The Victorian era removal of ribs to achieve an 18-inch waist is probably the most famous and oft-repeated fashion myth. However, there are many myths that are more credible but just as false.
Beyond the practical uses of cooling the face and hiding yawns, fans were used as flirtation devices at Victorian social events. However, other than furtive glances from behind a fluttering arc of silk and ivory, any naval flag-like language code based upon how a fan was opened, closed, held, or pointed was not universally understood.
Fans had been a standard of 18th century court life, but when the French Revolution took out the elite, the trappings of court life also fell from popularity, including the use of fans. Just as fans were making a comeback in 1827, Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy opened a fan-making shop at 15 Rue de la Paix in Paris. By the 1850s Duvelleroy was known as one of the best fan makers in Europe. Duvelleroy opened a London branch of his business which he left to his illegitimate son Jules to manage, while the Paris atelier remained under the operation of his legitimate son, Georges.
The language of flowers was well known at the time, and the code for which flower represented what emotion was often printed up in little booklets. Jules Duvelleroy adapted the idea as an advertising gimmick for his London fan shop. He printed up leaflets that identified a number of actions that supposedly had meaning and claimed had been in use by women for centuries, lending credence to the fan language myth. Some of the codes included: ‘Follow Me’ (carrying the fan in front of face), ‘You Have Changed’ (placing the fan on the right ear), ‘We are Watched’ (drawing the fan across the forehead), ‘I am Married’ (fanning slowly), ‘I Love You’ (drawing the fan across the cheek), etc.
The language of the fan became the inspiration for a number of similar clothing related codes, including the language of the handkerchief, parasol, and gloves, none of which were followed by any great number of people for any length of time with any seriousness. The idea of a clothing code resurfaced in the gay community in the 1970s, this time in the form of coloured hankies for different sexual preferences. It also reappeared in the 1980s in the punk culture in the colour and arrangement of shoe laces — but that’s another post for another day.