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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

05 September 2009

Secret Signals: Fans, Parasols, and Shawls


My current work in progress is a Regency, and I have another book I’ve just started that’s set during the Victorian era. The heroines are fun to write here…I find everything is a little bit lighter than my medieval romances.

Along the way, I studied up on ballroom etiquette and followed a surfing thread about the secret code of fans, shawls and parasols. All of these fashionable accessories were used to send signals, and communicate messages to suitors—the twirl of parasol just so, the touching of a fan to one’s cheek and the drape of a shawl.

This from a costume website:

“During Victorian times Godey's Ladies book was seen to encourage girls to keep their shawls in motion as the act of letting a shawl slide down your shoulders and then be pulled back up could be used to draw the attention of a likely suitor. Girls were known to practice in front of mirrors to learn these maneuvers.”
Cool. I’ve seen the shawl used in romances like this…but I never knew it was practiced!

On the fan:
“If pictures are worth a thousand words, then fans are worth at least 500. During the Victorian era young ladies were not allowed to speak privately with gentlemen callers at home or at balls and cotillions. To avoid the shrewd eyes of their chaperones, the young people developed an elaborate language using the ladies’ omnipresent fans. These romantic messages expressed a young ladies interest or disinterest in her prospective suitors.”

Here are some specifics:
The fan placed near the heart: You have won my love.
Half-opened fan pressed to the lips: You may kiss me.
Hiding the eyes behind an open fan: I love you.
Opening and closing the fan several times: You are cruel.
Fanning slowly: I am married.
Fanning quickly: I am engaged.
Twirling the fan in the left hand: You are being watched.

This makes for a great writers device. I’ve read maybe one or two passages from romances where the heroine used her fan to communicate to the hero, I didn’t know there was a real silent code of language.

I love the thought of fashion props as secret signals and am wondering if readers or Hoydens know of other ways respectable lovers covertly communicated in the open, so to speak?

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9 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I'm excited to read your Regency and Victorian books, Kathrynn! The whole accessories-as-secret-code thing is fascinating. I suspect it was more formalized in the Victorian era, as there were even more restrictions then on interaction between unmarried young men and women than in the Regency (for instance, one doesn't read about such things in Jane Austen to my recollection). But I think a lot of it is instinctive. Reading your post, I realize I've done much the same myself with a shawl over a cocktail dress, without consciously thinking about it. Or with sunglasses (lifted to reveal one's eyes, put back in place to convey mystery :-).

12:09 PM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

Hi Tracy, yes, now that I think about it, I'm guilty too of using my sunglasses to send social signals. ;-)

I try to imagine what "twirling a fan in my left hand" would look like---I mean exactly how is that done? Dangling from the wrist ribbon? Surely not swinging round in a twirl. Hmmmm--the lost art of "fan talk"!

9:05 PM  
Anonymous Jane O said...

I don't know, I've always been a bit doubtful about that fan language. How could it have been such common knowledge that young girls and their suitors all knew it, but the chaperones didn't?

10:09 AM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

Yep, I agree, Jane. I wondered "wouldn't chaperones learn the fan code, too?". My mom and aunts are pretty sharp. They've figured out thier teenage granddaughters' and daughters' text code pretty quickly...and even now, I think I can pick up which two people in the room have something going on, even though they are miles apart and aren't speaking to each other directly. Fun to watch that sort of stuff. ;-)

8:57 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm very taken by shawls. Servants were always fetching a lady's shawl, and a gentleman, by so doing, was often saying, "your servant, Miss," it seems to me. Also, in a lot of fiction (or perhaps the Masterpiece Theatre versions I've mixed them with in my mind) ladies of little fortune (whom a wealthy household often sheltered) were often asked to please fetch a shawl.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

I've bought a few shawls because I love the romance of them, but I haven't been able to pull off actually wearing one except for the occasional formal wear!

My shawls are more intended to be a fashion statement (models in the catalogs make them look so sophisticated!) rather than serve the purpose of providing warmth---but I so love the look. I have a lovely black velvet shawl with fringe that makes me feel very historical and very ladylike. ;-)

8:26 PM  
Blogger Leanna Renee Hieber said...

I love the Victorian language of the fan, it's so fascinating! I think the trick was that the codes must have changed or perhaps became even more subtle. The heroine in my novel, set in 1888, can see at the ball that there are these little odd movements going on - she doesn't know the cues - it's another way she's entirely ostracized from society. It's an alienating thing if you're left out of such important subtexts.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I wear shawls on the time (I'm sitting here wrapped up in one that I took to an opera dress rehearsal this evening). They're perfect for San Francisco's changeable climate. Light weight, easy to carry, but providing needed warmth when the fog comes in. Or in overly air-conditioned theater in NY or Ashland. They also can transform a dress so people don't realize it was the same one you wore two nights ago :-). They're a fun accessory to make statements. And pashminas double nicely as blankets on airplanes :-).

11:15 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

What a fun post, Kathrynn! The Victorians sure loved their secret languages; I'm thinking also of the language of flowers that everyone seemed to know then. And there was also a language of stamps, which carried love (or loss or lack of) messages depending on where and in what direction a stamp was placed on the outside of a letter.

I remember learning the fan language when I was studying period theatre movement back in college. There was snuffbox code for men, too. And handkerchief language for both genders. But I seem to recall that these languages were in connection with Restoration Theatre and also for that across the Channel -- performing the plays of Molière. I, too, wonder if the fan language, for example, changed over time once the chaperones learned the codes (after all, they were young and presumably flirtatious once), or whether they were universal and the same codes were used in France as well as in England.

4:01 AM  

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