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Cracking The Codes Of Victorian Era Accessories

Cracking the codes of Victorian Era accessories could be a daunting task. During the Victorian Era, young women were not supposed to speak privately with gentlemen callers in their home, in a closed carriage or anywhere else for that matter. But, as they say, where there was an accessory — a fan, a glove, a parasol or even a handkerchief – there was a way. Still we wonder, were mistakes ever made in cracking the codes?

Balls And Cotillions Were The Hook-up Spots Of Choice

Young women and men were allowed to have some contact at formal balls and cotillions. But even there, communication between the sexes was strictly limited and carefully controlled.

A young women was chaperoned, usually by her mother or another married woman.  She was expected to stay close to her chaperone until asked to dance. After the dance, her partner was expected to immediately return her to her chaperone.

To dance more than three times with the same gentleman was considered improper. Four dances could trigger a scandal.

Intricate Rules Of The Road

Many books of the Victorian Era dictated strict rules of proper etiquette. Among the most popular were Godey’s Lady’s Books and the many books on proper etiquette by Mrs. Humprhy, “Madge of Truth.”  In Manners For Men, she outlines very specific behaviors demanded of “the well-bred man”:

“What can be more enjoyable than to sit in some cool retreat with a charming girl, enjoying one of those innocent flirtations that do so much to give zest to life? But delightful though it be, the temptation to prolong it must be resisted if an expectant partner is missing her dance and waiting in the ballroom to be claimed.”

Hankies and Parasols and Shawls: What Was A Girl To Do?

The rules of etiquette for young women on or off the dance floor were even more restrictive. The inventive use of Victorian Era accessories offered the ladies an entertaining and reasonably successful workaround. Any accessory could be used to send specific signals to possible suitors or just to say, “Hi there, would you care to chat?”

Signals could be as simple as the full or half twirl of a parasol in a certain direction, the touch of a fan or gloves to the right or left cheek or the specific drape of a shawl over one shoulder.

Hand Fans: The Victorian Era’s Answer To Tinder

The most popular communication device in the ballroom was the hand fan. Like Tinder, today’s popular dating app, men and women at a Victorian Era dance could choose from a wide group of possible mates.

Little was known about the person of interest, beside what could be gleaned from his or her appearance and perhaps a very brief introduction. As in the Victorian Era ballroom, pictures of hopeful mates on Tinder waltz across smartphone screens at lightning speed.

On the Victorian Era dance floor, a girl would touch her fan to her left cheek if her answer was “No way, Jose!” With Tinder, a young woman (or man) simply swipes the photo left and moves on to the next choice. If a Victorian Era lady touched her fan to her right cheek (or swiped her phone right) the answer was “Yes, let’s chat!” If possible suitors were cracking the code correctly, they would send a “ping” across the crowded ballroom.

Cracking The Codes: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

What if a girl or her suitor was dyslexic? Or had a bad memory for details? And what would happen if another possible suitor standing directly behind the true person of interest received your message and assumed it was for him? And if that wasn’t enough, lists of secret codes varied from one to the other. They also changed over time.
Following are just a few 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.
A closed fan touching the right eye: “When may I be allowed to see you?”
The number of sticks showing answered the question: “At what hour?”

It seems the biggest mistake a young lady could make was to use her fan as a means of cooling herself, lest she send an unintended message to a possible suitor whom she did not desire. Swipe left and run for the exit!

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