Friday 2 February 2024

THE LANGUAGE OF FANS ... by Susan Stokes-Chapman

It exercises the office of the zephyrs, and cools the glowing breast. It saves the blush of modesty by showing all we wish to see, yet hiding all that we desire to conceal. It serves the purpose of a mask, covering the face that would remain unknown. It keeps off the rude beams of the uncourtly sun ... or from the fiercest ravage saves the brilliant eye and blooming cheek. It hides bad teeth, malicious smiles and frowns of discontent; stands as a screen before the secret whisper of malicious scandal; expresses the caprices of the heart, nay sometimes even speaks; in a word it has a thousand admirable qualities, and may justly be entitled one of the nobelest inventions of the human mind. 
Extract from: The Grand Magazine, London, November 1760

A fan is a lovely thing to have in hot weather or when you're cooped up in a stuffy room, but according to The Grand Magazine a fan had many other uses - it was the perfect foil for a woman who wished to hide themselves, whether that be because they were shy, or hoped to conceal bad breath and teeth, or simply avoid attention altogether! It was also said that the fan could be a powerful tool in other ways, enabling a lady to speak without forming the words on her tongue. In the edition of The Spectator published on 27th June in 1711, Joseph Addison stated that ‘women are armed with fans, as men are with swords’. One might presume from this rather pert comment that fan-wielding ladies could be extremely brutal in vanquishing an unwanted suitor. For instance, placing the fan on the left ear would indicate she wished to be rid of him; carrying the fan in her right hand would state the suitor is too willing; and to really hit the point home a woman might draw the fan through her hand which would very bluntly mean I hate you.

There were more positive forms of fan-made communication - making eye contact whilst carrying the fan in the left hand (but in front of her face) would suggest a lady was desirous of an acquaintance. If the handle was pressed to her lips she would be saying (rather forwardly) kiss me

These 'secret' communications have come to be known as The Language of Fans.

Lady Holding a Fan by Francesco Bartolozzi

It seems, however, that the likelihood of a gentleman actually understanding this vast mode of vocabulary is rather slim - there were, after all, over two dozen different moves and gestures to become familiar with - and it was Parisian fan maker Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy who ultimately sought to reveal the secret code. In 1827 he published a leaflet which revealed a comprehensive list of fan etiquette, which proved to be vastly popular.

The concept is rather romantic, isn't it? The Language of Fans. But the more unglamorous truth of it is that Duvelloroy hoped to  boost the sale of fans after they had fallen out of fashion following the French Revolution, and it appears the ploy worked for he later became a supplier of fans to Queen Victoria herself.

Artists Unknown

Still, it might be fun to try and master the code if you ever find yourself carrying a fan at formal gatherings (a Jane Austen re-enactment or a Bridgerton-themed ball) - just try not to inadvertently call someone cruel, or say you're engaged when you're not!

If you have an interest in 18th & 19th Century fans, The Fan Museum in Greenwich is the perfect place to visit. There you can view fans of all shapes and sizes in a glorious catalogue of designs - fans carved form ivory and tortoiseshell, leafs made from silk and gauze, embellished with embroidery or paint.

You can even find out how traditional fans were made (which was really useful for the short story I wrote for The Winter Spirits). Here are just a few of my favourites which I photographed during my visit back in August '23:


My short story 'Widow's Walk' (set in the Georgian period) featuring a troubled fan maker, can be found within The Winter Spirits, published in hardback October 2023, and out later this year in paperback. You can order a copy by clicking the image below:

Twitter & Instagram: @SStokesChapman

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