Patchouli is a scent associated with times past. I love the old associations.
As we know, the ancient Indian arts of perfumery often combined the beneficial with the beautiful. Patchouli is a perfect material for hot humid climates because it naturally repels the abundant numbers of insects that such weather attracts. Insects will naturally look to devour the fine wool carpets and silk clothing hand woven and embroidered with artistry and care. It was proved by observation that certain grasses and woods were distasteful to destructive insects, and the use of patchouli and vetiver and others woven into window screens and stuffed into upholstery and beds used the action of wind pressure and the pressure of the human body to release the essences and protect the home environment from insects.
The Europeans of the Victorian era loved the magnificently large hand-made Indian shawls, which were perfect for use as cloaks for crinolines, and highly scented with patchouli. The scent protected the cloth from being eaten away by moths, and I imagine them packed with layers of patchouli leaves in the tight holds of ships, to make the long trip by sail half way around the world through varying climates. The patchouli imparted its scent to the fine wool, giving the fabric its stamp of Indian authenticity, and the ladies wrapped themselves in this scented warmth in the cold seasons of the North.
As a perfume element it is soft warm and dark, with a hypnotic, sedative effect. The aromatherapists say it should be used cautiously because it can be sensually over-stimulating and cause breathlessness. At the same time it is beneficial for the skin because it balances oils and dryness and is antiseptic and soothing. The intensely sensual effect can always be balanced by a citric tang such as grapefruit.
The Victorians were drawn to a sense of complex ornament sensed through half darkness. The dimness could give room for the personal touches of imagination. So it is with patchouli, a soft dark sensual perfume that inclines towards the imagination of the wearer. As a tenacious base it holds other notes to greater length and in this way so lends itself as an expressive medium for the personality of contemporary perfumers. As a basenote, its tenacity will influence and last through all the other elements it combines with.
The English, because of their long colonization of India, imported so many Indian artifacts and materials that their qualities became incorporated into the spirit of British aesthetics. After the end of the colonial era, and a space of time, the young of the sixties rediscovered many of the artifacts of Victorian England, and through that association came back to India. Patchouli answered a craving for sensuality whose tenaciousness could withstand hard use to enhance the experience of both chemical and natural sensual experiences.
Then also, the U.S. opened itself to a pop cultural British Invasion, and along with that came the styles of scent, patchouli becoming the most identified with the sixties and early seventies.
Recently I was so fortunate as to have the opportunity to try a sample of truly vintage patchouli, given as a gift by Mandy Aftel, who collects fine perfume materials, to a friend (Deana Sidney of the gorgeous lostpastpemembered) who shared a little with me. It was incredibly smooth and deep, both soothing and exciting in its beauty. I believe it was between 50 and 100 years old, and NFS (not for sale). Certain scent substances will improve with age, as fine wine does, especially if it is of fine quality to begin with.
Monica Miller of PerfumePharmer has put together a special event, with more than a dozen modern perfumes based primarily (at least 25%) on patchouli, and sent them out to be blind tested and appreciated by perfume writers, acting as the proverbial patch-test bunnies. Next time I will give some impressions of these modern interpretations of patchouli.
Paisleys above, from My Stuff & No Sense, from a fashion post on the use of paisley in modern couture.