Friday, November 18, 2011

The Resurgence of the Fan

Nancy with parasol at Colosseum
 We went to Europe this summer, and one of our stops was Italy.  I adore Europe and have visited a dozen times, but they don't do air conditioning the way we Americans are used to air conditioning.  I know we're spoiled.  I admit it.  And actually, much of the time we weren't inside, but outside.  Walking around Rome or Venice or Florence in 103-degree heat made us melt like gelato on the pavement. 

I don't do heat.  My favorite temperature is 60--with clouds (I should live in Seattle.)  Other than searching for a breeze, or hunting out shade, I discovered two things that saved me.  A parasol and a fan.  Fantastico!
Honestly, I cannot imagine walking around any American city with either, but in Europe I didn't feel foolish at all.  And strolling through Rome's Forum, or waiting to ascend the Eiffel Tower, they helped me survive the heat. 
Woman with Parasol by Renoir

It made me wonder why we've abandoned the parasol and fan.  The parasol probably went by the wayside because we now embrace having a tan.  But a hundred years ago, having porcelain skin revealed breeding.  Only people who worked for a living had tanned skin.  So I'll surrender the parasol--even though I don't do tans either.

But... the fan... 
Lady with a Fan by Aviat

Being a woman of a certain age, who goes through her own personal heat waves, I've started using one of two pretty fans I bought in Florence and at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C.  Yes, I receive a few odd looks, but I don't mind. It's far more elegant than fanning my flash with a menu or page of coupons.

In my research, I learned there was a Language of the Fan, where women could say secret things to the men in their lives by the flip of their fan.  Fanning with the right hand in front of your face meant "Follow me." Fanning with your left hand meant, "Don't flirt with that woman." Slowly fanning yourself meant, "Don't waste your time, I don't care about you."  While quickly fanning yourself meant, "I love you so much." 

Lady with a Fan by James Tissot
Yikes, would I be in big trouble!  Because I tend to fan with both hands (as one hand gives out) and at different speeds depending on the outer--and my inner--thermometer.  Any man who was trying to understand my fan-language would run in the other direction--with good cause. No wonder men complain that they can't understand women.

Which leads to a bigger question:  did men really understand this special, intricate language?  Not to disparage the other sex, but I've noticed that most men I know don't pay attention to what a woman is wearing, if their hair is worn up or down, or even if they wear glasses, much less notice whether the woman runs her fingers over the fan's ribs (meaning "I want to talk to you") or carries the fan closed with the left hand (meaning "I'm engaged.")  Sorry, but it ain't going to happen.  

Lady with a Fan by Mary Cassatt

Either men have changed drastically over the centuries, or the whole Language of the Fan is something women created and talked about amongst their friends, while the men never caught on.  Or if a rare one did . . . I bet he was very popular.
Also, there's the secrecy thing... why did they feel the need to be secret?  For instance, if you wanted to say goodbye to some man, why not go up to him and say goodbye, or even wave from across the room.  But saying goodbye in fan-speak, by placing the fan behind your head with a finger extended . . .  Goodness sakes. 

Besides, if every lady in the room knew the language, there wasn't much secrecy in it.  Imagine a room full of women all gesturing with their fans.  It would be like an opera when everyone sings their own line at the same time. Or the sideline of a football game, when the coaches are all gesturing frantically to get their play in.  Ha.  Women with fans were certainly getting their play in!

There is one message I could use on occasion: passing the fan from hand to hand means, "I see that you are looking at another woman."  But I've found that clearing the throat, or an elbow in the ribs works just as well.

For cooling purposes, and even as a fashion accessory, I'm all for the resurgence of the fan.  But for everyone's sake, let the language die.//Nancy


  1. In early America, before air conditioning the south, in particular, had their fans. They were not nearly as pretty, more functional, always in the church pews and very often distributed with advertising. You can still get these advertising fans at a state fair, on occassion.

  2. A couple of summers go the city of Lexington, NE printed old fashioned church fans with the schedule of events for their Plum Creek Days celebration. It brought back memories of sitting in church with my folks ... bc (before the conditioning of air!) ... and I have one of those fans with my name on that list of events because the museum had me come talk about sod house homemakers. What a memory ... and Nancy, I think the idea of fancy fans is very classy.

  3. As to the language ... when you mentioned opera houses ... can't you just see a conversation taking place from loge to loge across the crowd sitting down below? ... sigh ... such romance!

  4. I'd love for some satire group to do a skit about the language of fans. It would be hilarious.