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What would you have smelled like if you decided to douse yourself with your favorite perfume in about 1550? Well, for one thing, you wouldn’t be doing much dousing, you would have gone to your favorite glove box and put on your scented gloves and then minced about waving your hands prettily in order to scent the air you moved through.
And how would you describe the fragrance you left behind? Probably like clove and Port-O-Let. Yes, the big scenting materials of old were 100% natural and were only chosen for their strength and staying power. There were few options so perfumers relied on heavy heavy musks and things excreted from various orifices of animals to keep the scent hanging in the air. it was difficult to put into liquid form that was attractive, so they soaked gloves in it to be the vehicle.
Why would anyone want to smell like, well, the rear end of anything else? I suspect that the answer is we smelled pretty bad anyway, so if we could smell like something else, we were ahead of the game. Our tastes have to have changed drastically since 1550, and you can just imagine the streets of London in a good hot summer with the open sewers and unwashed people. Under those circumstances, a paste of civit, cloves, bergamot and rose might have been downright refreshing.
This dismal state of affairs lasted for a long time. People played endlessly with the perfume making supplies they had: lavender, orange oil, bergamot, rose, sage, rosemary, clove, myrrh. The best perfumes prior to about 1850 would have smelled more like aromatherapy and less like perfume to us.
Things didn’t change much until one fateful day when an artificial perfume ingredient was put into a blend called Eau Imperial. The ingredient was coumarin, a compound which was nature-identical (made in a lab) and smelled like a green vanilla. The world saw artificial perfume as the big fad of the day and the art of perfume changed forever. Now you could have what you wanted when you wanted it and it always smelled the same. So the perfumer could rely on a rose accord being the same price and always smelling the same way if he bought it from the same place.
Perfumes started to be lighter and less weighed down with the natural musks and heavy plant fixatives. The smell of modern artificial vanilla started to creep into perfume, replacing the very different scent of vanilla extract. In addition, the line was being crossed between “perfumy” blends and gourmandy things. Heliotropin was a big favorite, it smelled like sugar, vanilla and a hint of cherry pie. But man made ingredients were still imitating the smells in nature, and hadn’t taken off as pure scent not found in the wild.
The next huge change in perfume came about in the 1920’s when Coco Chanel bullyragged her chemist, Earnest Beaux, into putting an overdose of floral aldehyde into Chanel No. 5. He was supposed to have been horrified at the amount she wanted him to include, but she won out and the world got that amazing blend which is such a lovely floral, sweet, and alluring thing. That set the world on fire and it’s used even today and we will never get tired of it (it is said to exist heavily in Estee Lauder’s White Linen). From this point on, perfume didn’t have to smell like flowers or musk or resins, there were notes we had created which were never produced in the wild.
This is the era that Guerlain launched it’s Shalimar, which I suspect also has a huge shot of coumarin in it judging from the vanilla like nod it gives. In the ‘20’s women smelled good enough to eat and it seemed that direction would last in fragrance but, there was a change with the Great Depression.
In the ‘30’s fragrance went back to being heavy and almost cloying. Perhaps it was a response to the Economic slide and women wanted something which would cling to them all day. Perfumes like Dana’s Tabu, Jean Patou’s Joy were heavy and stayed on your skin until you washed them off. But there was another end of the spectrum which were produced as a backlash and were more grassy and breezy like Elizabeth Arden’s Blue Grass, Worth’s Je Reviens, and L’Air du Temps; they brought out the more ethereal presentation of women.
The ‘40’s were all about war, and the French perfume industry was battered in the fray. Rochas’ Femme appeared at this time and it was one of the first of the really fruity perfumes which amazing staying power. Miss Dior probably is the fragrance that I would charge with the spirit of the late ‘40’s and early ‘50’s—sharp and astringent, using sandalwood like a knife with a backlash of rose and a very very clean edge. Miss Dior just screamed “modern!” and did it well.
Then there were the 1950’s. Nothing says it like Bandit by Piguet. The biggest and most perfect of the chypres, this was Bernini. After this one, any other chypre was a corny imitation, this was the upper limit. A supersaturated concoction smelling of leather, and dark rose, very rare resins and fabric. It was pure glamour, the only thing which could stand up to the smoky rooms of the heyday of the Mad Men. For everyday wear, Bond Street by Yardley continued the astringent tradition started by Miss Dior, but it was cheaper but it was very nice indeed. Ladylike.
But as the 1950’s gave way to the 1960’s orientals became popular because people started to experiment with their lives and with their perfumes. Odalisque by Yardley was a smash failure but it was like a cross between baby powder and a deep labdanum oriental. Oh! De London, again by Yardley, sold briskly but it was a light mishmash of aldehydes which had no character but did have the face of Jean Shrimpton to sell it. Dana was still selling lots of the sickly sweet Tabu but their blockbuster for the ‘60’s was Ambush, very modern and very loud. Tigress, Aphrodisia, Woodhue and Kiku were big sellers from Faberge. All of them but Kiku were eminently forgettable lackluster florals. Youth Dew from Estee Lauder continued the trend for strong perfume. This was a engrossing oriental which would scent your world for days once you uncorked it. And who could forget English Leather by Mem? Goodness, that stuff was everywhere and everyone wore it. It was ravishing, it was the longest lasting perfume ever invented.
The ‘70’s ramped up BIG perfumes again with Charlie from Revlon. Smelling like the combination of everything from the perfume counter all at once, Charlie flew off the shelves. Paco Rabanne came up with a great eponymous fragrance which was beautiful and ladylike at the same time, and Geoffry Bean produced Red, a spectacular oriental and unlike anything since.
The ‘80’s saw a flood of brash musky perfumes. Big tough musk was everywhere. The trend for smelling like Raid was on, and it matched the aggressive shoulder pads of the fashions. Georgio was sold by the vat full, Obsession assaulted you with it’s white flower tank guns, Poison pumped out purple and passionate from Dior. Just when you thought you couldn’t take one more good scrubbing of your nose, Opium by Yves St. Laurent came out.
The ‘90’s were kind of a drifting time. I think this was when the oceanics started their ascent, some people call them the ozones. Strange and not sweet at all, these compounds are more like seashore and clean laundry than anything else. Cool Water by Davidoff was popular but the fragrance which probably defined the era was Eau d’Issey by Issey Miyake. No one had smelled anything like it before and it started a stampede for uber-astringent “sea side” fragrances.
The return of the gourmandy perfume occurred in the 2000’s. At first ridiculed by the big perfume houses (childish, unsophisticated, cheap), the laughter stopped when Angel by Thierry Meugler became the smash hit of the season. There was a discreet rustle and “things” started to pop up. Dior Cherie was the inexplicable candy floss scented offering from Dior. Aquilino’s Pink Sugar was the rage and then was knocked off so many times it has become an ingredient in it’s own right for perfume, a note! And Demeter introduced thousands of women to the fun of smelling like a martini, a sugar cookie, or even Play-Doh. The perfumes didn’t seem to last as long or be as strong as fragrances of yore, but that was a reflection of the times when friendships were deep and short on the internet, and the fun stopped with breathtaking suddenness like the dotcom bust of the early 00’s. If the perfume didn’t last all day, that was fine because, well, who wants to smell the same way all day long, right?
As you can see, there is a wonderful ebb and flow of different types of perfume over time. From the sweet and foody beginning of modern fragrance with Eau Imperial, to the very very sharp and clingy stuff of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s and now a swinging back to sweetness. The range of “acceptable” perfumes continues to widen and women will despair of having to choose.
This article was written by Fabienne Christenson who is the Head Perfumer at Possets® Perfumes. She has studied and encountered a lot of the perfumes mentioned in the article and has been a part of the independent revolution in perfuming. Fabienne writes frequently on the subject of perfume and has a website where she sells “Bottled Happiness”.