Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fans--not just for Flirting

You know how a cool breeze on a hot day can make all the difference? How it's wretchedly, stuffy hot, and all of a sudden, a bit of wind stirs the air and makes you sigh, content?

Our eighteenth-century friends knew the value of a stiff breeze, too. So much, in fact, that a fan was an indespensible accessory. Quite a bit of chatter has grown up around the language of the fan--how it was used for flirting, sending covert messages, whatnot. I don't know if this was ever truly the case--if it was, it was likely a Victorian thing, not an eighteenth-century thing. I have my sneaking suspicions that the language of the fan is more of a romantic notion than an actual fact--I've never seen documentation beyond quaint fliers included with fans at gift shops. However, it's impossible to deny that a fan is a brilliant flirting accessory. A deftly raised hand, arched fingers, the fan's movement and speed showing your opinion of the present company--what better? But this is, I am afraid, speculation and a little bit of experimentation, not documented historical knowledge.

What is certain is that fans in the eighteenth century were both functional and beautiful. (All these examples are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute.)

Like many eighteenth-century fans, this one employs both delicately cut panels and painted artwork--possibly a copy of a popular print. The fan is bone, silk, and tortoiseshell, as well as mother-of-pearl accents.



Gilt and a triptych-style painting decorate this fan, whose slats are crafted of ivory.


I love the wavy cut of the ivory blades on this fan.


This unusual piece is entirely mother-of-pearl--how beautiful would this fan have been reflecting the light of a summer afternoon sun?

My fan is, in my humble opinion, a lovely piece, though not nearly as exquisite as these examples. It does, however, a remarkable job of making a wilting-hot afternoon bearable.


A friend brought my fan back to me from Spain, where it's still not uncommon to see women on the train fanning themselves to keep cool. It's made of lacquered wood and stiff cotton--not mother-of-pearl and delicate painting, but still a touch sophisticated, I think.

And if I don't want to talk anymore? Instant screen.

7 comments:

sharmon said...

Love the fans! Mother of pearl is my fave! Yours is lovely, too. I have a hand-painted paper fan, and a carved bamboo--looks like lace. They're not valuable, except to me.
Thanks for the eye candy :-).

V.R. Christensen said...

I love this. And I agree with you, I don't think it was a documented art, the fan flirting. I think it was more of a social thing, like winking. There are no pamphlets on winking, are there? I suppose there might be. But of course it seems quite natural, doesn't it? The obvious barrier to say you are unavailable or uninterested, the speed fan to indicate your blood is up, (not something you would ordinarily admit, but a temptation to let him now it all the same.)

Brilliant post.

mesmered said...

I remember when we did the masked ball blog event, we actually found documented fan language for the consummate young lady, just as there is a glove language. It's totally seductive in style.

I adore the images you have shown and wish I could have afforded the one I found a while ago in an antique shop: French, eighteenth century, handpainted silk Fragonard-type scene on ivory blades and with a luscious pastel tassel. Instead I have two fans for summer use: one paper one with carp painted on it from China and one paper one with blessings on it from Vietnam. Very plain and functional.

Rowenna said...

Mesmered--would love to see the fan language! I've looked long and hard for a period example, but only find modern interpretations...and what do we moderns know, anyway? :)

V--I tend to think that whether or not there was a "real" fan language, the more common usage would have been the "unofficial" language--not that I speak from experience. But haven't you ever noticed how women are the most effective when men don't realize they're being messaged? Hmmmm...

GentlewomanThief said...

Yay, fans! Lovely, lovely, lovely! And, yes, yours is rather stylish and sophisticated - much more useable in the 21st century, methinks.

I love the Spectator's article on fans: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=6TgWAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA104&dq=%22the+spectator%22+addison+fan&hl=en&ei=UdJ2TJH6I9mVOLuZucoG&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false (jump to page 101 to find the beginning)
That opening sentence just makes me swoon - love it. It's quoted on the front page of my WIP, in fact. (Well, my main character does have a blade-edged fan, so it is quite a literal quote in her case!)

Anyway, it's from 1711 and while it doesn't talk about that formal 'fan language', it definitely suggests the fan as an extension of what we would nowadays call 'body language' - Addison, for all his satire, desribes the fan as a method of expressing emotion in a way that I can easily believe.

I definitely think there was an 'unofficial' language - when one is peeved, it's a most satisfying feeling to snap one's fan shut and turn away from the cause of that annoyance. Oh yes, you can say a lot with a fan :)

mesmered said...

Took me a while to find it, but here it is:


Fan Language

Carrying in front of face: Accompany me.
Drawing across the hands: I hate you.
Carrying in the left hand: Come to me.
Carrying in the right hand: Please introduce me.
Opening and shutting: You are cruel.
Drawing across the eyes: I feel sad.
Drawing across the forehead: We are observed, be careful.
Fanning fast: I am engaged.
Fanning slow: I am married.
Closing it: I am sorry.
Opening it wide: Await me.
Handle across the lips: Kiss me.
Drawing across the cheek: I love you.
Dropping it: We will remain friends.

Glove Language

Carrying over the shoulder: Follow me.
Tapping the chin: I am engaged.
Putting them away: I am displeased.
Biting the tips: Please leave.
Turning inside out: I hate you.
Winding around the fingers: Careful, we are watched.
Holding in right hand: Come to me soon. . .
Left hand with naked thumb exposed: Do you love me?
Right hand with naked thumb exposed: Kiss me.
Dropping them: I love you.
Putting them on: I must be going.
Fanning gently: I like your company.
Rolled up, clenched in right hand: No.
Holding in left hand: No more flirting.
Dropping one: Yes.

Isis' Wardrobe said...

Last year, in passing, my father told me that my grandmother had an 18th century fan. Which no one ever showed me! An ancestress wore it on her wedding and broke it, and somehow it was preserved with a letter telling the details. Painted silk, I am told. One of my uncles has it now, but he has promised me to take lots of good photos. It would be lovely to get a copy done!