I’m fascinated by the idea of a secret language of fans. I can’t quite see how it would work. Don’t get me wrong; I’m quite prepared to believe that fans were used to flirt with, and that certain gestures meant certain things. I just don’t see how coded signals could be both effective and secret. After all, if everyone knew that a half-opened fan pressed to the lips meant ‘I want your kiss’, no lady would dare press the handle of her fan to her lips in the middle of a crowded ballroom. (And if she and her swain were unobserved, then fan signals were surely unnecessary.)
For what it is worth, though, here are signals that every chaperon worth her salt should have been looking for, according to a pamphlet published in 1827 by fan-maker Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy:
- Twirling the fan in the left hand means “we are watched.”
- Carrying the fan in the right hand in front of her face means “follow me.”
- Covering the left ear with the open fan means “do not betray our secret.”
- Drawing the fan through the hand means “I hate you.”
- Drawing the fan across the cheek means “I love you.”
- Touching the tip of the fan with the finger means “I wish to speak to you.”
- Letting the fan rest on the right cheek means “yes.”
Letting the fan rest on the left cheek means “no.”
- Opening and shutting the fan means “you are cruel.”
- Dropping the fan means “we will be friends.”
- Fanning slowly means “I am married.”
- Fanning rapidly means “I am engaged.”
- Touching the handle of the fan to the lips means “kiss me.”
Whether they used them to signal to others or not, ladies—and gentlemen, too, in the regency—found the surface of fans a useful place to write memory joggers: dance steps, song lyrics, rules for card games.
Fans could be made of all sorts of things. Some were of feathers. Some were of flat sticks of bone, ivory, wood, tortoiseshell, or mother of pearl, joined at one end, and strung on ribbon or cord so that the other end flared into the fan shape. Others had ribs of such material and a pleated skin of paper, lace, silk, or fine leather. (Here’s a quiz question. What were chicken-skin fans made from?) They were often exquisitely painted. Whether our regency heroes and heroines signaled with them or not, they would not wish to enter a stuffy crowded ballroom without one.
“You will not find what you are looking for,” drawled the Duke of Roxton, quizzing glass fixed on Madame de La Tournelle. “That which you desire is not here.”
Salvan spun about and stared up at the impassive aquiline profile.
“Continue to gawp and I will go elsewhere,” murmured the Duke. “Mademoiselle Claude has been beckoning with her fan this past half hour. Sitting next to that frost-piece is preferable to being scrutinized by you, dearest cousin.”
Salvan snapped open a fan of painted chicken skin and fluttered it like a woman, searching gaze returning to the sea of silk and lace.
“To be abandoned for that hag would be an insult I could not endure, mon cousin. You merely startled me.”
“I repeat, your search is fruitless.”
“Ah! You see me scanning faces. I always do so. It is nothing,” Salvan said lightly. “Did you think me looking for someone in particular? No! Who—Who did you think I was looking for?”