Barbara Herman, a passionate enthusiast for all things perfume, has spent plenty of time over the past six years in deep research into vintage fragrances. It was all so she could find and look into the variations of scents and smells that have both reflected and defined womankind over the years.
Out of her long, arduous quest is a book called Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume. In this book that she has written, she explains – as well as voices her own opinions on – fragrances throughout the ages. She had found that perfumes at the turn of the 20th century have always been a single note: floral. That is, before a bold move from Coco Chanel.
This move from the well-known French fashion designer was the creation of her most iconic product, Chanel No. 5. For this perfume, Coco Chanel had combined musk with the traditional floral scent. Her manoeuvre had paid off, and with it, the modern perfume industry took off the ground as well. From there, fragrances for women became more than just floral. According to what Barbara Herman had learned, perfumes became as complex as the ever-changing role of women in society.
Barbara has found through her study of fragrances throughout the decades that because of this trend set by Coco’s Chanel No. 5, a definitively more masculine set of scents found their way into the market by the 30’s and 40’s. Leather and tobacco perfumes were just among many of these new scents, reflecting how the women had started working in factories. This was most especially prominent during the 40’s, when women were helping out in the time of war.
She found, however, that this image changed after the war in the 50’s. Women who worked in factories were being sent back home at this point, and society again tried to reinforce the image of the stay-at-home mother. It was the era where the norm was for women to take care of their children and housework, while also strangely maintaining an image of sexy appeal. Hence, fragrances available took after this image as well.
Once again, floral-note perfumes dominated the public markets, but now at its base were more animalist scents – or scents that were derived from animals. Barbara Herman’s personal experience with this sort of perfume was with the brand, Miss Dior. Barbara realised just how much scents like these were a factor to enforcing a growing image among women: one of a femme fatale.
By the 70’s, women were beginning to question their role in society and with this, Barbara wrote that fragrance itself was beginning to question its role in the lives of women. Barbara then spoke of Charlie, a brand of perfume to represent a single mother attending college.
Barbara personally loved the idea of Charlie, and even its name appealed to her in its ambiguity. To this authoress, Charlie had its appeal not only in its modern unisex styling, but also in its reinforcement of a woman that’s more in control. The perfume itself had floral, but had a chypre concept. Chypre is characterised by citrus as its top notes, cistus labdanum as middle notes, and an animalistic base notes obtained from musk and oak moss. This scent, in Barbara’s opinion, gave a sense of freedom while maintaining a sort of heft in its fragrance.
Continuing on this trend into the 80’s where, as the author puts it, everything was over the top. The perfumes manufactured then were no exception. While she was looking into the fragrances during these years, Barbara encountered lore in New York that restaurants then were placing signs outside their businesses. It was a warning to customers against wearing perfumes like Passion, Giorgio, or Poison due to their strong silage.
On this regard, the authoress wrote just how much the knowledge she has acquired has changed her perception of how society and culture is through the years. Not only because fragrances changed along with the trends and enforced images of women over time, but also because she has observed just how complex perfumes were in the pre-feminist era in comparison to our modern times.
The author found it paradoxical that now that women were more in control of their lives than before, the perfumes have now become quite “tame” in their palettes of scents, as opposed to their strength and complexity in the past.
Interested to hear more about her observations? Her book is available Amazon.com.