In days of old, before social networking sites were invented, bold ladies needed to create their own methods to seduce men, and in Spanish society, it was the fan that was used to get their message across.
One of the most ubiquitous symbols of Spanish culture, the hand-held fan has been keeping ladies cool and men guessing for centuries. Now as popular in the tourist shops as castanets and sombreros, the fan (ventall in Catalan, abanico in Castilian) is admired and collected the world over, and is one of the most enduring fashion accessories ever made.
Although more rigid fanning devices existed first, the flappy, pliable version of the instrument we know today is derived from Oriental models that entered the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century, around the time that East-West commercial routes opened up.
Spain, with its balmy climes, soon had its craftsmen copying the designs, allowing señoritas across the land to sit in the sun without fainting, and the concept was soon introduced to other parts of the continent. While France and Italy quickly perfected the design and began to churn fans out en masse, in Spain they continued to be made by hand, largely due to bureaucratic hurdles and a lack of technological prowess.
This all changed at the end of the 17th century, when the Marquis of Carpio, under the royal order of King Carlos II, decided it was time to expand the industry by bringing mass production to the land that had spawned the fan in Europe. In good free-trade fashion, the Marquis organised various obstacles to impede French and Italian imports, and set about finding a master fan-maker who could modernise the Spanish fan. A suitable candidate, Frenchman Eugenio Prost, was found and persuaded to come and teach the Spanish the ropes. By the end of the 18th century, fans were being made in factories all over Spain, with Valencia (specifically Levante) as the nerve centre.
By the beginning of the 1800s, Spain’s fan industry was one of the most important in Europe. The fan was used so extensively by Spanish women that French poet and writer Teófilo Gautier was prompted to write: “I never see a woman without her fan. It even follows her to church. Groups of all ages, kneeling and seated, pray and fan themselves with the same fervour.”
Away from the pews, however, the fan had a more intriguing function. Young ladies, stifled by the watchful eyes of chaperones, would use the trusty device to communicate their feelings to their chosen love interest. With four deft flicks of the fan, a fervent señorita could indicate her interest in a nearby beau and be betrothed in the time it might take her unsuspecting chaperone to finish her lemonade. The fan could express love, annoyance, marital status, declarations of the heart and even ask questions. A shut fan, for example, meant “Do you love me?” while a closed fan touching the right eye asked “When can I see you?”. A fan drawn across the forehead told the beau he had changed, while the fan held in the right hand in front of the face begged the suitor to “Follow me”.
When the señorita had tired of a suitor’s attention, all she had to do was place the fan over her left ear—“I want to get rid of you”—or simply place the fan behind the head with finger extended, to say “Goodbye” (much easier than agonising over a ‘Dear Juan’ letter).
The Spanish fan’s classic open/shut design has not changed over the centuries, although its formats have. Fans may be made of wood, paper, silk or polyester, with designs ranging from flowers to exotic landscapes to a bullfight. In line with the fashion of the time, fans have also been embellished with lace, ivory and precious stones.
While fan use gradually died out in other parts of Europe, Spain’s high temperatures ensured that it would meet no such fate here. Though more visible in the south, the fan can still be seen cooling hot faces on sunny terraces across the country and it remains an important part of flamenco culture. While many of today’s fan souvenirs are made in China, Valencia still exports quality fans all over the world, and a specialised school in Cadiz continues to work exclusively on new designs and hand-crafted models
Understanding fan language:
Fanning slowly: I am married.
Fanning quickly: I am engaged.
Opening a fan wide: Wait for me.
Fan in left hand in front of face: I would like to get to know you.
Putting the fan handle to the lips: Kiss me.
Drawing the fan across the cheek: I love you.
Twirling the fan in the right hand: I love another.