenges with bits of mica inserted at intervals, giving unusual richness to the fan. The sticks were usually of ivory. The popularity of mica, introduced about the middle of the sixteenth century, grew to such an extent that all the leaves of fans frequently cam to be made of this material. These various styles of the early folded fan represent the type which reached its ultimate perfection in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Commenting on the new folding fans, Henri Estienne, who write in the late sixteenth century, describes it in the hands of King Henry III, "In his right hand was placed an instrument which extended and folded again with the touch of a finger. We call it here a fan." According to Pierre de l’Etoile, Henry’s fan could be unfurled with a swift motion of the hand and was large enough to shield his delicate complexion from the sun. And now handsome folding fans vied with beautiful feathered fans. The fan was, indeed, the indispensable accessory of every toilet. "So much are they used now," says Henri Estienne, "that once used, they cannot abandon them; but they use them in summer to make air and keep away the heat of the sun, and in winter to keep away the heat of the fire."



Under Henry IV (1589-1610), the fashion for fans was sufficiently general to give rise to a manufacture of considerable extent. The right to manufacture was first authorized in December 1564 by an act which established a company made up of tradesmen who made the fans, and master gilders, who decorated them. The gilders were authorized "to garnish fans made from sheepskin, silk, goatskin, enriched and ornamented, as may please the merchant and the lord who may order them." A later decree, passed about 1660, deprived them of this right and gave the tradesmen "the right of having painted and gilded fans done by any painters and gilders and of having them mounted as might please them."

Through the earliest record of a fan in England is said to date about 1307, the general acceptance of this fashionable accessory was almost contemporary with its use in France. The fan was brought into England from Italy during the Renaissance period. Throughout the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary, Elizabeth, and James, the fan maintained its place in fashion. As in France, the most popular fans were the large screen fans of ostrich feathers with carved ivory, gold and silver handles. Queen Elizabeth found particular delight in fans, as she did in gloves, ruffs, and kerchiefs. She is said to have remarked at one time that a fan was the only gift a sovereign should receive from her subjects. She is, consequently, said to have been presented with innumerable fans. Leicester’s New Year’s gift in 1574 is recorded thus:

A fan of white feathers set in a handle of gold garnished on one side with two very fair emeralds, and fully garnished with diamonds and rubies; the other side garnished with rubies and diamonds. . . .

The famous portrait of the Queen by Zuccario pictures the royal lady carrying a handsome fan of the period. Plate XLV. Other historic paintings show that the beautiful fan of feathers continued to hold first place for years to come.


Excerpt from


By Herbert Norris: E.P. Dutton and Co. Inc.

Page 50. The Fan (continued from p. 224)

The Italian banner-shaped fan continued in general use during the remainder of the sixteenth century, but chiefly among the women of Italy and especially the ladies of Venice. They were sarcastically termed "fly whisk" by Westerners.

A beautiful Italian feather fan is shown in Fig. 586, composed of five straight and uncurled ostrich feathers rising from a group of curled tips, with a rigid handle of ivory and gold. Such a fan formed the model of those used by the great ladies of Europe during the second half of the sixteenth century, and in England throughout Queen Elizabeth's reign.


On the Queen's accession, she artlessly let it be known that the most acceptable gift that she could receive from her subjects was a fan--although she did not decline presents of other kinds, The City Fathers did not need a second hint: on every New Year's Day they brought their Royal mistress, with becoming humility, a rich and beautiful fan. In such gifts they wisely did not stint themselves,

In many portraits of the Queen she is seen holding a feather fan in her hand,

fig 586.gif (39287 bytes)                                                    fig 587.gif (24137 bytes)

attached by a narrow ferret or riband to the girdle at her waist. Her wardrobe contained many such fans, and a few are described below. A fan belonging to the Queen in 1577 was of' ‘flowers of sylke of sundry colours, the handill of an inbrawdry worke set with small sede perle.' A fan presented to Her Majesty for a ‘Newyers-tyde' gift had the handle studded with diamonds, 'A fanne of white feathers, with a handle of gold, having two snakes wyndinge about it, garnished with a ball of diamonds at the ende, and a crowne on each side within a paire of wings garnished .with diamonds' was in the Queen's possession in I600. This description has inspired Fig. 587· 'One fanne of feathers of divers colours, the handle of golde, with a base

Page 507

and a ragged staffe on both sides [obviously a gift from some member of the Dudley family] and a looking glasse on throne side' proves that, contrary to report, Elizabeth actually carried a mirror.  Another example had 'one handle of golde enameled, set with small rubies and emerodes, with a Shipp under saile on throne side.' In the inventory of her wardrobe made in I603~ no fewer than thirty-one beautiful fans of great worth are enumerated. Some of these were of feathers and others of the new folding type. As much as , 40 was sometimes given for a fan in Elizabeth's time. (Continued on p, 628)


THE FAN (continued from .p. 507)

The feather fan, as described in Section I, held its own in spite of the rivalry of a new type, It was greatly appreciated for its. graceful line, and for the seductive flow of its plumes; besides, no one could possible deny its picturesque advantages, In France, the feather fan was pre-eminent, its use being stimulated by that leader of fashion, Marguerite de Valois, who had an extraordinary passion for magnificent fans, These cost a very great deal of money, which naturally aroused her husband's justifiable displeasure, Towards the end of the century the feather fan had become an almost indispensible item of the wardrobe of all ladies and gentlewomen, and even of the wives of the minor merchants, Some lines dated I598 show for what other purposes the feather fan might be used:

Were fannes and Aappes of feathers fond
To flit away the Aisking Aies ...
But seeing they are still in hand,
In house, in field, in church, in street
In summer, winter, water, land,
In colde, in heate, in dry, in weet,
I judge they are for wives such tooles
As babies are in playes for fooles,

Some of these fans had very long handles and were found very useful as husband beaters.

fanlady2.gif (274095 bytes)

XVIc. 1560 Italian, Venetian, (Vienna, Art History Museum.)

The fan is of a specifically Italian form, derived from Moslem lands, seen in particularly in Venice: rigid and fixed to a stick. Used by all classes, it ranged from stark simplicity to elaborate decorativeness, but in either case was fringed and tasseled.

Coryat was much struck by the Italian fans: "Most of them are very elegant and pretty things. For whereas the frame consisteth of a painted piece of paper and a little wooden handle; the paper which is fastened into the top is on both sides most curiously adorned with excellent pictures, either of amorous things tending to dalliance, having some witty Italian verse or fine emblemes written under them; or of some notable Italian city with a brief description thereof added thereunto. These fannes are of a meane price. For a man may buy one of the fairest of them for so much money as countervaileth with our English groat."

The rigid flay-fan seems to have been in intermittent use in Europe from the early centuries AD. They were made either of plaited straw of various colors, of linen painted and embroidered, of parchment or vellum, or of silk, woven and embroidered, often with a lozenge-shaped diapering. The earliest examples, which survive would appear to have Coptic or Saracenic origins. Two from the cemetery of Akhmin, the Greek Panopolis, are thought to belong to the period of the 4th to the 6th century AD. One of these is a finely plaited brown, red and black straw with a representation of four hearts encircling a cross, and the other is of a reticulated diapered pattern with a border of linen.