The Language of Fans
a wonderful goth accessory in the clubs; the wispy cracking sound it makes as it is opened with one hand and cooling yourself from the smoky and music filled air...
This wonderful accessory has spanned throughout history for both fashion and functional purposes.
The word fan comes from the Latin vannus, meaning a tool for screening grain. At some point, some sweaty laborer decided to fan himself and wah la! The fan as we know it!
In the Orient, the Chinese and Japanese have used fans continuously through history, with their earliest versions in the sixth century varying in moon, pear, flag and heart shapes.
Their uses were moderated within strict court etiquette and ceremonial customs. It has been said that the Chinese were the first to paint designs upon the fans.
The hey-day of fans was during the 18th century among both men and women. Mens fans were distinguished with bugs in the decoration; maybe a mosquito or beetle painted somewhere in the scene denoted the fan belonged to a man. (Can you imagine all the goth boys in clubs with spiders on their fans?) Queen Victoria discouraged the use of fans among men during the 19th century, which probably explains why we only think of heavily corsetted women using them.
To the young ladies and men of the Elizabethan era, fanology was a secret and silent language that could be used to communciate without speaking. Fanology included an intricate alphabet; sometimes a rendevous time could be made by the number of sticks showing. Other symbols included:
Covering your left ear to request your secret be kept.
Twirling the fan in your left hand to warn of being watched.
Drawing the fan across the eyes by way of apology.
Half opened fan to the lips to give permission to kiss.
During the latter half of the eighteenth century, many ladies printed fans served as memory aids, (heh heh, fashionable cheat sheets!) including such information as dance steps, song lyrics, and card game rules.
The English sample below (slide #1) shows botanical information and is dated 1792. Here, plants could be classified by flower structure and leaf shape arrangement; Latin and English names appear among the 24 illustrations.
The second sample (slide #2) is French cockade calendar. (Cockade refers to the particular shape of this fan). It has the names of the saints and major holy days printed for each day in 1774.
The third sample (slide #3), dated 1795, is a scene of seven figures containing the words to a German song.
The fan could also serve as a tool of communication via the advertisement. This early 20th century fan below (slide #4) advertises Café Martin on one side and Perfumed with Pompeia, L.T. Piver, Paris on the reverse.
This fan (slide #5) advertises from Old Spice (yes, the mens toiletries) dating 1910.
An advertising fan (slide #6) for La Menthe Pastille dating from the early 20th century.
A modern fan from Thai Airlines (slide #7) advertising Royal Orchid Service
With the early 20th century, advances in technology ran wild and women ditched the fan as their roles in society changed. As woman began to work and run off to cocktail parties, the items they carried changed. How can you possibly hold your cigarette, drink, purse, and fan?
Although the fan isnt deemed an essential accessory for ladies anymore, their beauty hasnt changed. The antique collector can judge the date and country of a particular fan depending on the shape, size, color and materials used. Check out the variety of samples below!
For further reading:The Book of Fans
by Nancy Armstrong
Unfolding Beauty, The Art of The Fan
by Anna Gray Bennett
The Victorian Grimoire
by Patricia Telesco