FANS have been around for centuries, probably since the dawn of time if we include waving big leaves in front of one’s face. The first man-made fan is agreed to be the rigid type, like those in the collage below. Made of wood, thick fabrics, leather, papier-mache, or big feathers closely stitched together into a single piece, the broad, flat screen was usually mounted onto a sturdy handle. These fans did not fold or collapse. The surface was always exquisitely painted or stitched with an array of scenes, flowers, religious imagery, animals, and more.
Called both a fixed fan or a hand screen, the two names convey the dual purpose of these gorgeous objects. A stiff, large, flat fan is arguably more efficient at moving air and cooling a person’s face than a lightweight fan. Perhaps not as easy to carry as the folding fans to come, but a fixed fan definitely did the intended job!
As a hand screen, it was even more valuable. Until well into the 20th century, houses were heated only by open fireplaces and stoves. The lack of insulation meant that many houses were drafty, requiring flames to be stoked hot and for the occupants to gather as close as possible to those flames.
A fixed fan was useful as a hand screen to protect a lady’s delicate skin from the fire’s glare and heat. Heaven forbid her cheeks get too ruddy! Worst yet, her perfectly applied wax-based make-up ran the risk of literally melting. Perish the thought! Holding an ornate, finely wrought, expensive hand screen in front of her face not only prevented the mentioned catastrophes, it was also another display of her wealth, excellent taste, and careful attention to her complexion (and by extension her whole body). We all know how critical this was, especially if she was still on the marriage market.
Folding fans came after the fixed fan, originating in the Far East, specifically Japan and China. No one knows exactly when they came into being and the inspirations for the designs are the stuff of legend… literally! One legend is that the Japanese modeled the folding wings of a bat.
Whatever the facts, it was not until the 1500s that the folding fan came to Europe by way of trade routes. It quickly became a stylish symbol of wealth and class, largely thanks to Caterina De’ Medici, who carried them in her trousseau at the French Court.
There are several different varieties of folding fans, based upon how they are constructed and designed. The cockade fan dates to the Medieval Era and is unique from the others insofar as being a hybrid. Made of broad, overlapping sticks or pleated paper attached to the two guards (as are most folded fans), the cockade fan differs by unfolding into a complete circle with the longer guards coming together as a handle.
The cockade fan‘s larger surface served as a hand screen, an added bonus since it was much more portable when folded than the one-piece hand screens. A folded cockade fan could fit into a reticule, or be tied to a lady’s wrist or waist with a pretty ribbon.
I have a large assortment of extant examples of fans (all types) from the period on Pinterest (click image to the left)