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The Nuance of the Fan

Posted on Friday, February 1, 2013 at 7:44 am

This fan represents the Art Deco era, when skirt hems rose and accessories shrunk to match. The guards on this fan measure only six inches in length and are made of the much more durable plastic. The ostrich feathers are dyed to match, adding to the flirtatious feel of the piece.

Fans were a “must” fashion accessory from the 16th through the early 20th centuries. The French were the first Europeans to use fans as an everyday item, bringing their expertise to England after 1685 when the Edict of Nantes forced thousands of Frenchmen to emigrate from France to nearby Protestant countries, especially England. When the Frenchmen arrived in their new countries, their fan making skills came with them.

The East India Company imported fans from China and Japan, thus heightening their oriental mystique. The first European countries known to have used the fan are Spain, Italy and Portugal, no doubt due to their hot climates. But it was the French, who made their fans an art form by adding exotic materials such as ostrich feathers and jewels, who are credited with the surge in the fan’s popularity, making it more of an accessory and less of a necessity.

Made in two basic forms, folding or fixed, the fan had many uses. Because wax cosmetics were commonly worn by the aristocracy, usually to camouflage the unsightly effects of smallpox, fixed fans had more of a utilitarian use and were often used to shield the face from a roaring fire, where the fire’s heat could literally melt the wax off a lady’s face.

Fans shielded the eyes from a blinding sun or protected the highly prized peaches and cream complexion. Fans were also a “self-cooling” mechanism, fanning the face and upper body to keep warm air circulating and uncomely perspiration from accumulating on a lady’s brow. Because insects were a common problem, using the fan alleviated the need for swatting off irritating flies and mosquitoes.

Folding fans in the design commonly known today became popular in the early fifteenth century. The first British folding fans can been seen in portraits of King Henry VIII with his assorted wives. Because of their more complicated design and thus higher expense, folding fans were primarily associated with the aristocracy. Queen Elizabeth I was known to carry fans, verified by the numerous paintings done of the Virgin Queen wearing her fan which hung by a slender chain from the heavy girdle worn around her waist.

The Renaissance Age provided a perfect social atmosphere for the fan, allowing it to evolve into works of art and a perfect accessory for women of all ages. The Regency Period however, saw the fan’s zenith, when delicate ivory, tortoiseshell and even gold was used to create these fashionable items. As with most collectibles and baubles from earlier times, the more elaborate the materials and ornamentation, the higher the social status of both the gift giver and the recipient.

As the popularity of fans caught on, they were used to commemorate important dates or events, such as coronations and weddings. And much like the Italian-made cameo signified a grand tour of Europe fans became popular souvenirs from special places. Even the churches used fans, with St. Jerome adopting it as a symbol of chastity. Fans were also kept at altars to keep flies away from the chalice and sunbeams out of the priests’ eyes.

It was during the reign of Queen Anne, in the early 1700s, that London fan manufacturers obtained a charter of incorporation, allowing them to form a guild. This gave fan makers the same status and power enjoyed by other guilds, such as goldsmiths and jewelry makers, limiting the number of shops or “warehouses” permitted to make fans, driving up both the prices and quality.

Depending upon the wealth of the owner, fans could be made from thin kid leather, feathers, vellum, lace, silk, cotton or paper. Silk replaced kid leather in the late 1700s as it proved more durable and economical because China’s silk trade had substantially increased over the last few decades. For the wealthy, the fan’s outer sticks, technically known as the guards, were often adorned with precious and semi-precious stones. Royalty were known to carry fans with guards made of silver and gold. Victorian-era guards often contained tiny compartments that held vinaigrettes, sewing kits, a mirror and even a tiny comb.

During the 1860s, autograph fans became the rage, a custom started in China. When someone of importance was going on a long trip or leaving permanently, it became popular to have them sign and date the blade of a fan. Blades in autograph fans were made of bone or ivory so the signatures were easily seen and read.

These signed tokens became treasured family mementos and grew to include the signatures of additional family members or other influential people, proving to others how important the owner was. The more signatures displayed on the fan, the higher the owner’s social status.

The fan consists of several parts. The outer sticks are the guards and tend to be thicker and able to accommodate small compartments. Think of the guards as the fan’s outer frame, able to support most of its weight. The inside portions are known as sticks, which fold down into the handle, held together with an ornamental pin. Extending from the sticks are the blades, which attach to the fan’s mount. The mount is the main material associated with the fan, such as lace, silk, paper or vellum. Early French fans had only four to eighteen blades. As the workmanship and skills improved of the fan makers, the number of blades increased to as many as twenty six.

Landscapes and pastoral scenes were popular themes painted onto paper and vellum fans, as were love and courtship. Each fan was made and decorated by hand, creating a one-of-a-kind object d’art. Before going into mourning, Queen Victoria often used fans, thus adding to their popularity. She was seen carrying a fan once purportedly owned by Marie Antoinette, whose possessions were scattered after the French Revolution.

In the early Victorian era, fans measured only about eight inches in length. As the Victorian era lengthened, so did the fan. By the late 1800s, fans measured as long as 20 inches. The Edwardians kept this length until the beginning of World War I. As lady’s hemlines grew shorter, so did the fan. By the Age of the Flapper, fans were almost as short as a lady’s hand, but still provided a much needed compartment for lipstick and the newest fashionable accessory, the cigarette.

Because the coquette was often depicted using a fan, sometime between 1711 and 1740 the “language of the fan,” was born. This new fad allowed women to convey secret messages to their suitors across a crowded drawing room. See the sidebar for more details about these hand signals and their meaning.

This “language” was quite complicated and cumbersome. Motions of the fan translated into letters of the alphabet. The alphabet was split into five sections. These sections then corresponded to one of five movements:

1. Moving the fan with the left hand to the left arm;

2. Moving the fan with the right hand to the left arm;

3. Placing the fan against the bosom;

4. Raising the fan to the mouth; and

5. Raising the fan to the forehead.

To signal a letter, two movements were required. The first corresponded to one of the five alphabetical groups and the second told the letter’s position within that group. Thus, to signal the letter “D,” movement number 1 above (indicating the first section of the alphabet) would then be followed by movement 4, for the fourth letter in that section of the alphabet.

Obviously, communication via the fan was neither quick nor easy. A famous Parisian fan maker, Pierre Duvelleroy self-published his version of the fan language, presumably to assist his clients by eliminating any uncertainty to a lady’s meaning, as ignorance could result in embarrassing situations.

Fan collecting has become a popular pastime with national and international groups all over the globe. Many museums in large cities have fan collections, such as the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and the Victorian and Albert Museum in London. For more information about fans and fan collecting, view the Fan Association of North America (FANA) website,


Armstrong, Nancy, (1974). The Book of Fans, London: Studio Vista.

Boucher, Francois, (1976). 2000 Years of Fashion, New York: Macmillan.

Gostelow, Mary, (1976). The Fan, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.


There has been some repudiation of the so-called “language of the fan.” It has been deemed that the “language” was nothing more than a marketing ploy by fan makers to not only increase sales but enhance the social status of their owners. Whether or not the language of the fan has been debunked, the idea of using the fan to communicate is no more obtuse than using smoke signals or transmitting a series of dots and dashes across a transatlantic line.

Below is a partial list of movements and their subsequent meaning:

1. Placing the fan near the heart: “You have won my love”

2. A closed fan touching the right eye: “When may I be allowed to see you?”

3. Threatening movements with a closed fan: “Do not be so imprudent.”

4. A half-opened fan pressed to the lips: “You may kiss me.”

5. Hands clasped together holding an open fan: “Forgive me.”

6. Hiding the eyes behind an open fan: “I love you.”

7. Shutting a fully opened fan slowly: “I promise to marry you.”

8. Letting the fan rest on the right cheek: “Yes.”

9. Letting the fan rest on the left cheek: “No.”

10. Touching the finger to the tip of the fan: “I wish to speak with you.”

11. Fanning slowly: “I am married.”

12. Fanning quickly: “I am engaged.”

13. Putting the fan handle to the lips: “Kiss me.”

14. Touching the tip of the fan with the finger: “I wish to speak to you.”

15. Drawing the fan across the cheek: “I love you.”

16. The number of sticks shown to answer the question: “At what hour?”

17. Covering the left ear with an open fan: “Do not betray our secret.”

18. Drawing the fan across the eyes: “I am sorry.”

19. Opening and closing the fan several times: “You are cruel.”

20. Dropping the fan meant: “We will be friends.”

21. Opening the fan wide: “Wait for me.”

22. Placing the fan behind the head: “Do not forget me.”

23. Placing the fan behind one’s head with a finger extended: “Goodbye.”

24. Placing the fan in the right hand in front of the face: “Follow me.”

25. Placing the fan in the left hand in front of the face: “I desire your acquaintance.”

26. Holding the fan over the left ear: “I wish to be rid of you.”

27. Drawing the fan across the forehead: “You have changed.”

28. Twirling the fan in the left hand: “We are being watched.”

29. Twirling the fan in the right hand: “I love another.”

30. Carrying the open fan in the right hand: “You are too willing.”

31. Carrying an open fan in the left hand: “Come and talk to me.”

32. Drawing the fan through the hand: “I hate you.”

33. Presenting the fan shut or closed: “Do you love me?”

-By Melanie Thomas

Melanie Thomas is proprietor of Arsenal of the Alleghneys, authentic Victorian and antique jewelry in Gettysburg,