The "Secret" Language of Hand Fans

by Karen

The "Secret" Language of Hand Fans

While a decorative fan may seem old-fashioned by today’s standards, hand fans were a very popular accessory during the Victorian Era. The perfect combination of pretty and practical, these fans did more than just act as a stylish accent piece. How a woman carried her fan also had many implications. Victorians were well-versed when it came to “appropriate” behavior, and these staunch rules carried over into hand fan etiquette. In fact, there was an entire social language that centered around the actions and movements of ladies and their fashionable hand fans. Read on to learn more about these old-fashioned accessories and about how they were used to convey meaning in the Victorian era.


The History of this Practical Accessory

While it might seem like a foreign idea now, carrying a fan was quite common during the Victorian era. During the 19th century, women in society were expected to adhere to strict social rules. This included their clothing and accessory choices. Typically, a Victorian woman was expected to wear a tight-fitting corset under a large dress featuring heavy fabrics and a billowing skirt. These difficult garments were even more cumbersome in summer, when warm weather would make women even more uncomfortable than usual. When you think about the practical aspects of wearing these outfits, it makes sense that fans were a desired accessory. After all, the absence of air conditioning made even indoor conditions hot and humid. In the early 1800s, hand fans were small and delicate. The styles that were popular among women during the early 1800s were referred to as “brise fans.” These delicate fans were simple, straightforward, and were rarely decorative or fashionable. Instead, they were constructed from plain pieces of ivory or wood that were linked together in a rudimentary way. Beginning in 1840, fans started to become stylish and fashion-forward accessories. As the trend caught on, fans were eventually imported from the far East. China and Japan were the leading retailers of decorative fans. Eventually, French artisans began creating attractive and artistic fans when the trend became stylish in Europe and North America. For members of Victorian aristocracy, fans were a must-have item. Because they were carried by members of the upper-class, many fans from the mid-1800s are lavish and opulent in design. Their sticks were manufactured from stiff materials like wood, bone, or ivory. Their interior was also decorated to give them added appeal. The inlays often featured organic floral patterns. Depending on their place of origin, fans could also feature images of landscapes or animals such as birds or horses. Fans manufactured between 1840 and 1860 measured 6” - 10” in length. Victorians were constantly concerned about social status and would mimic the behaviors of the upper-class to appear more refined and sophisticated. Because fans were popular with members of the aristocracy, eventually lower-class members of society wanted to own them as well. When fans became more popular with the masses, they were mass produced so that they were more affordable. Materials like thin, balsam wood started to be used to create fans in the later parts of the 1800s. By 1875, fans were a commonplace accessory. It was the norm for ladies of all social classes to include decorative fans as part of their ensemble. This is also why many of the vintage fans that are still around today hail from the latter part of the 19th century. As fans became more popular, their appearance and design became much more elaborate. Fans from the end of the 19th century featured leaves made of satin or silk. Marabou trim was also a desirable feature in fan designs. Similarly, quills or feathers became in vogue when it came to creating fans that were even more elegant in appearance. These feathers were also dyed attractive colors to make them even more appealing to fashionable Victorian women. In the 1870s, ostrich feathers were the material of choice when it came to decorative fans. Typically monochromatic in design, fans manufactured from ostrich feathers also included tortoise shell sticks to enhance their appeal. These fans eventually went out of style and were replaced by lace hand fans of Spanish origin. Chantilly lace or point lace became the desired fabric when it came to constructing fans that fashionable women wanted to be seen with. In the late 1800s, fans also became much more substantial. The average size for fans from 1880 onward ranged anywhere from 14” - 16in length. It was also more common to see fans with an elliptical - rather than circular - shape. These Fontange-style fans are usually the image people conjure up when picture fans from this era. Shaped like a half-circle, these fans opened with merely the flick of a wrist. They also featured sticks that were shorter in the middle and longer on each end. Once again, they were painted or embroidered with vibrant colors, decorative scenes, and intricate artwork. As hand fans grew in popularity towards the end of the 1800s, their style became more sophisticated. It wasn’t uncommon for fans from the 1880s or 1890s to feature 3D petals, flowers, or leaves. Muslin also became a frequently used fabric due to its highly durable nature. Like all trends, fan styles eventually repeated themselves. Towards the end of the 1800s, “empire fans,” which closely resembled brise fans, once again were the most fashionable variety among upper class Victorian women.

The Language of Fans

While the Victorians were notoriously demure and modest, they skirted these strict social rules by speaking in special codes. Women often used gloves and parasols to convey specific meanings to members of the opposite sex. As fans became more commonplace, they also were used to express sentiments or communicate messages. Courtship was serious business during the 1800s. Women were required to always act like proper ladies in public. That is why hand fans or other accessories were used to get their opinions across to others. It’s somewhat ingenious to consider that women during this highly conservative and repressive era created their own language to express their opinions to others in an appropriate - albeit very subtle - way. The idea of fans conveying certain signals became commonplace in the late 1800s. By 1875, it was widely understood that women were using fans to relay messages to members of the opposite sex. To make it easier on everyone, fan makers eventually published guides that explained exactly what a woman’s fan movements meant. By 1890, the “language” of fans was so widely regarded that it was even included in popular culture. Oscar Wilde, an author notorious for his pointed social commentary, penned an 1892 play entitled “Lady Windmere’s Fan,” which featured the main character expressing messages using her fan throughout the narrative’s key moments.

Speaking Fan

The guides published alongside fans in the late 1800s give us insight into how people communicated during the Victorian era. While it may seem foreign or silly by today’s standards, it’s perhaps no more unusual than communicating using our modern abbreviations, acronyms, or emojis. Here are some of the many ways that women expressed their feelings, opinions, and preferences during the Victorian Era.

Simple Expressions

There were many movements that Victorian women used to invite - or discourage - a suitor from making amorous advances. A women carrying an open fan in front of her face in her left hand or meant she was “desirous of an acquaintance.” Carrying an open fan in her left hand regardless of its placement expressed that she wanted a man to talk to her. An open fan in her right hand also said, “follow me.” If she had an open fan by her side, it meant that a Victorian woman wanted a man to wait for her. By drawing a fan across her forehead, she let a man know that people were aware of his advances. If she closed a fan while looking at a suitor from across the room, it let him know that she wanted to talk to him at a later time.

Amorous Exchanges

In romantic exchanges, hand fans let men know where they stood with the woman they were pursuing. Slowly waving a fan expressed that the woman was already married. Rapidly waving a fan expressed that she was engaged. If a woman touched an almost-closed fan to her lips, however, it meant that she was desirous of a kiss. Drawing a closed fan across her cheek let him know “I love you.”

Rejecting One’s Advances

While hand fans were used to express romantic interest, they were also used to politely reject amorous advances. A woman twirling her fan in her right hand let interested men know, “I am in love with someone else.” Placing the fan towards her right ear let men know that the woman was no longer as interested in his romantic partnership. Snapping the fan open and shut was the perfect way to let men know, “You are cruel.” If this wasn’t severe enough, a woman would draw her closed fan slowly through her closed hands. This let the man know she “hated him,” and ultimately rejected his amorous advances.

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