Learning the Secret Language of Fans

Fan "Tame Bird"

A highlight of the tour of Rundāle Palace is a special lesson to teach the secret language of fans. With ladies in the 18th century having to follow strict etiquette rules set by society, it was not surprising that the secret language of fans was created. With the constant pressure to be perfectly docile and composed in public, there had to be a way to communicate with gentlemen they were interested in.

Fan "Tame Bird"

History of the FanGold, Black White, and Red Embroidered Hand Fans

The fan has been apart of history as far back as Egypt 4,000 years ago. But, Japan and China are both recognized as where the folding hand fan originated. The fan was then introduced to Europe through trade routes in the 16th century. In the beginning, the hand fan was the practical way to cool a person down. It also had a ceremonial role in Asia. That changed when the fan came to Europe. The purpose of the fan expanded to become a way to show status. The more elaborate designs and expensive materials demonstrated taste and wealth.

Designs of FansFan "Tame Bird"

Ornate Lace and Painted Hand Fans
Detailed painted hand fan
Black and White Lace Hand Fans
Gold, Black White, and Red Embroidered Hand Fans

Fans in the 18th and 19th centuries out of France became so intricately detailed and designed. Fans were designed with all sorts of materials that were available. These included Bone, ivory, Tortoiseshell, silk, Mother-of-pearl, paper, fabric, straw & feather applique, sequins, brocade threads, lace, tulle, silhouette cutting, engraving, metallic foil finish, wash drawing, gilding, engraving, metallic foil finish, and painting.

The Secret Language of FansTip of the closed fan touching the ear - Call Me

In Victorian times, ladies learned how to gain the attention of suiters, flirted, and declined advances through gestures and hand movements using their fans. A fan maker in Paris published a leaflet detailing the gestures and hand movements of the hand fan. The thought is that it was to increase sales of his fans. But more contemporary etiquette books and magazines started publishing the language. Soon women and men both understood the language to communicate when in public. The proper use of the hand fan also was passed down from woman to woman. I love that we have looked out for each other since the 18th century.

The Language of the Fan

Carrying in the right hand in front of the face – Follow me

Carrying in the left hand in front of the face – I am desirous of your acquaintance

Carrying in the right hand – You are too willing

Carrying in the left hand, open – Come and talk to me

Covering the left ear with an open fan – Do not betray our secret

Drawing across the forehead – You have changed

Drawing through the hand – I hate you

Drawing across the cheek – I love you

Drawing across the eyes – I am sorry

Twirling in the left hand – We are watched

Twirling in the right hand – I love another

Presented Shut – Do you love me?

Open and shut – You are cruel

Open Wide – Wait for me

Touching tip with a finger – I wish to speak to you

Hands clasped together holding an open fan – Forgive me

Letting it rest on the right cheek – Yes

Letting it rest on the left cheek – No

Letting it touch the right eye – When may I be allowed to see you?

The number of sticks shown answers the question – At what hour?

Dropping it – We will be friends

Fanning slowly – I am married

Fanning quickly – I am engaged

Placing it on the left ear – I wish to get rid of you

Placing handle to lips – Kiss me

Placing behind head – Don’t forget me

Placing behind the head with Little Finger extended – Goodbye

Practicing the Art of Fan GesturesFan held with right hand in front of face - Follow Me

I gave it a whirl and tried to practice my ability to communicate with hand fans. Holding the fan with the right hand is usually positive, where using the left is negative. I could have used some of these earlier this year. Having picked up a couple of fans in Asia, I find them great additions on my travels, mainly for cooling me down. But, I might be using some of these communication messages in the future. More meanings for you include:

  • Holding the fan wide open means I like you
  • If you hold the fan half-shut, it means I want to be friends only
  • Holding the fan completely shut means I hate you
  • Striking his cheek with your fan means, How dare you!
  • And turning your fan so he can only see the backside means I’ll never speak to you again
  • Holding fan in the right hand in front of your face means Follow me
  • Holding fan in the left hand in front of your face means Leave me
  • Closing your fan and tapping your wrist means Meet me later
  • Placing the fan near the heart means You have won my love

If you are interested in practicing these moves or picking up your fan, you can try these out from Amazon.


Learning the secret language of hand fans was a great activity on our tour of Rundāle Palace. The fan gestures and hand movements allowed women to express their feelings to potential suitors, whether they liked more attention from them or they weren’t interested. I enjoyed my time learning the craft. How do you think I did?

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Further Reading

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  • Kurt Goetting 6March2024 at 8:27 PM Reply

    At three old fans one of them looks to be ivory with silver inlay and hand-painted at the top. I was wondering if there’s anybody that can give me an appraisal and tell me about how old they are and where they’re from?

  • gay 9August2023 at 7:46 PM Reply

    I have 4 fans to sell – one is ostrich feather pink and one is an Amish funeral fan.

    • Heather 10August2023 at 7:18 AM Reply

      I would try and sell them on Facebook Marketplace or Ebay.

  • Janet de Acevedo Macdonald 30June2023 at 5:25 PM Reply

    Heather, this is great stuff! I am a fan of fans. It’s a shame it’s a lost art. Should they come back in vogue, you will surely be ahead of the fan game!!

    • Heather 30June2023 at 7:30 PM Reply

      It has gotten a resurgence since the Enola Holmes 2 movie came out

  • FAN LANGUAGE | cuma asal omong 2August2022 at 12:10 AM Reply

    […] Flirting with a hand fan The Secret Language of Hand Fans Learning the Secret Language of Fans […]

  • nicolai 21December2021 at 4:21 PM Reply

    this is so cool and helpfull. Thank you for the work you put in this piece.

    • Heather 21December2021 at 9:48 PM Reply

      You’re most welcome!

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