February 3, 2007

Subtle Perfumes

In European culture, the appreciation of subtle perfume began in France, before the French Revolution, among the aristocracy, in the years right before their destruction. The Seventeenth Century was very marked by a desire for heavy, animalic scents composed with civet, musk and ambergris (ambergris did retain its favor for some time afterwards as a secret and special indulgence among certain refined libertines).

After the Sun King, these fell out of favor, and the simple floral fragrance that allowed the wearer's personal, clean scent to show through became the favored style. They were seen as more in keeping with innocent youthful beauty, which became the ideal form.

To this day it seems that we live in a pendulum swing in fashion, switching from heavy, intense full blown powerful perfumes to the subtle, light and sheer. This is a less overtly sexual appealing style in fragrance, that conveys realistic or natural elements recognizably represented; in floral or as now more recently, a special range of favored gourmand notes, such as fig and pomegranate and vanilla and the citrus notes.

This is brought to mind because I am reading a book by Alain Corbin, "The Foul and the Fragrant" which gives historical background on the French culture's relationship with the sense of smell and how it developed over time.

The move from the strong to the light and subtle was a sign of social changes also. It matched the development and awareness of the preciousness of personal privacy; a more individual and even narcissistic sense of self, more care of the self through personal cleanliness, more emphasis on innocence and purity.

This quality of youth and innocence was seen as directly relating to the vitality of Nature itself and its appreciation became the expression of a personal refined poetic sensibility. This sense of refinement expressed through fragrance was aided by the practice at many wealthy country estates of making their own scents from the household flower gardens besides the house. These were often used as an extension of the drawing room in the evening, entered through the proverbial "french doors", to conduct courtship rituals and flirtation among the scents and beauty of flowering plants.


Each household had their own traditions for the use of natural scents perfuming the household linens and as aromatic scents for the rooms; in waxes to polish and clean the household and carriage furniture and personal accessories. There was a period of time where the reaction against the overuse of frankly sexual and heavy scents was so strong that refined people no longer wore perfume on the skin. Instead, they perfumed their handkerchiefs or clothing with single floral notes or simple colognes, or placed huge bouquets of fragrant flowers in the rooms at social occasions. Natural simple fragrances were used to scent accessories, or parts of clothing, such as fans or buttons or stockings or parasols or millinery.

The scented accoutrement became identified with the expression of the purity and natural grace of the possession's owner. The custom of dropping a scented handkerchief or "forgetting" a scented object, such as a letter, left behind for the smitten lover to inhale, became a favorite device to promote idealizing the personality and allure of the individual. Scented possessions became an extension of a refined persona.

Today I think many of us keep a wardrobe of a wide range of varied fragrances to express all the aspects of ourselves, from primal and sophisticated to innocent and fresh, and use them as we wish, more often for ourselves as an aid to psychological well being and uplift than as a signal to others.
Above, a close up of fur, which often has an appealing animalic scent, and which I prefer to remain on the animal it belongs to...

3 comments:

chaya ruchama said...

I am going to have to ferret out that book, it's right up my alley.

I've always been in the habit of 'leaving' scented objects around- going back 35 years or more.
I would always leave an article of clothing in the crib, or with my little ones, when I left the house...to this day, as big fellows, they enjoy lying on my side of the bed to read or reflect, and burying their faces in my pillow [or neck, by way of greeting].

BTW- Despite the bad press, I viewed The Libertine last week.
You could practically SMELL the Restoration....!

Keep warm and well, dear L !

Lucy said...

Chaya dear creature --
Yes, do seek it out, but I must warn you that the first third is rough going, more about the foul than the fragrant. But very interesting to see how the French perfume culture grew one from the other...
I love the idea of you leaving your scents arounds, it's a wonderful gift to give your children...

Quinne said...

Beautifully written with fantastic imagery. Thank you.