Victorian Fan Language: The 19th-Century Dating App

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victorian fan language young lady at a swank ball

The Victorian era was a time of corsets, top hats, and, believe it or not, fans that did a lot more than keep you cool. Today, I’m taking you on a quirky historical adventure into the world of Victorian fan language. Imagine a time when a simple accessory in your hand could speak volumes, and I mean literally.

In Victorian society, where propriety was the name of the game, and saying “I fancy you” out loud was as scandalous as it gets, fans were the sly wingmen of the day.

These were not just pretty little things fluttering in the hands of ladies. No, they were powerful tools of discreet communication in a world where direct conversation was often seen as “unbecoming” for some reason.

Let’s unfold (pun intended) the fascinating story of how these ornate fans became the secret messengers of love and intrigue in the Victorian age.

Victorian Fan Historical Background

Fan language, while hitting its stride in the Victorian era, wasn’t exactly a new fad. In fact, this intricate dance of gestures has roots that stretch way back to ancient times. Yes, long before our Victorian friends made it cool, people were already whispering secrets through the flutter of a fan.

Fast forward to the 19th century, and this fan language reaches its zenith. Why was that?

The British Empire was teeming with rigid social etiquette and a fascination with symbolic gestures and hidden meanings. It was the perfect breeding ground for a nuanced form of communication that thrived on subtlety and discretion.

But let’s not pigeonhole these fans as mere gossip spreaders. They were the Swiss Army knives of social accessories back in the day. Beyond their covert messaging capabilities, fans were also about style and entertainment.

They were fashion statements, flaunted as symbols of status and sophistication. Walking into a room without a fan? That’s like showing up to a modern-day party without your phone. You’re forced to communicate with words!

Entertainment, you ask? Absolutely! Fans weren’t just for batting eyelashes behind. They were integral to various cultural and social activities. Think of them as props in a performance, where each movement added drama and flair to the social theatrics of the time.

Fans added an extra layer of communication to every social event, from being waved at operas to being fluttered coquettishly at balls.

In essence, fans in the Victorian era were like multi-tools of social interaction. They were the unspoken words, the fashion statements, and the party starters.

Victorian Fan Language Codex

Fan SignalMeaning
Raising to lips“Wanna make out?”
Dropping fan“Let’s just be friends”
Drawing across eyes“Sorry, my bad.”
Twirling in left hand“We’ve got eyes on us, be cool!”
Passing from one hand to another“Hey. HEY. My eyes (and my fan) are up HERE!”
Carrying in right hand“Taken, off the market.”
Carrying in left hand“Single and ready to mingle.”
Opening and closing slowly“I’m off at 8, let’s grab coffee.”
Hiding eyes behind open fan“Totally into you.”
Running fingers through fan ribs“Let’s just be friends.”
Opening and closing fan several times“Stop f*cking around.”
Fanning slowly“Already in a relationship.”
Fanning quickly“I’m seeing someone but it’s not serious.”

So, how exactly did one go about whispering sweet nothings with a fan? Let’s start with the classics. Holding the fan near the heart – now that wasn’t just a pose for a pretty portrait. In the secret language of fans, this was the equivalent of blasting “I love you” on a giant billboard.

Subtle, right?

And here’s another: if a lady was fanning herself slowly, it wasn’t because the room was too warm. Nope, that was her way of saying, “Sorry, chaps, I’m already taken.”

Now, all these gestures and movements weren’t just random. They were part of a well-developed code. Enter Charles Francis Badini, the man who literally wrote the book on this stuff with his “Le Langage des éventails” (The Language of Fans).

And then there was Duvelleroy, a French fan company that became the Apple of the fan world in Victorian England. Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy saw an opportunity and published a leaflet explaining all these fan movements. Why? To boost fan sales, of course! Talk about clever marketing.

Duvelleroy’s leaflet became all the rage, and before you knew it, every lady with a fan was a walking, talking Morse code of romance. The language of the fan was so intricate that it consisted of around two dozen moves or gestures. But here are the basic ones:

So there you have it, the mechanics of Victorian fan language, a world where every gesture was a word and every flick a sentence. It’s a language that spoke volumes in a society where speaking your heart out loud was often frowned upon.

Who knew fans could be so… chatty?

Cultural Significance of Fan Language and Variations

Picture this: a society tightly laced in corsets of decorum and manners, where openly flirting was as scandalous as twerking in a church today. In this world, the fan was a secret telegram, a discreet billboard of intentions and desires. The Victorian Classified section.

The fan was a lady’s silent accomplice in the intricate dance of Victorian courtship, where every move was monitored. It let her express interest, disdain, or even a covert “meet me in the garden for who-knows-what” without uttering a single word.

But here’s where it gets even more interesting – this fan language wasn’t a one-size-fits-all. Oh no, it had its own regional twangs and accents.

Take England and France, where etiquette manuals popularized the fan language as a flirtatious art form. In these countries, a fan wasn’t just an accessory but a tool of allure, a weapon in the subtle art of seduction.

Head over to Spain, and you’ll find the “abanico” – the Spanish fan language. Here, the fan was more than just a flirtation device; it was a means of conversation in conservative social settings. Spanish senoritas wielded their fans with a skill that could put any modern-day texter to shame.

And then there’s Japan, where “tessenjutsu,” (Japanese war fans) were the norm for Samurai warriors as a sidearm in battle.

I’m also betting samurai war fans could lop heads off like celery…but that’s just speculation.

Each culture infused the fan language with its own unique flavor, turning it into a rich tapestry of silent expressions.

Victorian Fan Language Myths and Misconceptions

Now, let’s dim the lights and spotlight the myths and misconceptions swirling around the Victorian fan language.

First off, the big question: Was Victorian fan language a real, universally understood system of communication, or was it the 19th-century equivalent of a viral marketing campaign? The answer is a bit of both.

While there were indeed recognized gestures with specific meanings, a lot of what we associate with the fan language today is steeped in romanticization and, dare I say it, clever marketing.

Enter Duvelleroy, the savvy fan maker who could give today’s ad agencies a run for their money. When fans started to lose their flair as a must-have accessory, Duvelleroy published a leaflet explaining the so-called “secret language” of fans. And voilà, fans were back in vogue!

This leaflet was like the Victorian era’s version of an influencer’s how-to guide (and is apparently up for auction at Sotheby’s in London as we speak), sparking a renewed interest in fans not just as accessories but as tools of clandestine communication.

But here’s the kicker: much of this fan language lore might have been a bit of creative embellishment. Think about it – a society as buttoned-up as the Victorians, where even showing an ankle was scandalous, relying on an elaborate, yet easily misinterpreted system of fan signals?

Seems a bit out there.

So, while there’s no doubt that fans were used for non-verbal communication to some extent, the idea of a complex, universally understood fan language is likely a delightful blend of truth, myth, and great marketing.

Decline of the Victorian Fan

Like all good things, the era of whispering sweet nothings through fan flutters had to come to an end. But why did this charming mode of communication fade into the pages of history?

The simple answer: times changed. Victorian society, with all its strict social codes and etiquette, began to loosen its corset, so to speak.

The dawn of the 20th century brought a wave of social and technological changes that transformed how people interacted. Enter the telephone and the telegraph – the new kids on the block.

These technological marvels made communication faster, easier, and a lot less cryptic than interpreting fan gestures and shady glances.

Moreover, the winds of change were blowing through societal norms as well. The women’s suffrage movement was gaining momentum, challenging the status quo and empowering women to express themselves more openly and directly.

The need for a secret language hidden in the waves of a fan began to diminish. Why rely on subtle gestures when you were suddenly free to speak your mind?

But don’t think for a second that the language of the fan just vanished into thin air. It left a lasting impression, especially in the world of literature and art. Modern literature often romanticizes this form of communication, painting it as a quaint, charming relic of a bygone era.

Article References

  1. (2023, November 11). Fanology: The “Secret” Language of Hand Fans. Owlcation. Retrieved December 21, 2023, from https://owlcation.com/humanities/Fanology-The-Secret-Language-of-Hand-Fans
  2. Starp, A. (n.d.). The Secret Language of Fans. Sotheby’s. Retrieved December 21, 2023, from https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/the-secret-language-of-fans
  3. Duvelleroy. (2023, September 8). In Wikipedia. from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duvelleroy