November 17, 2013

Scent and Subversion

It's so easy to fall in love with aspects of the past.  What remains in our legends and memory are the highlights, the beauties, the perfect place and atmosphere to project our imaginations.  Barbara Herman who wrote Scent and Subversion, Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume, has found a way to enter the past through the medium of perfume, and so share a way to experience its intimate beauties, while she brings her modern sensibility and hindsight to bear on the Remains of the Day. 

The book's opening essay captures a truism about perfume then and now, which is that there's nothing else quite like it to transport you into an exciting interior and exterior space of something both old and new at the same time.  Once you've soaked yourself in such aromatic connections to past,  and follow this particular material road of unfolding perfume culture into the present, your inner nose for beauty must develop and strengthen, and so expand your repertoire for enjoyment in life right now.

So many of these perfumes live on but in another form even if they bear the same name, since their formulas have been restyled and reformulated several times. Unfortunately most modern versions don't capture the essence of the vintage.  Even if there is something of a resemblance, it's usually what I call a "weak tea" in comparison.  One of the most useful things the author tells of is which of these may still hold something of the original energy, or even if there are other modern perfumes that do so, and about how perfume ages, as well as how to recognize a viably true remnant of our olfactory past.

There is enough left of these legendary jewels of perfumery that she has been able to piece together a timeline and delineate the shifts from one era to the next.  They continue to inspire the perfumers of the present.

As she points out so well and often, the serious body consciousness of the perfumes of the past may carry us into its own space of carnality, far from the easy, the superficial, the innocuous "office" or "fresh and clean" ideal of scent that is demanded of those who work under the too bright florescent and blue lights of the corporatist present, as many of us sit in vacuum sealed buildings, glued to a desk, chair and screen for at least eight hours a day.

I very much appreciate her use of perfume as a form of personal liberation from routine, from boredom, from a sense of entrapment.  She points out that these perfumes of the past called most often to both men and women's wilder, animalic side.  The most feminine defined of all are revealed as the most dirty beneath the delicacy of precious florals, the carnal used as a way to highlight that delicacy and invisibly draw another closer while increasing longevity to the maximum.

Couples who courted spent hours at the end of the day, cocktails, dinner, dancing, the theater, wearing their best and most flattering clothing, which by the end of the night was imbued from the lingerie up to the fur coat with their "signature scent" whose dry down eventually emanated from body heat, whose magic and elusive but addictive "chemistry" would foreshadow the next intimate steps.   Imagine drawing off the long gloves, either silk or leather, with the perfume beneath reveling itself more fully as the music plays and the drinks take effect.

After reading this book, I see the scent signature of the past she describes as primarily of a chypre style, along with recurring themes such as the use of a peach accord.  The initiation of certain crossover and highly influential perfumes such as Habanita and Bandit, are explained in depth, taking the consultation of other experts, as the author went to seek out specific note lists.  She also gives a guide in how to start diving into the well of the perfume past yourself if you become so inclined.  The descriptions alone are seductive enough to make you long for a way to immediately dive headfirst into this special world.

The center of the book is divided by decades and gives detailed descriptions of its most influential perfumes along with some of her less well known personal favorites, providing a guide and reference to an intriguing and revealing part of the past.  Once you fall in love with the descriptions and pour over the beautiful vintage perfume ads, which work as well now as they ever did, especially on me, you can have the fun of taking on the hunting down the actual perfumes to make a personal connection yourself.


I was moved by the wonderful illustrations and advertisements of the past included throughout.  The first leafing through of the book is like being carried along a vintage road with gorgeous signposts along the way to the present.  For this reason alone I would recommend getting the physical book, rather than in ebook form.

The book ends with examples of contemporary perfumes and artists that use perfume as a medium to express certain themes that were so resonant in the past, and so bring them into the present.  Especially those darkly carnal and bodily connected scent elements that can strongly anchor all manner of aromatic flights of fancy, bonding them closely to the body and our own place in time and space.

I would say that sometimes we can recognize in the past certain figures, artists, perfumes, images and words that resonate with us as if we have met a most intimate friend who validates and encourages us in a unique and realized way.  Seeing them from the long view gives us the perspective to appreciate them in a way that includes the present of our own experience and tastes.  Today I am wearing Primitif from a sample I obtained from the author, and it brings me a warmth and luminosity that I can directly connect with while it effortlessly imparts a form of forthright and down to earth sophistication I may aspire to.

Barbara Herman's deep and rich blog, Yesterday's Perfume, is also something to get lost in for great anticipatory pleasure (as you will look to try the perfumes that most intrigue you) and in-depth information.

Copyright 2013, Lucy Raubertas, All Rights Reserved.
Illustrations taken from Yesterday's Perfume
Music to listen to perfume by, and even read this perfume book by:
Autumn in New York, by Ella and Louis and  The Best is Yet to Come by Frank.

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