The Fashion of Fragrance

Updated: May 27, 2020

Today’s installment is about the evolution of scent.

Now, I could already here you sigh from over here! Wait!

This is really important. Just as we talked in the previous blog, your persona can be seen by the totality of many elements (your handbag, shoes, clothes, etc). Perfume is also interconnected. Scent is linked to fashion, culture, history, colours, feelings, memories… That is why we are so nostalgic when we smell certain fragrances.

  • scroll to the bottom to see my book recommendations if you are fascinated by perfume history

Scents are not a recent creation. They actually date all the way back to at least 3000 BC when the Egyptians would burn incense as offerings to their gods. Since fragrance was associated with superior powers, these offerings were used to appease their deities.

Fun fact: Many people think that essential oils were discovered in amulets in the ancient pyramids. This is just not true! Back in those days, there was simply no distillation method; in fact, they didn’t even know how to get (or even that it was possible!) the oils out of a plant. So, they used the actual plants themselves. Ground, burned and infused plants became an important part of their own beauty treatments.

We can learn a great deal from how they did this. There is a 20-meter scroll (found in 1872) which shows how perfumes cosmetics and ointments and balms were actually produced in ancient Egypt.

Don’t believe me? Take a brief trip to Leipzig, Germany and see it for yourself at their university library. Don’t forget to copy a few of their recipes down to transport you to the past.

Do you need further proof that perfumes are ancient? Just take a quick look at this timeline:

  • 700 BC – ancient perfume making starts in Crete

  • 600 BC – a grave inscription shows how lilies were transformed into perfumes

  • 500 BC – Arabians started a thriving trade in frankincense

This trade in frankincense turned into a booming trade for the Arabians. Take a google break and quickly look up the Frankincense Trail Map and you will see how far and wide it extended. Simply unbelievable, given the time period. But more on frankincense at another time.

In 41 BCE, Cleopatra knew the importance of scent as she seduced Mark Antony. The ultimate seductress.

Moving on to Rome, you even have King Nero who would spray his dinner guests with rosewater between courses. Anyone fancy a historically themed dinner party?

And as we all know, burning incense is synonymous with churches, and indeed many other places of worship.

Venice became a key centre of perfumery, starting around the twelfth century, for a few hundred years. How did it start? Due to the foul odour of the sewerage, people would carry flowers under their noses to cover the stench.

The first alcohol-based perfume recipe on record was created for Queen Elizabeth of Hungary in the 1500s. Want the formula? I’ll generously give it to you now: take rosemary, infuse it in alcohol wine. Voilà. That’s it. Simple, effective, and fit for a queen.

In the 1600s, Grasse (France) became the hub of Europe’s perfume ingredients. Not only did they tan leather—a smelly production--they also made perfumed gloves so that you could cover the stench of the tanning industry. They profited from a solution to their own problem! Today, Grasse is now the “city of flowers”. They no longer tan leather, but their perfume industry is thriving.

Even Louis XIV became involved, commissioning a new scent for every day of the week.

In the 1700s, Marie Antoinette made Louis XIV’s idea seem paltry when she hired her own personal perfumer.

The Victorian era ushered in the idea that “nice” women smelled, not like sugar and spice, but rather of roses and delicate florals.

More recently, at the end of the nineteenth century, Coumarin and Vanillin (synthetic products) become replacements for the much higher priced Tonka Bean and Vanilla, which were commonly used in perfumes. With these cheaper substitutes, even the not-so-rich people could afford to smell like royalty. Perfume houses, such as Guerlain, began to blend naturals with synthetic ingredients.

Fancy yourself some Chanel Number 5? Introduced in 1921, it came about due to a mistake! A perfumer or his assistant (no one knows which) added ten times the amount of aldehyde to the formula in error. Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel loved it so much she chose it to be launched.

Who knew that a mistake could become a number one bestseller for a century and the most iconic perfume of all time? The reason I tell my students to embrace fear and make mistakes, you never know what they'll lead to.

Cocktail dinner trivia: The perfume industry did not take a huge hit during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Everyone needs a moment to feel important and decadent, even during the most difficult moments life has to throw at you, and therefore the sales did not decrease dramatically.

The 1970s used the women’s liberation movement in their ad campaigns for perfumes such as Charlie by Revlon. Perfumes became bolder, empowering women to be equal to men.

The 1980s was the era of the Room Rocker perfumes such as Opium and Poison, these scents made a statement - I AM HERE AND I MATTER

These were so strong that some American restaurants even banned them, as they feared that the intensity of the smell would spoil the enjoyment of the fellow diners. Long gone were the “pretty” scents of the lady. Time to be strong and powerful. This era signified women becoming more empowered, leaders, CEO's, politicians, prime ministers and so on. Perfume reflected this change in the attitudes of women and the world.

Remember the movie Working Girl with Melanie Griffith? What about Dallas or Dynasty? Big Hair and shoulder pads and strong perfume that made an entrance before the woman

History does repeat itself! The 1990s brought the return of unisex perfumes with Issey Miyake’s L’eay d’Issey and CK One by Calvin Klein. Centuries ago, males and females used the same fragrances. Now the trend had returned. Cleaner, fresher scents, gender neutral scents.

Another milestone in the perfume industry was when Frederic Malle helped to lift the veil of secrecy that shrouded the creators of perfumes. Much like drawing back the curtain on The Wizard of Oz

He started a fragrance range that highlighted the names of the perfumer right on the bottle.

You see, normally practice sees perfume houses creating briefs with their clients, which can range from one line to a hundred pages in length, this brief must be followed to create perfumes.

Perfumers that work for houses or brands are not creating the scents that they want, they must follow the wishes of the client. So Malle gave these geniuses the opportunity to create their own personal masterpieces, not the scents that the customers were demanding.

Finally we are seeing the names of the formerly-anonymous masterminds behind the scents.

Lesson du jour: Perfumes are like amazing books: they all have their purpose, their history, their author and their story. We cannot forget their heritage and the role that they still play today.

Melanie Jane's recommended books about the history of perfume:

The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England by Holly Dugan

A Natural History of the Senses by Dianne Ackerman

This blog is an extract from my full online Perfumery Course which you can find here: On the site you can view more FREE lessons!

You can watch Lesson 1 in Module 1 for FREE below or you can view it on YouTube here

#perfume #perfumehistory #perfumeindustry #fashion #fragrance


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