Metro-East Living

Fans were used to send messages to prospective suitors by ladies in the past

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Q. I have been so interested in the little vintage finger purse and Victorian serving pieces readers have asked you about and your very interesting answers. I love passing it all on to my granddaughters who have not been exposed to a lot about these things.

I am sending you a couple of pictures of some old fans that I inherited many years ago from my grandmother. I remember she said there were certain ways they held their fans, which meant different things, but I can’t remember any of them. She said that was their way of subtly flirting with possible suitors. If you have any comments to share about these fans that I have, and if you could share some of any of the flirting ways, I know we would find it very interesting and a big surprise to the young girls of today in comparison to how they relate to boys.

A. Thank you so much for the pictures of your very lovely vintage fans. Each one is so unique and so well preserved. I am not an expert in vintage fans, but after a little research, the guinea feathered fan appears to be the oldest because it is reminiscent of those used in the 16th century. I say this because it appears to be unfoldable, it is feathered, and it has a handle to which it hung from a flexible chain around the ladies’ waist. This hanging of the fan around the waist was no longer considered fashionable in the 17th century. Just like any other antique or vintage item, it was created and served its owners based on the need and fashion of the time and then evolved into some other form.


Basically, from the 16th century until almost the 17th century, no fashionable lady in Europe was considered totally dressed unless she carried a fan. It was used to convey subtle, unspoken messages, and to avoid becoming an openly flirtatious lady, who would then be labeled with the unwanted title of being “coquette.” This title came from the French word, coquet.

The fan was often referred to as “the woman’s sceptor.” Through the years, there are a variety of handed-down legends of the various meanings of the so-called fan and lady’s scepter. For example, if the lady were out walking with other ladies and gentlemen, and she carried her fan in her left hand, it supposedly meant she was wanting to meet an acquaintance. However, if she held it in her right hand, it was even bolder on her part because she was saying “follow me.” (And we say the younger generation of today is bold!)

2020 Dianne Isbell NEW
Dianne Isbell

By holding or placing her fan over different parts of her body, she could convey other very interesting and bold clues to what she was thinking or wanting. For example, one source says if she held the fan to her lips, she was begging for a kiss. Another list says it asks the suitor: “Do you love me?”

The fastness or slowness of how she fanned herself also held meanings and signals; such as, slow fanning gave everyone the message she was married. If she were engaged to be married, she fanned more quickly, and if she twirled her fan in her left hand, she was telling any suitor that she wanted to be rid of them. Suitors and hopeful suitors had to be “on their toes.” Gentlemen had to aware of the meanings of all these fan positions or they could likely be very embarrassed. And, of course, so did the young ladies and if they didn’t know them or forgot them, they might have a lot of explaining to do.

Parasols and hats had meanings, too

Making life even more interesting and challenging is the fact that ladies also began using parasols for signals — some of which were portraying some of the same signals as their fan. Wow! Talk about adding on another element of being attentive and reading signals. What if the fan is saying “I want to meet an acquaintance” and the parasol is saying “I am engaged.”


Handkerchiefs, gloves and hats: Now I am really going to give you either a challenge or a headache because handkerchiefs, gloves and hats were also used to give nonverbal signals. If the lady folded her handkerchief, she was saying, “I wish to speak with you.” Twisting her handkerchief in her left hand meant “I wish to be rid of you.”

In summary, and without even discussing what gloves could say or tilts of hats, how could anyone ever truly know what the lady was trying to say, and how would you ever have time to look at her face while your eyes are so busy flying from the fan to the gloves to the parasol to the hat to the handkerchief!

So much for a simpler, more-refined, uncomplicated life back then. Maybe it was easier for the gentleman to turn and walk in the other direction and wait until he was properly introduced or presented by his family to her family with the intent being the two of them could actually speak to each other with the hope they would become engaged.

Dianne Isbell: