Today we welcome Victorian costume expert Karlee Etter who’s going to tell us how during the Victorian era fans were used for far more than keeping the bearer cool.
The Secret Language of the Fan
by Karlee Etter
For much of the nineteenth century and well into the early decades of the twentieth, women were expected to conduct themselves in an even-tempered manner. A woman’s deportment or behavior, especially in public was expected to be gracious, courteous, and respectable. Any demonstration of the contrary was frowned upon not only by parents and potential suitors, but from contemporaries, as well. Vocally rejecting a suitor was deplorable, even if a woman believed him to be unacceptable. Likewise flirting with a desirable suitor was equally appalling. So, while in attendance at a Ball or other social gathering, what was a woman do to when faced with numerous men, all vying for her attention; how was she to express or communicate her “choice” or “choices” without violating those stifling rules of etiquette? With visual clues, of course; although simply using facial expression was often too subtle. Therefore, the secret language of the hand-fan might be employed to clarify a woman’s acceptance or rejection of potential suitors.
However, if the language of the fan was a secret, how did young women learn the various silent gestures of the fan? If such a language really did exist and some historians will argue that it did not, others believe the language of the fan was passed down from woman to woman. Each gesture of the hand holding a fan contained a powerful hidden meaning.
If a young woman was unavailable, she might gesture in the following manner: Fanning slowly meant, “I am married”, or, fanning quickly, “I am engaged.” Twirling her fan in the right hand meant, “I love another.” Or, if the young man was of interest as a friend rather than a suitor, she might drop the fan, which communicated, “We will be friends.” Then, by placing the fan behind with a finger extended meant, “Goodbye.”
Now, let’s imagine a young woman is available (not spoken for); she might begin her secret discussion with a new acquaintance and appropriate suitor in the following manner:
1) If she holds the fan in her left hand in front of her face, “I am desirous of your acquaintance.”
2) By touching her finger to the tip of the fan she would be gesturing, “I wish to speak to you.” Or carrying the fan in her left hand, indicates, “Come and talk to me”.
3) Responding to a cue from her suitor, she might continue with, “Yes” by letting the fan rest on her right cheek.
4) Or if she rests the fan against her left cheek, she is saying, “No”.
5) A closed fan touching her right eye, “When may I be allowed to see you?” Or, a partially open fan showing the number of fan-sticks indicated the hour at which she agreed to meet her suitor.
6) Opening the fan wide, “Wait for me.”
7) Placing the fan behind the head, “Do not forget me.”
8) Fan in her right hand in front of her face, “Follow me.”
9) Of course, using the silent language of the fan didn’t always mean the two sweethearts were succeeding in their covert communication – there was always the risk that some busy-body would spy the young couple’s interaction. With that, the young woman might twirl her fan in the left hand, which meant, “We are being watched.”
10) Covering the left ear with an open fan, “Do not betray our secret.”
Once the couple had an established relationship, there were still rules of etiquette and spoken phrases of love that were never to be expressed aloud, unless in the privacy of one another’s company. Rarely would an unengaged couple be alone, especially within a strict New England community. So, even in such a setting, the secret language of the fan was useful – especially if the young couple was chaperoned by old, Puritanical, spinster, Aunt Bitty. Then their “secret” communication might unfold in the following manner:
11) Drawing the fan across the eyes, “I am sorry.”
12) Hands clasped together holding an open fan, “Forgive me.”
13) The fan placed near the heart, “You have won my love.”
14) Presenting the fan shut, “Do you love me?”
15) Drawing the fan across her cheek or hiding her eyes behind an open fan, “I love you!”
16) Half-opened fan pressed against her lips or putting the fan handle to her lips, “Kiss me” or “You may kiss me.”
17) Shutting a fully opened fan slowly, “I promise to marry you.”
Not every form of communication with the fan was intended to encourage or continue a relationship. The fan’s secret language might also be used to discourage or kindly reject a potential suitor, or communicate the absolute offensive nature of a young man toward a young woman.
18) Drawing the fan across the forehead, “You have changed.”
19) Carrying the open fan in the right hand, “You are too willing.”
20) Fan held over left ear, “I wish to get rid of you.”
21) Threatening movements with a closed fan “Don’t be so imprudent.”
22) Opening and closing fan several times, “You are cruel.”
23) Drawing the fan through her hand, “I hate you!”
Whatever the historians say, I trust that the nineteenth century language of the fan was a form of communication fundamental to the romance of America’s Victorian Era. Not only did it afford a bond between generations of women, but it also offered a form of communication enabling young women an outlet to express sincere feelings towards suitors in an acceptable manner and within the confines of the Victorian Era’s oppressive etiquette.