Friday, August 5, 2011

The Language of Fans

With the days being excessively hot lately, there are two accesories I wish I possessed for the hot summer months, a parasol and a fan. I know fans are fairly easy to find, but finding the right one that suits me, is the challenge. This got me thinking about what used to be a common accesory during the 19th century. As you can imagine, crowded social events coupled with wearing layers of petticoats and crinoline, and a tight corset must of been a recipe for overheating. A fan was a necessary item, to keep onesself cool. It was also a fashion accesory and a tool to flirt with. I remember hearing that there was even a "fan language" used for flirting with men.

During the Victorian era, it was considered improper in polite society for women to approach men in public.(I would of made a terrible Victorian lady, or atleast a very scandalous one). If you were interested in a man you had to be formally intorduced to him by an acquaintance. Even then, after the introduction, it was the man who did all the advancing. A woman could not be seen either as openly rejecting a man, even if he was clearly objectionable, or of being too eager and flirtatious. Also as courtship was in public under the watchful eyes of others, women developed subtle cues and signals as a way to commuincate with lovers. One of these ways was with movement and gestures using fans.

Fan language supposedly began in Spain during the 1600s and can still be seen in some types of traditional Spanish dance. It eventually spread from there to other parts of Europe. Historians have debated if this fan language was real or not, some saying that it is just a romantic notion that was never actually practiced. Still others say that it was a language passed between women and meanings varied in different areas. Some of the gestures and their meanings are listed below.

Fan held in the left hand: I am alone or I would like to meet you.
Fan held in the right hand: I am married, engaged.
Fast Fanning: I am married (also maybe just - It's hot in here).
Held against the left ear: You are changed
Twirling the fan in the left hand: I no longer want you.
Twirling a fan in the right hand: I love another.
Fanning with the left hand: Come closer and speak to me
Fanning with the right hand: I want to dance.
Opening the fan in a brisk movement: Don't come near, wait for my signal.
Closing the fan in a brisk movement: You don't love me anymore.
Fan held close to the heart: I am in love with you.
Fan held close to the right shoulder: Do not give away our secret.
Fan resting against the right cheek: When can we meet alone? or Yes
Fan resting against the left cheek: You wound me. or No.
Fan hiding the face with the right hand: Follow me.
Fan hiding the face with the left hand: I love another man.
Snatching the fan and holding it with both hands: or Drawing the fan across the eyes: I am sorry.
Snatching the fan, holding it with both hands and upside down: I will get my revenge.
Fan held against the lips: You can kiss me now.
Opening a fan wide: Wait for me.
Partially opening the fan: The number of ribs visible indicates a specific hour, counting from 9 o'clock in the morning.
Pretending to look attentively at the pattern of the fan or drawing the fan across the head: We are being watched.
Dropping the fan: I just want to be friends.
Running a finger along the edge of the open fan: You are cruel to me.
Drawing a fan through your hand quickly: I hate you.

Looking at the list of meanings and movements, I wonder if young men actually understood these gestures or were even paying attention. Also did young women who were absently fanning themselves send incorrect signals to men by accident? Did they get scolded for certain fan movements by the chaperons? While I think this is very poetic, I am very glad to live in a day, where I don't have to resort to subtle gestures of a fan if I like a man.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone


  1. If a fan against the lips means "kiss me", wouldn't that be hard with the fan there? Just a thought ;) Good article Lou!

  2. This is such a romantic notion! I love this post! Although, that is a LOT of subtle movements that mean very different things!

  3. Talk about confusing. I could easily see some guy (or, more likely, another girl) misinterpreting some young woman's "fan signals." If fan language did exist, I wonder how its interpretations led to further gossip amongst females?

  4. I've wondered too if this language was reality, or a romantic myth. It does sound so elegant... You definitely need to get a good fan. I found a lovely Battenburg lace one on eBay that I adore!

  5. hello there; I am very fascinated by the Victorian era and really like your blog. This post is great because I had no idea about the nuance of "fan language" I am willing to bet that these gestures were most effective when used in conjunction with eye contact.

  6. Thanks for the lovely comments everyone!
    @Unlacing the Victorians, I wonder if it created gossip amongst women to. "ooh she put a fan to her lips, you know what that means" etc.
    @VictorianKittty I'm still on the hunt for a fan. Is the Battenburg lace fan, the one you had in your blog a couple of weeks ago? Love that fan.

  7. I've too wondered if the language was real or not. It'd be cute to think though of mothers teaching their daughters the different gestures as their daughters grow up to being a woman.
    I collect fans but it took me forever to find a parasol! I ended up getting one that came with a matching fan and its now my most used fan. They're nice for keeping me cool but I unfortunately can't avoid the sun (or getting burned it seems) while I'm riding outside. Don't think many horses would stand for a scary parasol on top of it!