Beauty in Hand
Used as simple tools, the first fans provided a cooling breeze, stirred up fires, or winnowed grains. These fans, probably made of leaves or plaited grasses, were in use throughout Asia, Southeast Asia, Egypt, and Ancient Greece and Rome. The nineteenth century Chinese example of a plaited palm-leaf fan in this gallery is descended from these early fans, as shown by its resemblance to the fan held by the Greek tanagra figure, also in this gallery.
Eventually the fan's decorative possibilities were discovered, and in this more elegant form it became associated with people of rank and status. Intricate fans decorated with feather mosaics were used for ceremonial purposes by the ruling Aztecs and Incas of Central and South America, while in China and Japan rigid and folding fans, painted by leading artists, became objects of connoisseurship. Rulers in India preferred the peacock-feather fan whose "thousand eyes" symbolized constant vigilance over the kingdom.
At the end of the fifteenth century, Europe was introduced to South American and Asian fans as a result of the discoveries of Columbus and the opening of the East to the China trade. The fan's great beauty and luxury made it a much sought-after status symbol. Feather fans and, later, folding fans were seen in the hands of many of Europe' s monarchs and aristocracy. The fan became a noticeable favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, who appreciated the fact that it helped to accentuate the beauty of her hands, of which she was very proud. She is often portrayed holding a white ostrich-feather fan; a descendant of the first feather fans brought back by Columbus, it also acted as a symbol of England's growth as a sea power.
At the same time feather fans were introduced into Europe by Columbus, the first Asian folding fans entered Italy via the ships of the early Portuguese traders with the East, who enjoyed Papal trade concessions. The folding fans of the East quickly became popular throughout Italy and soon spread through the rest of Europe, reaching England by the beginning of the sixteenth century. By this time the fan had become a treasured fashion accessory used by the aristocracy throughout Europe.