Victorian Symbolism

Leslie Ehrlich 2011

   
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The Victorian era was steeped in symbolism. Much of the basis for songs, grave markings and embroidery in Victoriana are embedded with symbolism, often having religious connotations. We are all familiar with the Language of Flowers, but what about the language of fans??


Vivienne Garforth


Lorrie Ramsay


Linda Mageske

The language of fans is fascinating! It was not only a tool to assist its holder with cooling themselves in the oppressive heat, but it also was a fashion accessory that provided a means of communicating with a friend or suitor! Fans originated in the East and were made of a variety of materials, including leaves, ostrich feathers, ivory or thinly worked sheets of gold. Victorian ladies were schooled in the proper use of the fan, just as men were taught how to use a sword.

Following are some examples of fan positions and what they may have meant.

THE FAN PLACED NEAR THE HEART: "You have won my love."

HALF-OPENED FAN PRESSED TO THE LIPS: "You may kiss me."

HANDS CLASPED TOGETHER HOLDING AN OPEN FAN: "Forgive me."

HIDING THE EYES BEHIND AN OPEN FAN: "I love you."

SHUTTING A FULLY OPENED FAN SLOWLY: "I promise to marry you."

DRAWING THE FAN ACROSS THE EYES: "I am sorry."

TOUCHING THE FINGER TO THE TIP OF THE FAN: "I wish to speak with you."

LETTING THE FAN REST ON THE RIGHT CHEEK: "Yes."

LETTING THE FAN REST ON THE LEFT CHEEK: "NO."

OPENING AND CLOSING THE FAN SEVERAL TIMES: "You are cruel."

FANNING SLOWLY: "I am married."

FANNING QUICKLY: "I am engaged."

OPENING A FAN WIDE: "Wait for me."

TWIRLING THE FAN IN THE LEFT HAND: "We are being watched."

TWIRLING THE FAN IN THE RIGHT HAND: "I love another."

PRESENTING THE FAN SHUT: "Do you love me?"

Vivienne Garforth

 Kerry Leslie

 Linda Mageske

 Katherine Johnson

Victorian parasols were another accessory that were utilized to declare the status of a lady. Only those that were wealthy and as such "above day to day toils" of the lower class women carried one. They served the very practical purpose of protecting the porcelain complexions of ladies along with communicating the lady's wealth. Parasols became one of the most prevalent gifts for a gentleman to give his sweetheart during the 19th century. Because of their elegance, extravagance and expense, it would have been a grave impropriety for a gentleman to give a parasol to a young lady for whom his intentions were not serious, and in return, a proper and decorous young lady would not have accepted such a gift unless she intended to receive the gentleman, as well. Therefore, it became conventional for a groom to give to his bride a parasol as part of his wedding gift to her.

Parasols vary from umbrellas in that a woman who carried an umbrella was publicly admitting that she could not afford her own or the cost of hiring a carriage for transportation when it was raining. Parasols were seen in all types of weather, where as an umbrella was seen only in inclement weather.

Birds and animals were often seen in embroidery, bringing with them their own meaning. For example: Owls were a symbol of wisdom, eagles resembled courage and a military career for a family member. Butterflies symbolized the soul, frogs were a "sin". Dogs were loyalty, peacocks, incorruptibility. Spider webs were a symbol of luck and clasped hands meant good bye or farewell.

   
Vivienne Garforth  Lorrie Ramsay  Linda Mageske  Merle Rawson   Pam Pinch-Wagener

The list goes on and on and makes for some fascinating reading! In researching Victorian beliefs, the items chosen to be stitched on antique quilts has become more clear and helps a person to understand what one of our "sisters" might have been trying to communicate. I hope you have enjoyed this brief venture in Victoriana!
 

 
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