Fans have been sending messages since their inception. Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, surrounded herself by slaves who fanned her in an effort to ward off the scorching heat. The fan was seen as a sacred instrument by the Egyptians and was used in religious ceremonies in many ancient cultures. It was a symbol of royal power.
Over time, fans became more than ceremonial symbols, tools to cool us, or another pretty accessory, they became an instrument for ladies to speak in secret code.
Allowing your wrist fan to do the talking became second nature to some in Regency England. During this time a person was often judged and defined by the cut of their jib, or in this situation, the fineness of your fan. Fans gained popularity in the 16th century, but these were fixed fans, often made from feathers or wood. The folding fan originated in Japan and over time came to replace the fixed fan by the end of the 17th century. Fixed fans had become gauche and a lady would be considered quite out of fashion is she carried one.
The folding fans, made from vellum or paper, were considered stylish, but they could be costly. Fans were often painted with historic commemorative events, Biblical passages, Asian, mythological, or pastoral scenes. Fans were used both in the day and night time hours, but eventually they were restricted to the evening. During the Regency period, Vernis Martin fans were highly sought. The Martin brothers came up with a special technique for the hand painted scenes, and their fans had the mother of pearl handle guards. Not only did artists partake in this new canvas, but ladies also took to painting their own fans.
There were three types of folding fans. The old folding type had sticks fastened together and pleated fabric or paper fastened to the sticks. The cockade fan was pleaded paper, attached with two sticks, and opened into a full circle, with the sticks forming the handle. From what I learned during my research, cockade fans were not used in ballrooms. The brisé fan had numerous sticks put together that were painted individually to form a scene.
Fans, like many accessories, followed fashion trends, and when dresses became more colorful and elaborate, so too did the fans. Over the centuries, a type of fan language evolved, this was likely a way for the young to cope with the stifling rules of social etiquette at the time. When proper decorum insisted that a lady could not approach a man they’re interested in or reject a man that they’re not, what is a lady to do? Seems they create their own type of sign language to send their rejections or encouragement with the hopes that parents will be none the wiser. I can’t imagine what occurs if you move your fan in a way that wasn’t intended, but I think it would be great to add to a story. Some historians argue that fan language didn’t exist. But Charles Francis Badini’s book, Fanology or Ladies’ Conversation Fan, was published in 1797 and fan usage was published in many etiquette books and magazines at the time. Perhaps it was all a ploy to gain more fan sales. Badini’s book listed the gestures and what these secret flicks of the wrist conveyed.
Here’s a small list of gestures from his book:
Carrying Open fan: come speak with me
Twirling the fan in the right hand: I love another
Twirling the fan in the left hand: We are being watched
Placing the fan near your heart: I love you
A half-closed fan pressed to the lips: You may kiss me
Letting the fan rest on the right cheek: Yes
Letting the fan rest on the left cheek: No
Dropping the fan: We will be friends
After reading a small portion of the gestures I tend to wonder how many men actually read the subtle clues ladies were giving them across a dance floor. Seems you could hold an entire conversation just by moving your fan. The fan reached its peak during the Victorian era, but they fell out of favor in the mid-20th century.
A special thank you to inkwellinspirations.com, angelpig.net, and ageofsteam.com