Fashion Myths…. Language of the Fan

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.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
This entry was posted in Accessories, Clothing customs, Myth Information and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Fashion Myths…. Language of the Fan

  1. Lauren says:

    Great post! I often wondered if that was made up or actually followed. I would have been afraid of using a fan for it’s actual purpose since I probably would have unintentionally been sending off mixed codes! hehe.

  2. Jill says:

    I wondered about this. Fascinating. Regarding “the idea of a clothing code” and the gay community, I recall one of my university profs suggesting that, among the Decadents and Aesthetes, the green carnation was a symbol amongst gay men in the 1890s + (Oscar Wilde being at the centre of this fashion coding. I wonder if this is also a fashion myth?

    • Jonathan says:

      I hadn’t heard about the green carnation in the 1890s, but I have read red ties were favourites in the 1910s. I tend to believe those are real as they are simply identifying the wearer rather than speaking an entire language across a ballroom!

  3. Kelly Lock says:

    I love fans! The idea of being able to communicate with them is even better!
    I wanted to ask where you got the pictures from. Are they scans from Daniel Shafer’s book “Secrets of Life Unveiled”? I wanted to use one of them for a blog post I am doing. It seems to be a fairly rare book!

  4. Pingback: The Language of the Fan: Myth or Fact? « Tea in a Teacup

  5. This language of the fan is of course a kind of hoax, used mainly for marketing purposes. A good article was written on this subject by Janice Pence Ryan, « Fact and Fiction about Fan Lanquage in the 18th Century) » FANA Journal, Spring 2004, p. 11-22. (FANA is “Fan Association of North America”. If you speak French, and have time enough, you can also have a look at my Ph.D. Thesis (on line : http://www.theses.fr/2015REN20026) See p. 263-278 & p. 558-567.

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks for the link – My French is not suitable for conversation but I can wade through text (especially if its about food or fashion!)

  6. tinny says:

    Intriguing article! Is there a bibliography available for further research? Also, where did the images of book pages in the article come from?

    • Jonathan says:

      One of the comments refers to a book in French with more information. The images were found online with no notations of where they came from.

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