Obsolete Fashion: Making Courting a Breeze

“Flirtation” by Frédéric Soulacroix

You know those situations where you’re stuck outside at some event, say, a free concert in the park, and the heat is so crushing that you fold up a piece of paper and use it to swish a cool breeze over your face? That’s about the only time you see hand-held fans nowadays – as an arcane version of air conditioning. But fans weren’t always just functional; they used to be a prime vehicle for flirting as well.

Fans have been around pretty much since forever-ever (fourth century BCE in Greece), but it wasn’t until roughly the 18th century that they took on their coy character. Although some modern sources brush it off as a marketing ploy, historical evidence supports that there existed a language of the fan used for courting in, particularly, England and Spain. For example Daniel Shafer’s 1877 etiquette manual entitled Secrets of Life Unveiled reports that carrying your fan in your left hand means you are “desirous of an acquaintance,” while twirling it in your left hand means, “I love another.”

Even if the language of the fan wasn’t so exact as this source claims, there’s no doubt that these painted pieces of parchment or silk were used to be coy. A 1882 article from the New York Times, for example, speaks of a character from a book of the era, saying “Flavia was, however, an adept at the adroit manipulation of the fan and even if it proved an ‘engine of small force in love,’ it served admirably to conceal the blush which suffused her cheeks when Squire Western broke one of his favorite jokes…”

Their flirtatious air aside, fans were also key in circulating air to wash away the heat of the summer. Though they’re pretty much defunct for both uses now, would you like to see fans retake their place as a way to win one a summer love? Let us know!

Are you a fan of the fan?

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  1. tiffany 07/12/2011 at 3:20 pm #

    Swing dancers still use fans all the time, all year long.

  2. Candy 07/12/2011 at 7:05 pm #

    Fans are still very common in Japan as well! Mostly they use the uchiwa (a flat fan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Uchiwa.jpg) and they come in all shapes and sizes, often with the faces of J-pop stars plastered on! But you still see the traditional ones around, mostly with the older generation. Though sometimes a brave baseball High school kid will bust out a pretty pink one! 😀

  3. Sophie 07/12/2011 at 7:11 pm #

    it has been so hot this summer a fan would be great… although if I had to wear that huge dress it might defeat the purpose!

  4. C 07/13/2011 at 11:02 am #

    I love the fan I picked up in Japan last year. It’s a little fancy to tote around, but I may quit caring if this heat keeps up. The Japanese summer was definitely no place or time for drawing lines between “decorative” and “functional”.

  5. constance 07/13/2011 at 10:12 pm #

    Not a dancer, but I totally use a hand fan – and it is rather coy, but practical….it’s totally perfect in the mississippi heat!

  6. Danielle 07/17/2011 at 11:20 pm #

    I remember once when I was around nine, my class went on a field trip. I don’t remember where we went, but I do remember learning about the old “fan language” and being so captivated by the beautiful secrecy. I loved reading this post!

  7. everwideningcircles 02/01/2012 at 11:51 pm #

    I have been in South Korea for 6 months now and I LOVE that they use both fans and parasols! \(^^)/

  8. Danielle 01/27/2013 at 3:26 pm #

    The student with whom I stayed on an exchange in Pozuelo, Madrid during the winter of ’06 visited me in Massachusetts the following summer. She boldly used her fan with aplomb. I considered taking up the trend! I think it’s quite popular in Spain – I’d merely missed out on their use during my winter stay. I had, however, bought some lovely lace fans to gift to my sisters while I was there. Perhaps I’ll go scrounge them up!

    • Hannah (ModCloth) 04/09/2013 at 11:19 am #

      Maybe I need to go to Spain and take some fan-wielding lessons. Sounds like a good trick to have stowed away!

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