I recently went to my niece’s wedding, and part of the weekend festivities was an Afternoon Tea for the bride, her wedding party, and female family members and close friends. It was a lovely time and the venue also included an adorable gift shop filled with tea sets, tea towels, tea strainers, and all the fixings for a fabulous tea party. One item that stood out to me was an old-fashioned print out detailing “The Language of Fans.” Apparently how you use a fan, where you use a fan, and what hand you hold it in all mean something different. It all piqued my interest because not only do I like history and interesting information, I like fans. And not just the kind that root for my favorite teams!
I’m talking hand-held fans and I have two that I treasure: one that I got in Spain when I visited my sister who lived there and one that my niece (the very one who hosted the bridal tea party!) brought me from Japan, where she lived for many years. Often associated with both Spanish flamenco dancers and Japanese geisha dancers, fans are much more than simple accessories and have a long and interesting history.
To start with, there are basically two versions of the hand-held fan: the folding type and the rigid style. Both date back centuries, with ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans all being depicted using fans. Some say the use of fans can be traced as far back as 4,000 years in Egypt, where they were considered sacred instruments and were used in religious ceremonies. Interestingly enough, two fans were found in King Tut’s tomb and fans are mentioned in the bible
From there it gets kinda hazy. Both Japan and China stake claim of inventing the modern day fan and both countries have valid points and history. What is agreed upon is that the folding fan, modeled after the folding wings of a bat, came from Japan while the “fixed” or rigid version was developed in China. It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty that folding fans were introduced in China.
Originally fans were intended for practical reasons like swatting away insects, shielding a lady’s face from the sun or fire, and cooling one off. They were first used by the middle class, who didn’t have staff to fan them or take on household tasks using fans. Both folded and rigid fans became popular imports in 1500s Europe as trade routes opened up, and quickly become exotic and stylish symbols of wealth and class, even falling into the “expensive toys” category. It didn’t take long for well-healed women to soon be seen carrying an assortment of hand-held fans, which were often decorated with jewels and feathers and hanging from the skirts of even Queen Elizabeth I. They eventually were considered works of art and created by specialized craftsman, many hand painted on luxurious silk.
This was not the case across the ocean in America though, where the fan had much more humble origins. Fans stateside were rarely jewel-encrusted or hand-painted. Instead, they were often produced and mended by the likes of Shakers and made from straw or paper.
In today’s Japan, the folding fan remains very important in Japanese society and culture; even in that of sumo wrestling. A traditional fan is made from washi paper while fans made of silk are considered the most precious. A fan symbolizes prosperity through its opening up and its single starting point and wooden strips going out from it resemble the various paths leading us through life after the single point of birth.
The color of and pictures on a fan are also full of meaning. A pair of birds symbolize a loving couple, bamboo and pine represent patience, a lion symbolizes strength, a koi carp represents luck and a long life, plum blossoms represent a new beginning, while cherry blossoms represent the love of parents as well as richness and good luck. Typically fans will consist of an odd number of pictures, as odd numbers are considered lucky. Gold colored fans are believed to attract wealth while red and white ones are considered to bring luck.
In Spain, fans go hand-in-hand, both literally and figuratively, with classic flamenco dancing. It’s believed that both the fans and shawls used in flamenco originally came from China and Japan but Spaniards have made them uniquely their own through their passionate dance. Popular products coming through Portugal through trade routes, it didn’t take long for fans to become sought after items, especially by those in Southern Spain where the weather is hot and flamenco originated.
Flamenco is considered a very seductive dance that incorporates emotion, grace, and style in a performance full of power and passion. If you’ve never seen a live flamenco performance, I highly recommend doing so.
Brides have jumped on board the fan wagon and fans are making their way down wedding aisles in many forms. One way is to provide folded versions for outdoor wedding guests while another option is a more rigid version complete with wedding party or wedding schedules printed on them. Still another option, although one that’s a bit gaudy for my taste, is to incorporate fans in a bridal or bridesmaid bouquet.
The fashion world has of course not missed the boat on this one, with many a fashion house incorporating fans on their runways and splashing their logos on fans of all fashions. So in style are fans, that Rihanna is often photographed with one in hand and designer versions were given to front row VIPS at last year’s Dior Couture show, of course emblazoned with the design house name and logo.
Ironically it was Dior’s very own Paris where Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy launched his fan house in 1827. The well-known French fan maker and leather goods manufacturer is one of the rare French fan makers still in existence today and he is credited with introducing the notion of “fan language” to his fans. Some say it was just a marketing ploy by him and other manufacturers to sell fans, but I personally like the concept; a concept that has never been fully debunked.
In the courts of early England and Spain, it was said that fans were used in, yes, a secret and unspoken language of sorts. These hand messages were clever in that they allowed a woman the ability to cope with stifling and restrictive social etiquettes. And according to a recent exhibit on the history of fans at Purdue University, Joseph Addison, publisher of “The Spectator” in the early 1700s, is credited with opening an academy for women to be trained in the use and handling of a fan, saying “women are armed with fans as men with swords and sometimes do more execution with them.” Amen sistas!
So, what exactly was this secret language? It was all printed out on that piece I saw at my niece’s tea and what got me started on this whole fan appreciation blog. Here then is “The Language of Fans.” True or not, I’m a fan.
With handle to lips: kiss me
Placing it on left ear: you have changed
Fanning slowly: I am married
Fanning Fast: I am engaged
Drawing across cheek: I love you
Open wide: wait for me
Dropping fan: we are friends
Drawing across forehead: we are watched
Carrying in right hand: you are too willing
Carrying in left hand: desirous of acquaintance
Drawing though hand: I hate you
Drawing across eyes: I am sorry
Twirling in left hand: I wish to get rid of you
Twirling in right hand: I love another
In right hand in front of face: follow me
Closing fan: I wish to speak to you
Letting it rest on right cheek: yes
Letting it rest on left cheek: no