A hand held fan is a fashion accessory that can be used to signal romantic intentions, without speaking a word. It can also be used to ignore or dismiss a pesky suitor, and it even enables one to spy on others behind one's back.
Back in Victorian times, a lady would not be seen at a social event without her fan. Not only was it stylish and provided a practical breeze when needed, but it had another very important purpose - it was used to send signals to the opposite sex! This was a time when strict rules dominated communication between single men and women and flirting was frowned upon, especially in public. Since both sexes were expected to conduct themselves in a chaste and respectable manner at all times, a special code was devised using the hand fan as a messenger. There were 23 distinctive gestures in what was called "The Secret Language of the Fan".
If a young lady was at a ball and a young man caught her fancy from across the room, she could have a secret conversation with him by sending coded signals with her hand fan, thus thwarting the attentions of others. If she held it in front of her face with the left hand, it meant "I am desirous of your acquaintance". If she touched her finger to the fan tip, it meant "I wish to speak". If a woman was married and, therefore, unavailable, she would fan herself slowly. If engaged, she fanned herself quickly.
In response to cues from a suitor, a "yes" was indicated by resting the fan on her right cheek, while a "no" was conveyed by resting the fan on her left cheek. Touching a closed fan to the right eye meant that the woman would allow the man to "see" her. If a woman suddenly twirled her fan in her left hand, it indicated that someone was observing their secret conversation.
This special language wasn't just used in public, but also during courtship, which was almost always chaperoned. If a woman pressed the fan handle to her lips, it indicated she wanted a kiss. Holding out a closed fan asked the question "Do you love me?", whilst placing the fan near the heart signalled "You have won my love".
Similarly, in Spain in the 19th and 20th Centuries, ladies would attend balls in the company of their mothers or female chaperones, who were entrusted with watching over their conduct. The chaperones carried out their duties with such zest that the girls had to find a way of communicating with their suitors without attracting attention. Once again, the fan became the "message carrier"!
Opening and closing and then waving the fan past the cheek denoted "I like or love you"; fanning the breast gently meant "I am unmarried and have not got a fiance"; fanning the breast with short, rapid movements stated "I am engaged, or have a suitor - please go away!"; placing the fan on the temple and looking upwards implied "I think about you night and day"; walking impatiently from one side of the room to the other, striking the fan against the palm of the hand warned the suitor that the chaperone was watching; opening and closing and then pointing the fan towards the garden signified "Wait for me there, I will be out shortly!", opening the fan in the left hand meant "Please talk to me" and, finally, looking at the suitor suggestively and covering the mouth with the fan suggested that the man is the chosen one and is being sent a kiss!