The Fashion and Evolution of Fragrance

Melanie Jane
Perfumes aren’t a recent creation; they date all the way back to China around 4500BC. But Egypt has the richest history of fragrance and how it was used.

Scroll to the bottom to see my book recommendations if you are fascinated by perfume history.

In 3000 BC, the ancient Egyptians traditionally used fragrance not only to anoint themselves but since they associated fragrance with superior powers and immortality, they would burn incense and dried plant materials as offerings to appease their deities. They also used fragrance during the mummification process and funeral rituals.
Egyptologists discovered fragrance jugs in tombs in Egypt, proving that scent was held in high regard. They even wore fragrant flower garlands in life and in death.
Infused, ground and burned plants and resins became an important part of their own beauty treatments and scent rituals. We can learn how they did this by examining a 3500-year-old, 19 metre scroll which shows how the ancient Egyptians produced perfumes, cosmetics, ointments and balms. It’s the world’s longest, only complete, and best-preserved papyrus scroll devoted to ancient Egyptian medicine. It was acquired in Luxor by Georg Ebers, an Egyptologist from Leipzig, who produced a printed facsimile of it for research in 1875.
If you take a trip to Leipzig university library in Germany, you can view the replica on permanent display inside its own separate showroom in the foyer of Bibliotheca Albertina.

According to legend, ancient Egyptians would wear perfumed head cones. The cones were made from fats and oils infused with the most fragrant flowers like jasmine, blue lotus, rose, cardamom, roots, leaves and barks.

These scent filled cones were worn on the head like a crown. Throughout the day, they would melt in the heat of the desert and the aromatic fat would pour over the body of the wearer, protecting them from the harsh Egyptian sun. The skin would be moistened and perfumed from the concoction, leaving a lingering scent and soft skin.

The more likely truth is that Egyptians liked to party, and revellers would have worn the cones to impress their peers and flaunt their high status in the hierarchy of Egyptian society.

Cleopatra was the Queen of Egypt for 22 years. She loved making perfumes and indulging in lavish beauty routines. Historians state she had her own perfumery and made fragrances for herself using frankincense, myrrh, roses, blue lotus, herbs and spices.

In antiquity, there was no steam distillation method of extracting oils from plants and flowers, so they would infuse fats and oils with the aromatic material. This infusion method is a bit like making tea. The flavours and fragrances flood out.

Legend has it that Cleopatra fragranced the sails of her boat, so her lover Mark Anthony could smell her before he saw her.

If you like to write letters, send greeting cards, or postcards, you can scent them your favourite fragrance.
1. Simply put your cards or writing paper and envelopes into a small drawer.
2. Spritz some perfume or a few drops of your favorite essential oil onto a clean cotton pad and place it in the drawer, being careful not to touch the paper or cards.
3. Close the drawer and leave for a few days or weeks until your items have been infused with your beautiful scent.
4. Now, whenever you send cards or letters, the reader will know they’re from you because the familiar fragrance will become your signature scent.

*Heliogabalus was a Roman Emperor who ruled from 218 to 222. In his short four-year reign, he scarred Roman society and the annals of world history with his extremely debauched lifestyle.

According to Historia Augusta, Emperor Heliogabalus used violets and other flowers to suffocate his dinner guests. The Roses of Heliogabalus, a painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, depicts an infamous party scene hosted by Emperor Heliogabalus.

The Roman emperor lays nonchalantly, drinks his wine, and observes, as his guests below are smothered to death by rose petals. This is the ultimate party prank. This is the ultimate Roman death.
During the late Victorian era, when Alma-Tadema painted The Roses of Heliogabalus, roses represented lust and desire in the Victorian language of flowers known as floriography.

According to the original source, Historia Augusta, Emperor Heliogabalus, used violets and other flowers to suffocate his dinner guests.

However, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema uses roses as his method of death. Roses were a more appropriate flower for Alma-Tadema to paint, because violets represented faithfulness and modesty in the Victorian floriography.

Emperor Heliogabalus was many things, but he was certainly not faithful and modest.

*The above text is an excerpt from an article written by James W. Singer - an art historian and fine art photographer. 

Find out more about Floriography and reveal what your favourite might just say about you! 

9th Century
Arab physician Avicenna perfected the distillation process, which remained unchanged for over 200 years. Finally, aromatic substances could be effectively extracted from plant material, and people could use their precious oils in perfume

4th Century
Venice played a key role in the perfume industry for a few hundred years, contrary to popular belief that the art of perfumery derived in France. It actually originated in Italy and was taken to France by Catherine de Medici and her perfumer, Rene de Florentin. Rene was abandoned at a monastery as an infant. The monks adopted him and there they taught him the art of perfumery. Legend has it, he made perfumes and poisons for Catherine; the poison potions served as revenge for her enemies.
Although out of print, if you’re lucky, like I was in a French second-hand bookstore, you might stumble across a rare book containing Rene’s formulas.

The Collector of Dying Breaths is a fascinating gothic tale which zigzags from the violent days of Catherine de Medici’s court to twenty-first-century France and features Rene de Florentin-who may have been working on an elixir that would unlock the secret to immortality. (Excerpt from Simon & Schuster.)

5th Century
King Louis XIV known as the SUN KING, reigned over a period of unprecedented prosperity in France. He was a king who demanded the most magnificent palace of the century, to celebrate his glory, and commissioned a new scent for every day of the week.

17th Century
Marie Antoinette was so extravagant she had her own personal perfumer.

Victorian Era
In the Victorian era ‘nice girls’ smelled like garden flowers. Perfumes were made from natural materials, but that would soon change with the discovery of synthetic materials.
Perfumes never used to have a gender distinction. They were all unisex. Men would happily wear the same floral scent as a woman. Male and female perfumes are very much a modern concept facilitated by marketing and advertising. Genderless perfumes have now come full circle.
19th Century
Towards the end of the 19th century, the discovery of synthetic materials meant that perfumes finally became more affordable, as some of the world’s most expensive oils could be replaced with cheaper counterparts and smell almost as decent, although less complex.

Coumarin and Vanillin are popular, cheaper substitutes for Tonka Bean and Vanilla in perfumes.

Guerlain launched the first perfumes that successfully blended naturals with synthetics.

0th Century
Coty introduced perfume to the masses and created the first commercial Chypre fragrance for mass production.

A mistake made history when Ernest Beau’s (the perfumer behind the scent) apprentice misread the formula. And added 10 times more aldehyde to a sample blend of Chanel No.5.

Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel loved it so much they kept the formula, and it became the most iconic fragrance of all time. It was released on the 5th day of the 5th month in 1921. Five was her favourite number, and she hoped it would be lucky for the success of the perfume!

The ‘mistake’ is a popular legend, and one told many times the world over, yet his family and colleagues at the time refuted the story, saying there is no proof it ever happened and Ernest himself never mentioned it to them. It still makes for an inspiring story!

Joy de Jean Patou was launched in 1930, following the wall street crash of 1929, with the tagline ‘Joy, the costliest perfume in the world.’
According to Jean. Kerleo, Patou’s in-house perfumer since 1967.

“Joy is probably the most natural perfume on the market and also among the most expensive to produce. It takes six to seven million Jasmine flowers to make one kilogramme of absolute. Only limited quantities of Joy can be made, because it’s made from very expensive flower essences from Grasse, which can be produced only once a year. And that has preserved the mystery and desirability of the perfume.”

*Je Reviens by Worth was launched in 1932 and is at the heart of a fable which began in 1924.

“My grandfather used to tell the family that it was the most beautiful story he knew,” says Frederic Worth. “Each perfume was part of the love story. In English, their names would say: ‘In the night, just before dawn, because I can’t bear to say goodbye, I’m coming back to you’. Dans la Nuit, Vers le Jour, San Adieu, Je Reviens Vers Toi.”

*L’Air du Temps was launched in 1948, created by perfumer Francis Fabron, it was the vision of the late Robert Ricci, who once said, “My aim is to dress reality in the colour of dreams. When I was 18, I came across the proverb of my life. Let reasons speak but listen to the heart.”

Translated into perfume, his dream still touches millions of women. No other perfume has captured the essence of romance quite as perfectly as L’Air du Temps.

One spring morning in 1946
, a small plane flew over Paris.
As it passed above the Place du Trocadero, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, “it dropped thousands of tiny green and white parachutes, each carrying a little perfume bottle. People were absolutely stunned. It caused the biggest traffic jam!” Recalls Andre Pierre Tarbes, Parfums Carven’s first advertising manager. Ma Griffe had arrived.

“Parfums Carven gave perfume promotions a new edge,” says Tarbes. “Besides dropping perfumed parachutes, it was the first house to give away thousands of samples, 1/6oz and larger. Guerlain used to give small samples in their shops, but Carven was the first to be so generous.”

Christian Dior launched Miss Dior.
“I think of myself as a designer of perfumes. As well as a designer of fashion.“ Christian Dior

Diorissimo *
“In the Spring of 1954 I put forward the Lily of the Valley line, inspired by my lucky flower a line, which was at once young, graceful and simple,” wrote Christian Dior in his autobiography, Dior by Dior.

Two years later he presented dear Diorissimo, a fragrance which, not only captured the. essence of his lucky flower, but also “inaugurated a new architecture of perfume”, as perfumer Edmund Roudnitska, its creator once said. It was no idle boast Diorissimo marked a fundamental change in the philosophy of perfumery.

Roudnitska started to react against the harsh synthetics and ‘perfume-confectionary’, a common practice following the advent of synthetic materials.

Feeling unable to continue. He returned to the South of France, where in a house, high in the hills above Grasse he started his own studio. Once again inspired by nature, he felt that the structure of perfumes had to be simplified, pared back to the essential core. “Not only were we pushing perfumes in the direction of food, but we were also putting too many ingredients into them,” he explains. “It made them too complicated and muddled. Perfume was becoming a little like the millefleurs, as Perfumer’s called the containers into which all the perfume trials get thrown. When we put too many ingredients into a formula, it tends to turn it into a millefleurs!

That thought hit me. From that moment. I told myself, ‘I must work simply’.
“I clung to the motto, simplify, simplify, simplify. Only when they reach the peak of their talent do artists begin to simplify their work.”

Duty-free shops and increased travel made perfume more affordable and gave birth to three perfumes that changed the industry.


Caleche by Hermes
Not since the 1920s, when Chanel, Lanvin and Worth proved that fashion houses could have a successful perfume, had another label mirrored their successes. Even Louis Vuitton failed. Then along came Caleche by Hermes, which showed that it could again be possible.

Madame Rochas
*After the sudden death of Marcel Rochas, his widow Helene was appointed the new president of Rochas at the tender age of just 28. Few women in France held such a position of power and she was the youngest company head in all of France.
“I gave Madame Rochas the image of my image very refined. Feminine and soft because I wanted to offer something of myself. My perfume was to perpetuate Roshas’ elegance, while reflecting the spirit of the independent woman I had become.”

This perfume pioneered a new generation of fresh fragrances. It was also the first French perfume to use American-style marketing techniques using the slogan “A woman is an island; Fiji is her perfume.”

*Excerpts from Perfume Legends by Michael Edwards 

Marketing expressed women’s liberation and independence, demonstrated in Revlon’s cheeky Charlie advertising.
The strengths changed too, from stronger Parfums, to Eau de Colognes and Eau de Toilettes. The bottles were becoming more convenient, smaller and easier to carry around, with larger bottles reserved for the dressing table.

The age of ‘Room Rocker’ or power perfumes like Opium, Samsara and Poison. Their powerful aroma led to a ban in some American restaurants, fearing that their intensity would spoil the enjoyment of fellow diners. It was an era of big hair, shoulder pads and women asserting their power in the boardroom and beyond. Perfume was one way to express their strength and unconventionality.

#In 1987 Elizabeth Taylor invented the “celebrity perfume” franchise with her first fragrance, Passion, and released her last, Violet Eyes, in 2010. But while today such merchandise is often the result of a popstar turning up to a photoshoot and pointing at a bottle, Taylor’s had a genuine flair.
A shrewd businesswoman, she teamed up with the respected Elizabeth Arden company and supervised the entire collection of 11 perfumes, even when her health failed. Unusually, she also always wore her own creation, the top-selling White Diamonds (actor Richard Harris was allegedly kicked out of Taylor’s mansion for drinking it), and never took her side job for granted – perhaps because perfumery gave her a fatter pay cheque than Hollywood ever did.
The “most beautiful woman in the world” was also the world’s biggest-selling celebrity perfumer. The actor left an estimated $600m - $1bn fortune, largely the yield of her scent empire, it was revealed in 2011.

#Excerpt from an article by Sali Hughes for The Guardian. Scan the code to read the full editorial
A time of cleaner, fresher, crisper scents like Issey Miyake’s L’eau d’Issey and CK One, which heralded a return to unisex fragrances.
Launched in the early nineties, CK One changed the fragrance game entirely. It kick-started a genderless trend and shifted the craze from heavy oriental perfumes to lighter, simpler scents.

21st Century
The Millennium paved the way for the rise of ‘niche’ or ‘cult’ perfumers and Frederic Malle launched a range of perfumes that revealed the names of the ‘noses’, lifting the veil of secrecy that once shrouded the masters behind perfume creations. This was an opportunity for them to create the fragrance they’d always dreamed of, giving them complete creative freedom and unrestricted financial restrictions regarding the ingredients. Born into the world of perfume, Frederic’s grandfather was the founder of parfums Christian Dior. The fragrances are perceived as haute couture creations.

When budgets are usually reserved for the marketing machine and development is controlled by business executives and not artists. When natural ingredients are restricted or banned, and favor is given to synthetic by-products of petroleum. When every other new mainstream perfume seems to be a reconstitution of another.
Has the real art of perfumery been lost along the road leading to profit margins? Maybe, but there is hope.
With the rise of the Indie perfumer, boutique brands, and self-taught perfumers, it’s an exciting time indeed for the industry. Entrepreneurs who are in control of their perfume production are in control of their budgets, and therefore free to use expensive, natural materials, and retain complete creative freedom.

My recommended books about the history of perfume:
  1. The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England by Holly Dugan

  2. A Natural History of the Senses by Dianne Ackerman
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