The Art of Victorian/Steampunk Flirting

Also known as “The Secret Codes of Conversing Clandestinely

Fans made entirely of decorated sticks without a fan ‘leaf’ were known as brisé fans. In the 18th century, fans reached a high degree of artistry and were being made throughout Europe often by specialized craftsmen, either in leaves or sticks. Folded fans of silk, or  parchment were decorated and painted by artists. Fans were also imported from China by the East India Companies at this time. Around the middle 18th century, inventors started designing mechanical fans. Wind-up fans (similar to wind-up clocks) were popular in the 18th century. In the 19th century in the West, European fashion caused fan decoration and size to vary.

The fan can be a very eloquent communication tool. It can be snapped to indicate irritation, or looked over flirtatiously, or generally used for emphasis in ways that one needs no code book to decipher. What I have never found however, in any 19th Century etiquette book or work of literature, is the formalized code that is so often repeated today. I did discover that it was a marketing ploy developed in the 18th century (FANA Journal, spring 2004, Fact & Fiction about the language of the fan by J.P. Ryan) – one that has kept its appeal remarkably over the succeeding centuries.

And then, there is the utter illogic of it: for a code to work, both the sender and recipient have to know it. So, not only would Victorian girls need to memorize this stuff, but so would the boys. And finally, the Civil War demonstrated on numerous occasions that if you want to keep a secret, don’t use a semaphore to transmit it! IF this code existed and Victorian girls memorized it, and tried to use it to convey secret love messages to a boy who probably hadn’t bothered to learn it, the chances would be good that the disapproving matron across the room HAD memorized it and would read it far better than any clueless man.

Fans were not the only tools used to convey hidden meanings.  Parasols, handkerchiefs, and gloves came in for their fair share of clandestine usage. No doubt men’s canes, hats, fobs, and monocles came in for their share of secret gestures as well.

Gloves had a special place and when we get to the section on gloves, I’ll preface the gestures with a bit of information about them.

In fact, it’s been speculated that the Victorian penchant for hiding clandestine meanings in the most innocent gestures is what led to the creation of spying, spy codes, and secret codes that have so delighted Victorians and all future generations, which includes us, the Steampunks.

Below are lists of the various codes we could find that had their origins, whether through advertising or some other venue, in the Victorian Era, beginning with the fan.  The fan’s codes are followed by a year – this is the earliest year for which I could find that meaning for that gesture.  In all likelihood, there are gestures I have not yet uncovered.  Those are obviously not listed here.  Also, a delightful gentleman at the 2011 Difference Engine World Conference shared with us some finger gestures which were used in the Civil War of the United States.

There’s nothing to stop steampunks from using these gesture codes because honestly, we’re in a far better position to utilize such codes since those of us who would know the codes would delight in using them in front of those who aren’t steampunk – another way for us to bond and connect with one another.  It would be like having a fraternal order of secret handshakes.  We wouldn’t even necessarily use them for flirting so much as for connecting across the halls of a convention or in the shopping malls or even in parks and grocery stores. It would also be an excellent way for LARPers to communicate by creating their own secret gestures for communicating among themselves.

Here, then, are the gestures and their meanings, beginning with fans, then moving on to parasols, handkerchiefs, and gloves.  Use this as a base to build your own secret gesture language:


A closed fan dangling from the left hand – I’m engaged. (1890)
A closed fan dangling from the right hand means “I want to be engaged”. (1890)
Fanning very slowly – I am married. (all decades)
Dropping the fan to the floor – I belong to you alone. (1890)
Dropping the fan to the floor – “We will be friends” (1877)
Quickly fanning oneself – I love you so very much. (1890)
Quickly fanning oneself – “I am engaged” (1877)
Hiding one’s eyes behind the fan – I love you. (1890)
Drawing across the right cheek – “I love you” (1877)
Placing the fan behind the head – “Do not forget me” (1890)
Placing the fan behind the head with finger extended – “Goodbye.” (1890, 1860)
Moving the fan back and forth between hands – I’ve seen you look at another. (1890)
Moving the fan back and forth between hands – “I am watching you” (1860)
Fanning with the left hand – “Don’t you dare flirt with another woman!” (1890)
Hitting an object with a closed fan – “I am impatient” (1860)
Fan held over left ear – “I wish to get rid of you.” (1890)
Fan held over the right ear – “You have changed” (1877)
Closing the fan quickly – I am jealous. (1890)
Closing the fan slowly – “I wish to speak with you” (1877)
Opening and closing the fan quickly – “You are cruel” (1877, 1890)
Opening and closing the fan several times – “You are cruel” (1860)
Placing the fan over one’s heart – My heart is breaking with love for you. (1890)
Closely examining a decorated fan – I like you. (1890)
Abrupt, threatening gestures with a closed fan – Do not be careless or hasty. (1890)
Touching the fan to the right cheek – Yes. (all decades)
Touching the fan to the left cheek – No. (all decades)
Covering the left ear with an open fan – Don’t betray our trust or our secret. (1890)
Opening the fan as fully as possible – Please, wait for me. (all decades)
The fan in the right hand, placed in front of the face – Follow me. (all decades)
Spinning the fan in the left hand – We are being watched. (all decades)  “I love another” (1877)
Spinning the fan in the right hand – “I love another”  (I love another” (1860)
Slowly pulling a fan across one’s eyes – I’m sorry (all decades).
Placing the fan handle to the lips  – Kiss me. (all decades)
Gently touching one finger to the edge of the fan – I need to speak to you. (1890)
Closing and opening fan very slowly – I promise to marry you. (1890)
Carrying the open fan in the right hand – “You are too willing.” (all decades)
Carrying the open fan in the left hand – “Come and talk to me.” (1890)
Carrying the open fan in the left hand – “I desire to be introduced to you” (1877)
A closed fan touching the right eye – “When may I be allowed to see you?” (1890)
The number of sticks shown answers the question – “At what hour?” (1890)
Hands clasped together holding an open fan – “Forgive me.” (1890)
Hands clasped together holding a shut fan – “I have changed” (1877)
Half-opened fan pressed to lips – “You may kiss me.” (1890)
Drawing a closed fan through the left hand – “I hate you” (1877)
Drawing a closed fan across the forehead – “We are being watched” (1877)
Drawing a closed fan across the forehead – “You have changed” (1860)
Closed fan tip placed on lips – “I don’t trust you” -(1860)
Presenting a shut fan to another – “Do you love me?” (1860)
Striking left hand with right hand – “I am angry” (1860)
Biting the tips of the fan – “Go away: (1960)
Tapping the right shoulder – “Meet me in the garden” (1860)
Tapping the left shoulder – “I wish to leave, summon my carriage” (1860)

The Flutters

angry flutter – in left hand, sharp and quick
modest flutter – in front of the face, head ducked to one side
timorous flutter  – quick and short, a tremble
confused flutter – changes from hand to hand
merry flutter – quick and sweeping
amorous flutter – quick and held just below the eyes

The Parasol

Carrying it elevated in left hand. – Desiring acquaintance.
Carrying it elevated in right hand. – You are too willing.
Carrying it closed in left hand. – Meet on the first crossing of the garden path.
Carrying it closed in right hand by the side. – Follow me.
Carrying it over the right shoulder. – You can speak to me.
Carrying it over the left shoulder. – You are too cruel.
Closing it up. – I wish to speak to you.
Dropping it. – I love you.
End of tips to lips. – Do you love me?
Folding it up. – Get rid of your company.
Letting it rest on the right cheek. – Yes.
Letting it rest on the left cheek. – No.
Striking it on the hand. – I am very displeased.
Swinging it to and fro by the handle on the left side.  – I am engaged.
Swinging it to and fro by the handle on the left side.  – I am married.
Tapping the chin gently.  – I am in love with another.
Twisting it in the left hand.  – I love another.
Twirling it around.  – Be careful; we are watched.
Using it as a fan.  – Introduce me to your company.

Biting the tips.  -I wish to be rid of you very soon.

With handle to lips. – Kiss me.

Language of the Hankie

Drawing it across the lips – “Desiring an acquaintance”
Drawing it across the cheek – “I love you”
Drawing it across the forehead – “Look, we are watched”
Drawing it through the hands – “I hate you”
Dropping it – “We will be friends”
Folding it – “I wish to speak with you”
Letting it rest on the right cheek – “Do wait for me”
Letting it rest on the left cheek – “No”
Patting it beneath the eyes – “You are so cruel”
Opposite corners in both hands. – “Follow me”
Over the shoulder – “How you have changed”
Placing it over the right ear – “No more love at present”
Putting it in the pocket – “You are most too willing”
Taking it by the center – “I wish to be rid of you”
Twisting it in the left hand – “I love another”
Twisting it in the right hand – “I am engaged”
Winding it around the forefinger – “I am married”

Language of the Glove

We refer to 4-button, 8-button, etc. to designate how far the glove extends beyond the wrist. Early French gloves were fastened with buttons placed about an inch apart, so a 4-button glove extends up the arm from the wrist about 4 inches.

Match the gloves to your outfit: eather gloves pair well with wool outfits, and lace or light fabric with a summer dress. If you are a traditionalist, black, white and beige are always in fashion. Beige especially is versatile and comes in a fairly wide range of shades from sand to chocolate. Victorians loved color, and if you are dressing in period attire, feel free to experiment with bold colors that coordinate with your outfit. The general rule for length is the longer the sleeve of your garment, the shorter the glove should be.

Do not eat, drink or smoke with gloves on. If you wear gloves to an event where food is served, you should take them off during the meal. An exception would be if you were wearing long gloves with the buttons at the wrist. In this case, you should slip your hands out of the gloves, and tuck them up into the sleeve of the glove for the duration of the meal. Don’t apply makeup with gloves on. Don’t wear jewelry over gloves, with the exception of bracelets. Do plan to wear gloves when going to tea, to a ball or dance, and for outdoor activities like garden parties and receptions, or other special events.

There is evidence that Victorian ladies did sometimes wear fingerless gloves, but not at formal events. However, we’re not Victorian, we’re steampunk. If you have an awesome pair of fingerless gloves, by all means, wear them!

Research is mixed on the etiquette of wearing gloves to shake hands. Some sources state that only the Queen may shake hands while wearing gloves, and everyone else must remove them. Others say to keep them on while shaking hands in a receiving line – for example the wedding party in a receiving line is to keep their gloves on while receiving guests.

I’ve also seen information that gentlemen changed gloves between dancing partners, but I don’t find the source reliable. He would have to go through dozens of pairs of gloves at a dance because men were expected to dance more than the women and only got to sit out a dance if his penciled in dance partner chose to sit out the dance. I do believe the gentlemen changed gloves if he had to remove them for the sit down dinner, for once he removed his gloves, he probably used a new pair rather than putting on the worn and perhaps sweaty ones he’d worn previously. He probably left a collection of his gloves with the butler, along with his cane and hat and would request a fresh pair as needed. A gentleman might go through perhaps 4 – 8 pairs of gloves in an evening, but surely not upwards of 40 pairs, as would be the case if he changed after every dance.

Some of the codes for the gloves below were used by both men and women.

Biting the tips – “I wish to be rid of you very soon!”
Clenching them, rolled up in right hand – “No!”
Drawing half way on left hand – “Indifference”
Dropping both of them – “I love you”
Dropping one of them – “Yes”
Folding up carefully – “Get rid of your company”
Holding the tips downward – “I wish to be acquainted”
Holding them loose in the right hand – “I am content”
Holding them loose in the left hand – “I am satisfied”
Left hand with the naked thumb exposed – “Do you love me?”
Putting them away – “I am vexed!”
Right hand with the naked thumb exposed – “Kiss me”
Smoothing them out gently _ “I am displeased”
Striking them over the shoulder – “Follow me”
Tapping the chin – “I love another”
Tossing them up gently – “I am engaged”
Turning them inside out – “I hate you!”
Twisting them around the fingers – “Be careful, we are watched!”
Using them as a fan (open or closed) – “Introduce me to your company”.

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