In the late 18th century, aspiring suitors eager to learn if a love interest shared his feelings needed look no farther than her hand. Not to see if she was wearing a wedding ring, but rather to see what her hand fan was doing.
The fashion accessory, which remained popular into the 19th century, was used to complement an outfit in addition to serving as a cooling mechanism. However, as their popularity grew, women used them for a more coy purpose: as a means of flirting, says Lois Valeo, who teaches a history of fashion course at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, N.H.
Men and women became versed in “fan language” and learned to express their wishes through the accessory, said Valeo, who lives in Newburyport and is a member of the Historical Society. For example, if a woman touched the handle of the fan to her lips, she wanted a kiss. If she fanned rapidly, it meant she was engaged, and alas, if she drew the fan through her hand, she was expressing dislike or hatred for her companion.
“It was a way of communicating,” Valeo said.
Valeo will be sharing the lessons of “fanology,” or the languages of fans, during a discussion tonight at the Historical Society of Old Newbury. During the program, which begins at 6:30, Valeo and Historical Society of Old Newbury curator Jay Williamson will talk fashion “From Head to Toe.” The discussion is part of the society’s ongoing connoisseurship series.
Valeo, an expert on historic fashion, has searched through the Historical Society’s extensive collection of fashion accessories — the majority of which have not been seen by the public in more than a generation.
“We use the series as a way to show off items that seldom have a chance to be appreciated by the general public,” Williamson said.
The pair plan to discuss everything from parasols, bags and hats to combs, corsets, bonnets and hairpins. There’s even a wool bathing suit from 1910 ready for viewing, and all kinds of shoes, some dating back more than 200 years, including wedding shoes, dancing shoes and house shoes, Williamson said.
Williamson and Valeo said the discussion will appeal to the audience’s appreciation of history, whether they enjoy fashion or not. “Fashion touches on many aspects of our daily lives, it’s a human essential,” Valeo said. It can be appreciated artistically, physically or historically, she added, and it tells about the time period it was created.
“There’s going to be a lot of interesting things,” Williamson said. “Everyone can look at them up close and will be able to really hear about the background of each item.”
IF YOU GO What: "From Head to Toe -- Girls Night Out!" When: tonight, 6:30 (Refreshments will be served at 6) Where: Historical Society of Old Newbury, 98 High St., Newburyport. Use High Street entrance. How: $15; to reserve a seat, call 978-462-2681. Space is limited.