AMAZING ACCESSORIES: THE LANGUAGE OF THE FAN

By Masha Voyles

Just a handy hint: the bits in bold might be the answers to bonus questions on your hunt! Buy your tickets to the Fashion Hunt at the V&A here.

If there’s one wardrobe item that I’m praying fashion will eventually bring back, it’s the hand-held fan. They’re greener than air conditioner, a good workout for the arm, and often really, really pretty. There were floral fans, feather fans, ivory fans and printed fans, mask fans and even map fans (which were among the first tourist souvenirs).  

Fans also often had hidden messages in them. This ‘Royalist’ fan, pictured below, would have shown the holder’s support for the Stuart royal family after George I, Elector of Hanover seized the British throne in 1714. It shows members of the Stuart royal family in its folds. On the left, Charles II is shown hiding in a tree after having been defeated by Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester, and next to him Queen Anne is shown ascending to heaven. Who would need to read books about English history if everyone carried educational fans?! The fan both reveals and conceals the wearer’s allegiances: once slightly folded, it would only have shown a demure floral design. But that design also has a meaning: the white and red roses were actually the Stuart coat of arms. Pretty sneaky stuff, right?  

Royalist fan at the V&A 

There was even an entire fan ‘language’: for example, holding it with your little finger extended meant ‘goodbye’, presenting it shut meant ‘do you love me?’ and carrying it in the left hand in front of your face meant ‘we are watched’.  My personal favourite is ‘I love you’—you would draw your fan across your cheek—difficult to do this subtly, I think. Here’s a Vogue article linking a whole table of fan-language & its fun, secretive translations. Expanded vocabulary can of course be found at the V&A, where there are three British Royalist fans on display! Might want to memorise a few of them to up your flirting game!  

Are you signed up for our upcoming new hunt, the Fashion Hunt at the V&A (Kicking off Thanksgiving week from 2-4:30 pm on Sunday 24 November)? You may just have read the answers to some embedded bonus questions in this post! Tickets are limited, but can be bought on Eventbrite & find bonus answers in posts about fashionista Josephine Bonaparte (yes, Napoleon’s Empress) or the Pandora Doll, the predecessor of our runway sampling (which Napoleon banned, incidentally, frightened state secrets were sewn in and exported with these dolls!)

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