I watched again Anna Karenina, a beautiful 2012 drama film directed by Joe Wright, adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel of the same name. I love everything in this film that takes place in some of the most lavish and detailed settings. It is a feast for the eyes for the most beautiful costumes, colors, atmosphere and the bold, epic and sensual story interpreted by Keira Knightley and Jude Law as the main protagonists. It was the historic period when women wore hand fans as necessary accessories to hide emotions behind it. In most of the scenes I found intriguing the proper gestures hand fans demanded.
Watch the original trailer and if you get hold of the book, you will find it is a good read.
While I was watching the film, I thought there must be a meaning behind all this twirling of the hand fan and wondering why such not necessary item in today’s world has had a long history in many cultures.
In the Far East the large “flabellum” fans were made of palm leaves or lotus leaves and even ostrich or peacock feathers. In India only royals used fans. In 5ht century Greek women used small fans to refresh their face, while in the Roman Empire time fans became larger again to ventilate a person until a new coquetry society custom of XVI century Europe dictated a new fashion and fans became one of the established women fashion accessory. Elegant women carried the fan secured to the wrist with a gold chain or a precious belt.
In this period came the pleated fan from the Orient in use still today. In Versailles under both kings Luis XIV and XV fans were made of leather, silks, or elegant parchment paper and decorated with ivory, tortoise-shell, gold and silver. This ostentatious elegance required a certain rigid comportment: women could open their fans only if the queen was in the room. Some of the fans became so advanced that even had a mechanism to signal the woman’s consent to a love rendezvous and the time of the appointment.
The fans I like the best are those made in the Venetian Cinquecento, true hand painted works of art hiding a mirror in the center, like a sort of small mirrors attached to the inside pockets of an upscale modern purse. Since the Rococo period, hand fan has been part of women dressing up for ballroom dances, important events or going to the Opera and never thought I would have seen it in the everyday life again until I went to Barcelona last may and discovered that even sitting at tapas bar a woman can have a fan in her hand. Perhaps it has to do with the Flamenco dance so traditional and popular in Spain, or too much sangria, which is absolutely great in those parts, but I tell you, women with a fan have an accomplice mysterious look even today. Needless to say I bought me a couple of beautiful hand painted fans made locally in Spain.
In Anna Karenina’s film there is a lot of body language in the theatre scene where Keira Knightley is communicating with her lover across the box through waving her fan hastily, unaware her husband is observing her from above through a binocular. I was curious to learn more about the meaning behind the fluttering. I researched a bit and in an article on European Fans in the XVIII century found that each situation and action can be expressed silently with a fan. Here I included only a few important and common ones:
(photo of the film Anna Karenina’s scene via Pinterest)
“Yes.” Rest the fan on your right cheek.
“No.” Rest the fan on your left cheek.
“I wish to speak with you.” Close the fan.
“I desire your acquaintance.” Carry the fan in your left hand before your face.
“I am engaged.” Fan yourself very quickly.
“I am married.” Fan yourself slowly.
“Wait for me.” Open your fan wide.
“Follow me.” Carry the fan in your right hand before your face.
“We are being watched.” Half-opening the fan over the face.
“I love you.” Draw the fan across your cheek.
“Do you love me?” Present the fan closed.
“I belong to you.” Dropping the fan
“I love another.” Twirl your fan in your right hand.
“You are cruel.” Open and shut your fan several times in succession.
“I hate you!” Draw your fan through your left hand swiftly
“I see that you are looking at another woman.” Passing the fan from hand to hand.
Next time I go to the Opera, I will be more attentive to men with binoculars, maybe someone is observing my fan. Ciao,
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Valentina Cirasola is a trained Fashion and Interior Designer, working in the USA and Europe. Born in Italy in a family of artists, style surrounded her since the beginning of her life. Her many years of experience led her to offer consultations in both specializations and now she can remodel homes as well as personal images. To better help people in the world she offers consultations online. She is the author of three books. Get your copy of Valentina’s book on colors: ©RED-A Voyage Into Colors on