Monday, November 19, 2012

The Language of the Fan

 by Susanne Dietze

"Men have the sword, women have the fan and the fan is probably as effective a weapon!" --Joseph Addison

Cleopatra's slaves used them to keep her comfortable as she sailed on her barge. The Chinese associated them with mythical characters. The folding variety we all recognize originated in Japan, but China became famous for them. Once they arrived in Europe around 1550 with traders from the far east, they became a plaything of the nobility. Nowadays, I seldom see them, except on warm summer Sunday mornings when a woman inevitably puts one to use during church services.

Fans have come a long way, baby.

As a historical writer, fans are an essential accessory to my female characters. (And through the post I'm sticking to European--primarily British--fans.) I knew they were used for flirtatious purposes, and I knew they were beautiful, but who knew they had their own language?

Lady Holding a Fan by Francesco Bartolozzi
First, a bit of background. Fans became an essential accessory for well-bred females, and they no doubt own different fans for mourning and various types of social events. In the early 1600s, fans were often "fixed," or made of feathers attached to a handle: they did not fold. By the end of the century and into the eighteenth century, folded fans had come into their own, and it appears that if a lady used a fixed fan, she labeled herself as not at all up on things. Or common. Tsk tsk.

Folding fans seem to have come in three types: the plain old folding type (yes, the name sounds obvious) is where a set of sticks is fastened together at one end and pleated material (silk, leather, or other fabric) is fastened to the sticks. (Feathers and lace, by the way, went in and out of fashion.)
Public Domain

Ladies also used cockade fans, which are pleated paper attached to two sticks. They open into a full circle with the end sticks forming a handle--although I have not seen them in portraits or read of ladies using them at balls. However, I am not an expert. Just passing along the info.
Courtesy of York Museums Trust
There were alsbrisé fans, where separate sticks are fastened together at one end like the folding fan, but they did not use fabric or leather. Rather, the sticks were painted individually to create a scene or were ornamental, and were often held together at the top with a ribbon. It was much harder to paint on these fans than a folding fan.

File:Brise Fan with Box LACMA M.85.85.19a-b (1 of 2).jpg
Public domain, courtesy of LACMA

Painted fans were certainly popular, and often depicted pastoral, Asian, mythological, or Biblical scenes. In the eighteenth-century through the Regency period, Vernis Martin fans were valued. Vernis (French for varnish) was a technique developed by the Martin brothers, who hand-painted the scenes. This Vernis Martin Fan had mother-of-pearl guards.

Apparently, ladies painted images on their own fans, too: Princess Augusta, aunt of Queen Victoria, painted one that now belongs to her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. According to documentation, it was created around 1790 and the medallions painted on the panels were done by "one of George III's daughters."

Here enters the so-called Language of the Fan.The fan was no longer a pretty frippery, or a cooling device, but also a method to convey secret codes.

The notion probably began as an advertising technique by fan-makers, but Fan Languages were published in contemporary magazines and books on etiquette. Charles Francis Badini wrote a book called Fanology or Ladies’ Conversation Fan, which was published in 1797. It listed many gestures along with the secret codes they conveyed, including: 

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

Other sources decoding fan language offer some pretty specific statements:

Placing fan on left ear: I wish to be rid of you
Carrying fan in right hand in front of face: Follow me
Drawing fan across the forehead: You have changed
Drawing fan through the hand: I hate you
Threaten with shut fan: You are imprudent
Gazing at shut fan: Why do you misunderstand me?

Perhaps he misunderstands because this gets so complicated, m'dear. While many a female no doubt practiced these motions before the looking glass, one wonders how many gentlemen scratched their bewigged heads in utter cluelessness. Also, how many matchmaking mamas were so oblivious that they wouldn't understand what it meant when her daughter threatened a suitor with a shut fan?

The Language of the Fan seems to fallen out of vogue for a generation: the Regency. Fans were still an essential accessory, however. This Regency lady is ready for a magical evening at Lord and Lady Fabulous' ball. She is wearing her gown of pink crepe, a toque on her head, elbow-length kid gloves, her satin slippers, and carries--of course, her fan. She may not use it to send secret codes, but no fashion-minded, status-conscious British lady of the 18th and 19th century would attend a ball without one.

Rolinda Sharples' painting, Cloak Room, Clifton Assembly Room, was painted in 1817. Look at all these Regency ladies holding their fans! It might be difficult to view, but many of the fans appear to be white or sheer.
Cloak Room, Clifton Assembly Room, 1817, Rolinda Sharples

The Victorians took fans to a whole different level. French maisons created fans for the very wealthy. Tablitiers carved exquisite sticks, and famous artists painted (and signed) fans. As the language of flowers became popular again, no doubt the language of the fan refreshed, as well.

"The Political Lady" by James Tissot, 1884. Get a load of her feather fan! And gorgeous gown...
Alas, fans as a fashion statement seem to have gone the way of the elbow-length glove and the bonnet. So for now, my experience with gorgeous fans will have to be limited to my imagination, when my characters use them to their advantage.

But to you, I will drop my fan. (Translation: we will be friends. Although that totally isn't what it sounds like to me.)

Susanne Dietze began writing love stories in high school, casting her friends in the starring roles. Today, she writes in the hope that her historical romances will encourage and entertain others to the glory of God. Married to a pastor and the mom of two, Susanne loves fancy-schmancy tea parties, travel, and curling up on the couch with a costume drama and a plate of nachos. She won first place in the Historical category of the 2011-2012 Phoenix Rattler, and her work has finaled in the Genesis, Gotcha!, and Touched By Love Contests. Susanne is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Agency. You can visit her on her website,


  1. Just wonderful, Susie!

    I've been looking forward to this post. While I am currently writing 1813... my characters are far from the drawing rooms of England. Thankfully, this post will be here for future reference.

    I can't imagine the practice that went into such 'conversation.'. I pity the men, actually! I think half of them likely had no clue and went by the emotion in the eyes of the woman.

    I can just imagine my fan would be hanging on my wrist while I was either staring or daydreaming.

  2. I'm guessing the men read into the fan language whatever it was they wanted to see/hear. I mean, how much have things changed?

    I realized I've never had a heroine with a fan in a book. And that's when I realized I have set most of my books (the historicals, anyway) in colder months.

    Now to find someone who can interpret the language of book settings to tell me what it means that I seem to prefer colder settings...

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Deb. Isn't Princess Augusta's fan pretty? I can't imagine how much time and talent went into painting scenes on the brise fans.

    The poor men were probably befuddled by all of the fan language. But recalling my junior high-age self, I know I would have memorized and practiced those fan tricks.

    Well, someday, if you include a high-born miss in your book, I'm sure she'll own a lovely fan. You know, I don't have a lot of fan-action in my wip, either...

  4. CJ, colder settings may mean no fans, but you get to incorporate so many other wonderful things: mantles, cloaks, muffs, danger from exposure, the need to stay close to keep warm... Sounds good to me.

    I'm reading a story right now (a backlist sort of book) where the characters are snowbound. Love it.

    And as for men, you're probably right! The eyes have it!

  5. And speaking of the language of accessories, there was also the language of gloves which would work in colder settings as well, CJ.

    Great post, Susie. Loved the pics as I don't know the history of fans except for the obvious ones.

    One of my best friends in Junior and Senior high was Donna Nishimura who brought me back a fan from her trip to Japan. It's tucked away in my childhood treasure box because I treausre the fan as well as the memories it evokes. Someday I'd like to 'find' Donna again.

  6. I wonder what Christina Aguilera (sp?) is saying with her fan during the tv show, The Voice ... hmmm...

  7. Oh, lovely and fascinating. I guess I'm glad I don't have to dress up every day and carry a fan, but it would be fun to do once in a while. :)

  8. That first quote made me think of a ninja movie where the girl had like razor blades on her fan. LOL. Now that's a cool fan.

  9. This is great, Susie. Some of the language makes perfect sense, like holding the fan to your chest.

    I really love the brise fans. They're beautiful. I think the feather one is gorgeous, too. That's the one I'd want but then I guess I'd be considered behind the times.

    I lived in Japan when I was little, so am very familiar with the folding fan, although I didn't know the language. I have a few of those Japanese fans tucked away somewhere, but since I haven't seen them in years, I have to wonder at their condition. The wood on all of them was painted black, and the pretty paper in-between was different on each one. My favorite had cherry blossoms on it.

  10. Anita, there's a language of the gloves? I've never heard of it! I think we need a post on the subject!

    What a lovely treasure from your friend Donna. I hope you find her soon!

  11. DeAnna, I peeked into pricing on vintage fans. Hoo-whee, they are costly. But I think it would be fun to use one once in a while, too.

  12. Dina, your idea sounds very Pride & Prejudice & Zombies!

  13. Suzie, that feather one is gorgeous. Agreed. How neat that you have some fans! I love cherry blossoms.

    I like the brise fans, too. I imagine the hand-painted brise fans took a very long time to create.

  14. What an interesting language! Thanks for the great post!

  15. Yes, Susie, there is a language with gloves. Take one glove off, hold both gloves, put them both down, wave them around, etc. I'm not sure if it was officially in the language when men got in the act, took their gloves off, and did the facial slap. Perhaps that's what gave women the idea in the first place, though. LOL

    Of course, like the fan and flower languages, naysayers have said there is no such language, but how can you believe that nonsense when books were published at the time with directions for use, such as the one you mentioned in your post.

    I think the naysayers were men who couldn't read the language and felt left out because they didn't know if a wave of the glove meant, 'I'm married', or 'Get lose, fool'. :D

  16. I acutally thought you'd do a follow-up to this with the language of gloves. Go for it!

  17. All right, Anita Mae--I'll investigate glove language! What a hoot.

    The poor men with all of this language stuff. As if they'd notice Miss Flibbertigibbet twirling her fan at Mr. Handsome with her right hand, OOH! I can hear my husband saying, "enough of the fan. Yes or no, woman?" LOL.

  18. love this post. i knew about the language of fans, but didn't know specifics. i laughed at Anita's mention of Christina on the Voice because i've wondered the same thing.

    as for the men. from my experience, they don't like to talk in the first place, let alone get caught up in more than one "language". no wonder they would be confused. :)

  19. Sorry I'm so late getting in... SO interesting, Susie! Thanks for sharing!
    My hubby brought me a sandalwood fan from Taiwan. Smells heavenly. I wonder if there's an Oriental fan language as well?

  20. You made me laugh, DebH! Yeah, most men wouldn't tolerate the nonsense of it all. :)

  21. Niki, I honestly don't know! That bears looking into.

    I bet the fan smells wonderful--and it's pretty too. What a treasure!

  22. Well im only here for a school essay really helpful and try and add a pov of a canadian

    1. That's great, Ryan. If you have any questions, just ask - probably on our Facebook page as your comment went into moderation. (Probably because of the 1.5 yr time difference since the post was published.)

      As for the Canadian pov, I'm a Canuck, too, so I'm especially glad to see you here. :)



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