The Language of the Fan

“You can kiss me now”  

“You may kiss me now” – ‘Lefebvre’

There is a peacock-like quality about the folding fans which came into fashionable use, they unfurl to display their glory, to attract attention and to send a message – and what a mixture of messages there were.   There is much conjecture over the supposed meanings behind the ‘ signals’ and use of the fan in the 17c and 18c.  It is no wonder the fan gained a reputation as a tool for seduction and also the target of mockery, as a satirical document purporting ‘Language of the Fan’ was created by Joseph Addison in The Spectator:

Joseph Addison, publisher of The Spectator in the early 1700s, was known to have said that if he could only see the fan of a disciplined lady he could tell her mood and what she was feeling.  Addison also (allegedly) started an academy for women to be trained in the use and handling of a fan. In regards to fan etiquette he said, “Women are armed with fans as men with swords, and sometimes do more execution with them.”

“The Fluttering of the Fan is the last, and indeed the master-piece of the whole Exercise; but if a lady does not misspend her time, she may make herself mistress of it in three months…There is the angry flutter, the modest flutter, the timorous flutter, the confused flutter, the merry flutter, and the amorous flutter…I have seen a fan so very angry, that it would have been dangerous for the absent lover who provoked it to have come within the wind of it…I need not add, that a fan is either a prude of coquet according to the nature of the person who bears it.

p.s. I teach young gentlemen the whole art of gallanting a fan.”

Spectator, no. 102

A social gathering – check the fan positions!
(painting by Tissot)

Whether such a language was ever really deployed by young ladies at fashionable parties is impossible to know, but a compilation of common themes became known, as follows:

  • Fan closed, tip to lips: we are overheard
  • Ditto, tip to right cheek: yes
  • Ditto, tip to left cheek: no
  • Ditto, tip to forehead: you are out of your mind
  • Chin on tip: you annoy me
  • Ditto, tip to heart: I love you
  • Lower open fan until pointing at the ground: I hate you

There is no proof that this ‘Fan Language’ was historically correct or actually existed except perhaps as a urban myth. It was more likely to have been a marketing invention by 16th century fan sellers to promote the purchase of fans, and like chinese whispers,  this ‘language’ evolved over time into many interpretations which was used to great effect by the Duvelleroy branch in London in 19c, who, with every fan purchased gave booklets with this ‘secret code’ to their customers.

A 19c Ostrich Fan by Duvelleroy

Even if there is no substance to this ‘language’ it makes it so much more intriguing and FUN to believe it existed (and where would historical romance writers be without ‘a petulant flick of the fan’ for their heroines?).  So if your appetite is whetted, here are a few more ‘fan fripperies’ – links to various ‘Fan Language’ interpretations, that you can check out:

18c and beyond the Fan dom

France became the principal manufacturer of fans in the 18c and they started to dominate the perfume industry at the same time.  Their cultivation of scents from tuberose, jasmine and rose were used in both arts,  and from 19c these flowers were mixed with animal scents and spices for use by the ‘cocottes’.  So even if the Fans themselves were not scented, wearing an explosion of civet, tuberose and spice and wafting a fan about your person would be sure to create an impression  (regardless of one’s fan-handling skills) and stir a reaction, that could not be misinterpreted!

Virginal or Vampish – Which Fan are you?

Do you think some kind of 18c marketing whizz would have created fans blending flower language, art and scent to target ‘certain women’?  For example, for the ingenue, virginal lady, the fans might depict decorous, chaste flowers with a sweet, delicate virtuous fragrance and would be supplied with the appropriate ‘fan language scroll’?  The more brazen, experienced lady or mistress of the day would have the bolder, headier flowers depicted (perhaps with serpents and seductive goddesses painted on the reverse) and scented accordingly, their fans supplied with the appropriate teasing, petulant ‘fan language’ – ooh what a project to perhaps recreate!

Final days of the Fan

From the late 19c to early 20c the perfumery business exploded, but fans as a perfumed object of fashion were facing imminent demise.  Instead, advertising fans impregnated with fragrance were not uncommon, and with the invention and rise of the atomiser spray fans instead became an advertising object for the perfumer, retailer or business to promote products from insurance and beer to railroads and theatres!

Fans went from scented objects to promotional advertising boards
(image by

L.T Pivers Advertising perfume fan – Floramye
(image credit:

Fans are not a common accessory these days, apart from those electric windmills seen on the tube on rare muggy days – it seems the appreciation of the beauty, language and art of the fan is consigned to museum visits and the occasional specialist commission (by Sylvain le Guen!).

Get your Fan fix

If you have succumbed to the allure of all things FAN, go pursue your inner seductress.  Anoint yourself with a suitably exotic siren-scent, such as gardenia, violets and musk perhaps, or go visit Les Senteurs, who will educate your nostrils and tempt the purse-strings, then grab an ostrich-fan and join a burlesque group to be inducted into the art of the fan dance.  For some inspiration, check out this clip with the legendary Sally Rand:

Or for the less bold among you, if you cannot make your own Fan or do not want to re-mortgage to purchase an original fan artwork, check this purchase out …. (though when I checked it was sold out)

Daniel Vaudd – paper perfumed fan

‘Radiantly Romantic Summer‘ Scented Hand Fan by Daniel Vaudd. Available online

Perhaps we can revive the use of decorative fans in public, bring back Fragranced Fans a la Marie Antoinette I say and lets communicate and cool down with a well placed flick and flutter.

all the fans-a-flutter
(image from movie of “Marie Antoinette”)

As they say, most communication is non-verbal, and it would be a great deterrent for undesirable attention on the Tube – or to divert any unpleasant odours (others not yours-hopefully!!) that you can subtly waft away from you.

If you would like to have a go at being creative, Greenwich Fan Museum holds Fan Making workshops on the first Saturday of the month, check out their website for further information.

Here are some other links you might find useful and Mendes has some wonderful pictures of antique fans:-  (images and sale of rare fans)

About The Perfume Mistress

"If the eyes are the windows to your soul, then the nose is the doorway to your imagination" The Perfume Mistress Hello, by day I am a clinical aromatherapist and tutor, with over 10 years of working with natural materials and essential oils, by night I delve into the art of botanical perfumery, reading and smelling all things olfactory. I have set up the 'Nosetrodami Club' offering scentsory talks, discussions and master-classes on all topics and themes olfactive. I also offer one and two day workshops in the art of natural perfumery, natural and organic body & skincare. My inspirations range from the mundane to the metaphysical, the hum-drum to the hyperbolic which you may see reflected in my posts.
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