Indian peacock feather fan, contemporary, after traditional circular pattern
[click on the foto for more information]



Elizabeth I. with a rigid white feather fan, detail of a red chalk drawing by Zuccaro1574 (see Website, with many more portraits with fans)


"Ladies on horse-back" after M. Merian 1616, from: G. Buss, Der Fächer, Library No. 54


History of the Feather Fan

Feathers are, together with palm and other big leaves, the oldest material used for fanning and to produce fans. Big feathers like those from ostriches, or entire bird wings are "natural" fans. The use of feathers for fans developed parallel to the development of fans in general.
"The Son of Heaven (=emperor) uses a feather fan in summer" (Chinese source, quoted in "Fans from the East", Library No. 76). Countries like China or India, but also Egypt produced feather fans as early as the second millennium B.C. (as we know from written sources). One of the oldest discoveries was the golden fan mount of Tuth-ankh-Amun's tomb. A semi-circle on top of a stick, it displays small openings on the top where ostrich feathers were inserted. Impressive feather fans became a symbol of sovereign power. These fans were mostly huge and had to be handled by slaves (see also "peacock's pleadings" about (peacock) feather fans in antique Europe and in Christian liturgy).

Small hand feather fans consisted of small bundled feathers that were used to fan the fire, to whisk away flies, but also to "harvest" salt from sea water. They must have looked a bit like feather-dusters that can be considered a derivative of fans (especially from fly-whisks). The German word for feather-duster reflects old-German names for fans. Small, traditional peacock feather fans are still produced in India following the old circular pattern (see fig. 1).

In Mexico, the Aztecs used the colourful feathers of the quetzal for ceremony garments and fans. The only sample existing today is the circular mosaic-like feather fan in the ethnographic museum of Vienna (Völkerkunde-Museum Wien). Its date is estimated to be the early 16th century, due to a depicted butterfly in the centre of the fan that shows clear European features of the time (see fig.2).

First period of feather fans in Europe: Renaissance - Baroque

Greek and Roman writers mention feather fans in antique Europe. According to pictures on vases, they were most probably peacock feather fans. The Golden Season for feather fans in Europe started in the Renaissance era. From early 15th century to the end of the 17th century, feather fans were a fashion accessory of the European lady. Their format was manifold, but all were rigid, with a handle and a tuft of feathers (see fig. 5) or 1-3 ostrich feathers (see fig.4). Elizabeth I. of England (1533-1603) had a special liking for fans. She declared that "the only gift worthy a Queen are fans". This originated probably in a certain vanity, given that Elizabeth had very beautiful hands, and holding a fan emphasised that beauty and attracted the views to them. (see fig. 3).

Renaissance Italy was predominant where fashion was concerned, including fans. In Venice, feather fans were reserved for married women whereas young girls and brides (but also Courtesans) used flag fans (best example is Titian's famous painting of his daughter Lavinia, "Lady in White", NAtional Gallery Dresden, Germany). Italy was also renowned for colouring ostrich feathers into all fashionable colours (a tradition to be taken up again only at the end of the 19th century). In 1512, the Venetian senate felt the need to moderate luxury expenditure and forbade by decree feather fans (and other sumptuous materials such as lynx and sable), see p. 19, Library No. 21.

None of these fans survived and our knowledge about them derives from contemporary artists, painters and engravers.

In 1533, Catarina di Medici (1519-1589) married the French king Henry II. She introduced Italian fashion and fashionable accessories into the French Court (amongst them, fans) and was followed in her endeavour by Maria di Medici who married Henry IV. of France in 1600. Soon, France became predominant in fashion and fan production. Through the "invention" of the folding fan during the 16th century, the twilight of feather fans started. One single illustration of a folding feather fan from this period is known. It anticipates the format of the ostrich feather fans of the end of the 19th century (see fig. 6). During the Golden Era of the fan, the 18th century, feather fans had fallen into oblivion.



Aztec fan, early 16 c.
© Völkerkunde-Museum Wien


Detail of the portrait of Maria de Tassis by A. van Dyck, ca. 1629/30,
© Collections of the Duke of Liechtenstein, Vaduz

Portrait of a lady with fan by Carlo Ceresa, ca. 1680, from: I ventagli della Raccolta Sottocasa, Library No.69


©mm ausser Zitaten und anderen Quellenangaben