Victorian Rituals

Rituals I - The Fan

Fans were not only a fashion accessory, but a means of flirtatious communication. Wherever young men and women intermingled, the click of a fan sent a message.

The Young Ladies Journal of 1872 reported on the significance of each charming gesture:

  • Fan fast - I am independent
  • Fan slow - I am engaged
  • Fan with right hand in front of face - come on
  • Fan with left hand in front of face - leave me
  • Fan open and shut - kiss me
  • Fan open wide - love
  • Fan half open - friendship
  • Fan shut - hate
  • Fan swinging - can I see you home?
  • Twirling in right hand - I am watching you
  • Drawn slowly across the cheek - I love you
  • Resting fan on right cheek - yes
  • Placing the fan behind your head - don't forget me
  • Touching the fan against your left ear - go away!

"The fan's novel feature was its ability to open and close 'at a touch', thereby providing that essential element of fashion - surprise," says Anna Gray Bennett in her book "Unfolding Beauty: The Art of the Fan". Women of high society owned many fans, simple ones for church and richly ornate evening designs embellished with jewels, gilt, and lace.

The leaves of most fans were made of a fine paper, vellum, or silk and were painted with opaque watercolor scenes. The support of the leaves were usually made of ivory, tortoiseshell or mother of pearl. In any case, antique fans are extremely delicate and light sensitive.

At the opera, if a woman grew restless watching the performance, she could turn her fan and spy on other audience members through the peeping holes. And sometimes there were song lyrics or riddles written in tiny script. Admiring such details on a woman's fan was one of the ways a gentleman could sit close to a woman.

By the late 1890's, women no longer kept their tongues silent, fans carried no modest message, but bold statements were made with huge feathered fans by Lillian Russell and others as they swaggered across the stage.