The history of French perfume: Impolite, animalistic, and overtly sexualised

The history of French perfume: Impolite, animalistic, and overtly sexualised.

"The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master's wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat."


The history of French perfume: Impolite, animalistic, and overtly sexualised

So writes Patrick Süskind in his novel Perfume. Set in 18th-century Paris, it speaks of a time when a generalised fear of water, which was believed to carry disease, meant that even the most wellborn were none too fragrant. It was this, and the necessity of covering the smell of powerfully odorous gloves, that led to the widespread use of perfume in France. Glove leather was bathed in urine, and aromatic oils were applied to skins to soften them, while lessening the impact of any noxious residue. 

Many of France's greatest scents are impolite, as well as animalistic – and quite deliberately so. These historic smells have none of the ozonic freshness of the post-Aids generation of fragrance or the banal foody florals that came later. Instead, they are deliberately confrontational, overtly sexualised – rude. Jacques Guerlain's Shalimar, created in 1925, caused a scandal when its creator said that he wanted it to smell like his mistresses, hence its woody, smoky appeal intensified by wild animalic notes. The name means garden of love.

White flower fragrances are noted for the presence of indole, an organic compound found in all of the aforementioned blooms – but also in faeces. Anyone who has ever lived in a room with even the smallest vase of fresh tuberose in particular will know that as the flower's beauty fades its smell becomes increasingly intoxicating and that, intermingled with the voluptuous and floral, is undeniably the not-so-sweet smell of excrement. Robert Piguet's Fracas, a sultry tuberose, is the most dramatic of these; Jean Patou's Joy, an abstract floral heavy with jasmine the most luscious; and Christian Dior's lily of the valley-based Miss Dior, the prettiest.

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