Flirtatious Fans

The ultimate accessory for any well respecting lady for many centuries. As well as being a practical tool for keeping cool in hot weather and complementing the dress, they were also used for ‘making eyes’ promising untold delights, aka flirting.

I am an intern looking at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre’s collection of fans and I became intrigued by them. Some of them are beautiful with intricate designs, whilst others are plain, or made from feathers or in one case disguised as what looks like a cigar! I began to delve a little more into the world of fans and found what is known as ‘the language of the fan’ as rather amusing.

The earliest recorded use of a fan dates from 3200BC, however it was not until the eighteenth century in Europe that the use of the fan was developed to the highest degree. They were used in winter and summer, as memory aids, political propaganda, parlour games and masks as well as flirting tools. The language of the fan was developed to such sophistication that entire conversations could be conducted without having spoken at all!

In 1910, a book was published that listed over fifty signals that could be conveyed with fans, ranging from ‘I hate you’ to ‘I long to be near you’. Forget dating sites and lonely hearts columns, why not grab a fan and try out some eighteenth century ‘fan speak’ and see where how effective it is for you.

Shut fan held to the heart says – you have my love
Placing fan on the left ear – I wish to get rid of you
Shut fan resting on the right eye – when may I be allowed to see you?
Drawing fan through the hand – I hate you
With handle to the lips – kiss me

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