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Article: Fans: Essential Accessories

Fans: Essential Accessories -

Fans: Essential Accessories

A finished coquette at a ball asked a gentleman near her while she adjusted her tucker, whether he could flirt a fan which she held in her hand. 'No, Madame,' answered he, proceeding to use it, 'but I can fan a flirt.' Port Folio, 1802

In the years before central air conditioning, a lady's fan was an essential tool , not only for comfort but also for communication. Made of wood or ivory and embellished with anything from small mirrors and jewels to portraits and feathers, Regency fans were certainly a versatile accessory. Plain or fancy, with paint or lace trim, in any size or shape, fans were certainly a necessary regency accessory.

In Accessories of Dress, Katherine Lester and Bess Oerke state that, "The great triumph of the fan in the 18th century led to the establishment of certain conventions and gestures in handling the fan which were considered of first importance. In gesture, in repose, the lady was invariably revealed by the way she managed her fan! Though she possessed all the charms of beauty and distinction and failed in this, she passed quietly into social oblivion."

With the fading of elaborate "Court Manners" during the Regency, the manipulation of the fan became of less importance, though it retained it's place "as a natural extension of feminine body language, slightly refined and channeled by precepts of etiquette." The art of "fluttering", (fanning one's self in a graceful, and at times, meaningful way) was said to take three months to master, and many girls doubtlessly spent hours practicing. 

Language of the Regency Fan

By Victorian times, the fan had once again become the symbol of feminine flirtation. Towards the end of the 19th century, we find lists, however comical, being drawn up. These lists, though humorous today, were published for the "education" of young ladies. (Is it really so different from much of what is published in today's teen magazines?) Some some of these gestures and their meanings follow:

With handle to lips Kiss me
Carrying it in the right hand in front of face Follow me
Carrying in the left hand Desirous of Acquaintance
Placing it on left ear You have changed
Twirling in left hand I wish to get rid of you
Drawing across forehead We are watched
Carrying in right hand You are too willing
Drawing accross right cheek I love you
Drawing through hand I hate you
Twirling in right hand I love another
Closing it I wish to speak to you
Drawing across eyes I am sorry
Letting it rest on right cheek Yes
Letting it rest on left cheek No
Open and shut You are cruel
Dropping We are friends
Fanning slowly I am married
Fanning fast I am engaged
Open wide Wait for me

(Certainly, this is an idealized list. Please remember that, while I got this list at the Indianapolis Children's Museum, it is best if taken tongue-in-cheek!)


Resources for this Article:

  • "Jane Austen, In Style" Susan Watkins, 1990 Thames and Hudson;
  • "The Book of Fans" Nancy Armstrong, 1978 Mayflower Books, Inc;
  • "Historic Dress in America" Elisabeth McClellan, 1910 George W. Jacobs & Co.
  • The Victoria Message Board
  • The Language of the Fan: Another List

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