The Language of the Fan

The 18th century was the heyday of the fan. It was an essential accessory in a stuffy, crowded ballroom. Fans were made in every medium: ivory, painted silk and paper, lace, chicken skin (a very fine kid) and so forth. Louis XVI of France even gave his queen, Marie Antoinette, a diamond encrusted fan as a wedding present. There were fans for every occasion, and they were one of the earliest tourist souvenirs, painted or printed with picturesque landscapes and topical allusions. At this time they were usually about eight or nine inches long.

However fashionable your fan, you would not be considered elegant unless you held it in the right way. A lady might take snuff genteely, use her handkerchief daintily, and smile with refinement, but nonetheless she would be laughed at if she used her fan in a bourgeois manner. On the other hand, as was said of George III’s queen Charlotte, even the plainest woman could become attractive if she used her fan graciously.

Young ladies were therefore instructed on the proper ways to handle their fan. For example, Matthew Towle’s Young Gentleman and Lady’s Private Tutor devoted several pages to the subject, and portraits of the period show ladies holding their fans in one or other of Towle’s recommended positions.

But 18th century ladies used the fan for more than keeping cool: they used it as a form of expression. More than any other article of fashion, the fan became part of a lady’s body language. Supposedly, there even existed a ‘language of the fan’ whereby ladies could send messages across a room without saying a word. To use this language, it was essential to know your right from your left! For example:

Touching right cheek – yes
Touching left cheek – no
Twirling in left hand – we are watched
Twirling in right hand – I love another
Fanning slowly – I am married
Fanning quickly – I am engaged

Open and shut – you are cruel
Open wide – wait for me
Presented shut – do you love me?
With handle to lip – Kiss me
In right hand in front of face – Follow me
Drawing across the cheek – I love you
Placing on left ear – I wish to get rid of you
Twirling in right hand – I love another

Whether the stories of a language of the fan are true is likely to remain a mystery, as period sources make no reference to it. What we can be certain of, however, is that the fan became an intrinsic part of a lady’s body language. It could reveal (or conceal) the whole range of emotions. There are many references to this in English literature, and some of our favourite quotes are given below.


The Fan, John Gay
‘So shall each passion by the fax be seen
From noisie anger to the sullen spleen’


The Art of Dancing, Soame Jenyns
What daring bard shall e’er attempt to tell
The powers that in this little engine dwell?
What verse can e’er explain its various parts
Its numerous uses, motions, charms and arts?
Its shake triumphant, its virtuous clap,
Its angry flutter, and its wanton tap.


Addison’s satire on the rage for fans, in the guise of a letter from the owner of a fan academy. The Spectator, Wednesday, June 27, 1711.

Mr. Spectator,

Women are armed with fans as men with swords, and sometimes do more execution with them. To the end therefore that ladies may be intire mistresses of the weapon which they bear, I have erected an academy for the training up of young women in the exercise of the fan, according to the most fashionable airs and motions that are now practiced at court.

The ladies who carry fans under me are drawn up twice a-day in my great hall, where they are instructed in the use of their arms, and exercised by the following words of command; Handle your fans, Unfurl your fans, Discharge your fans, Ground your fans, Recover your fans, Flutter your fans. By the right observation of these few plain words of command, a woman of a tolerable genius, who will apply herself diligently to her exercise for the space of but one half-year, shall be able to give her fan all the graces that can possibly enter into that little modish machine.

But to the end that my readers may form to themselves a right notion of this exercise, I beg leave to explain it to them in all its parts. When my female regiment is drawn up in array, with every one with her weapon to hand, upon my giving the word to Handle their fans, each of them shakes her fan at me with a smile, then gives her right-hand woman a tap upon the shoulder, then presses her lips with the extremity of her fan, then lets her arms fall in easy motion, and stands in readiness to receive the next word of command. All this is done with a close fan, and is generally learned in the first week.

The next motion is that of unfurling the fan, in which are comprehended several little flirts and vibrations, as also gradual and deliberate openings, with many voluntary fallings asunder in the fan itself, that are seldom learned under a month’s practice. This part of the exercise pleases the spectators more than any other, as it discovers on a sudden an infinite number of cupids, garlands, altars, birds, beasts, rainbows, and the like agreeable figures, that display themselves to view, whilst every one in the regiment holds up a picture in her hand.

Upon my giving the word to discharge their fans, they give one general crack that may be heard at a considerable distance when the wind sits fair. This is one of the most difficult parts of the exercise, but I have several ladies with me, who at their first entrance could not give a pop loud enough to be heard at the farther end of the room, who can now discharge a fan in such a manner, that it shall make a report like a pocket-pistol. I have likewise taken care (in order to hinder young women from letting off their fans in wrong places or on unsuitable occasions) to show upon what subject the crack of a fan may come in properly; I have likewise invented a fan, with which a girl of sixteen, by the help of a little wind which is inclosed about one of the largest sticks, can make as loud a crack as a woman of fifty with an ordinary fan.

When the fans are thus discharged, the word of command in course is to ground their fans. This touches a lady to quit her fan gracefully when she throws it aside in order to take up a pack of cards, adjust a curl of hair, replace a falling pin, or apply herself to any other matter of importance. This part of the exercise, as it only consists in tossing a fan with an air upon a long table (which stands by for that purpose) may be learned in two days’ time as well as in a twelvemonth…

The fluttering of the fan is the last, and indeed the master-piece of the whole exercise; but if a lady does not mis-spend her time, she may make herself mistress of it in three months. I generally lay aside the dog-days and the hot time of the summer for the teaching this part of the exercise; for as soon as ever I pronounce, Flutter your fans, the place is filled with so many zephyrs and gentle breezes as are very refreshing in that season of the year, though they might be dangerous to ladies of a tender constitution in any other.

There is an infinite variety of motions to be made use of in the flutter of a fan. There is the angry flutter, the modest flutter, the timorous flutter, the confused flutter, the merry flutter, and the amorous flutter. Not to be tedious, there is scarce any emotion in the mind which does not produce a suitable agitation in the fan; insomuch, that if I only see the fan of a disciplined lady, I know very well if she laughs, frowns, or blushes. I have seen a fan so very angry, that it would have been dangerous for the absent lover who provoked it to have come within wind of it; and at other times so very languishing, that I have been glad for the lady’s sake the lover was at a sufficient distance from it. I need not add, that a fan is either a prude or a coquette, according to the nature of the person that bears it.

I am, etc.

P.S. I teach young Gentlemen the whole Art of Gallanting a Fan.


De Sausse

The ladies ‘have but little talk and the main conversation is the flutter of the fans.’

http://www.minuetcompany.org/furtherinformation/fanlanguage.html

One Response to The Language of the Fan

  1. This is marvelous. Also very useful. The Slater memorial Museum, of which I am the director and curator, has a collection of dozens of fans and mnay more categoeies of objects related to American history and art. For those near enough to visit or travelling to Connecticut, please do visit and check out our fans on display!

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