Ladies, imagine a fashion accessory that can be used to signal romantic intentions without speaking a word. It can also ignore or dismiss a pesky suitor, and it even enables you to spy on others behind your back.
Contrary to what you might think, it isn’t some modern, high-tech gadget, but rather a charming antique hand fan.
Back in the day, a proper Victorian lady wouldn’t be caught at a social event without her fan. Not only was it stylish, it provided a practical breeze when needed. But it had another very important purpose: It was used to send signals to the opposite sex.
It was a time when strict rules dominated communication between single men and women. Flirting was considered crass and frowned upon, especially in public. Since both sexes were expected to conduct themselves in a chaste and respectable manner at all times, a special code was devised using the hand fan as a messenger. There were 23 distinctive gestures in what was called “The Secret Language of the Fan.”
Say, for example, a young lady was at a ball and there were numerous suitors vying for her attention. If one particular gent caught her fancy from across the room, she could have a secret conversation with him just by sending coded signals with her hand fan. If she held it in front of her face with the left hand, it meant “I am desirous of your acquaintance.” If she touched her finger to the fan tip, it meant “I wish to speak.” If a woman was married and, therefore, unavailable, she would fan herself slowly. If engaged, she fanned herself quickly.
In response to cues from a suitor, a “yes” was indicated by resting the fan on her right cheek, while a “no” was conveyed by resting the fan on the left cheek. Touching a closed fan to the right eye meant that the woman would allow the man to “see” her. If a woman suddenly twirled her fan in her left hand, it indicated that someone was observing their secret conversation.
This special language wasn’t just used in public, but also during courtship, which was almost always chaperoned. Holding out a closed fan asked the question “Do you love me?” Placing the fan near the heart signaled “You have won my love.” If a woman pressed the fan handle to her lips, it indicated she wanted to kiss.
HISTORY AND STYLES
The hand fan, as we know it today, originated in the Orient, but it wasn’t until the trendsetting French began to manufacture them in the 1700s that European ladies began to embrace the pretty accessories. By the 1800s, hand fans were being produced in both rigid and folding styles from a variety of materials: wood, mother of pearl, ivory, tortoiseshell, bone, celluloid, linen, silk, lace, leather, feathers, paper and cardboard.
A “fixed,” or “rigid,” fan is basically a flat, shaped paddle with a handle. This type does not fold. The earliest forms were most likely made of palm leaves. Ancient Egyptian drawings show slaves holding long-handled feather fans, and examples were even unearthed in King Tut’s tomb.
Plain-fixed fans were used by both men and women to beat the heat. They were sometimes fancy, such as during the Roaring ‘20s, when brightly colored feathers were all the rage. During the 1930s and 1940s, cardboard-fixed fans became a popular medium for advertisers, funeral homes and churches. They were given away in great number and were often decorated with charming scenes, beautiful women and children, comforting religious pictures and Bible verses.
There are three basic types of folding fans: pleated, brisé and cockade. The most common type is the pleated variety, which features a semicircular accordion-folded leaf attached along the bottom
and sides by sticks. The end sticks on folding fans are called guard sticks, and they were often decorated with fancy carvings or embossing. Some guard sticks even had a tiny mirror attached to the top; these were called gossip fans because they enabled the user to see what was going on behind her back. The pleated-folding leaf was usually crafted of sturdy paper, linen, lace or silk and attached to wood, ivory, mother of pearl or bone sticks. Pleated fans were decorated in many fancy ways with painted or printed scenes and glitzy embellishments.
Another popular folding style is the brisé (breez-a) fan, made entirely of flat sticks connected at the bottom with a riveted loop and at the top by an interwoven ribbon. The loop allowed for attaching a chain or decorative tassel, and it was perfect for slipping a finger through. Brisé sticks were often beautifully shaped, carved, pierced or embossed.
The cockade fan opens out into a complete circle with two guard sticks that connect to form the handle. Cockades were considered flamboyant and less practical than brisé or pleated fans, therefore, they are less plentiful for collectors.
Fans knew no social boundaries and were used by all classes of people. They’ve spoken their own language all throughout history — from the humble fixed fan made of simple palm leaves to the opulent gold- and satin-pleated fan of royalty. Black cockade mourning fans from the Civil War period may be in great contrast to the white brisé fans of courtship, but they still speak of love and relationships. Hand fans also mark the passage of time with their style, color and materials. Collectors view them all as FANtastic.
Julie Robinson Robards is an antiques journalist and dealer living in Upper Jay. She is the author of two published books on celluloid, an advisor to several antique price guides and a writer for AntiqueWeek Newspaper since 1995. She may be reached through her websites www.redbarnantiques.org or www.celluloidforever.com.