Writer and “perfumaniac” Barbara Herman’s Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume (Lyons Press, 2013) digs into the sexualized and gendered history behind perfume.
Herman shared some interesting insights with BuzzFeed about the inspirations and creation of classic fragrances.
1. The Dana company wanted its Tabu perfume to smell like prostitutes.
“Tabu’s (1932) perfumer Jean Carles was told by the Dana perfume company to ‘make a perfume a prostitute would wear.’” You can buy Dana’s classics here.
3. Scents often used substances from animal anuses.
“One way perfumes like Shalimar were able to smell like sexual bodies was the inclusion of ‘overdoses’ of perfume ingredients like civet — sourced from the anal gland of the mongoose-like Civet animal. Which means your grandmother was slathering herself with anal cream.”
4. Bandit de Robert Piguet perfume was inspired by womens’ panties.
“Bandit (1947) was created by lesbian perfumer and former model Germaine Cellier and it’s said that the scent was inspired by the smell of models changing their panties at a Robert Piguet fashion show. It’s a mossy leather scent that now would be made for men.”
5. Instead of smoking cigarettes in the 1920s, women could just spray cigarette smell on themselves.
“Habanita (1925) perfume by Molinard once actually perfumed cigarettes. It was considered declassé and a little slutty for women to smoke, and Molinard just made it more decadent by creating a perfume to add to the cigs! It soon became a perfume that smelled like cigarettes, with tobacco notes.”
7. The contents of a whale’s stomach could be the key to a really great scent.
“Ambergris, a perfume ingredient more expensive than gold, is the product of a whale’s irritated stomach. It floats around and gets oxidized by the sun, and the longer it does this, and ages like a fine wine, the better it ends up smelling. The washed up remnants are what end up getting sold.”
8. Beavers produce a fruity-smelling chemical called castoreum.
“Castoreum, an ingredient from a beaver’s abdominal gland that is used in leather-scented perfumes, may be part of the “natural flavoring” you find in raspberry and strawberry flavored sweets, including ice cream. It has a fruitiness to its animal hide smell.”
Chanel’s Cuir de Russie is down with the castoreum.
10. Animals enhance the human body’s natural and erotic smells.
“Animal ingredients in perfumes of the past were used to highlight the body’s natural odors, which were considered erotic and sexually alluring. This flies in the face of the theory that perfume was invented to hide the smells of people who didn’t bathe.”
Correction: The perfume Joy by Patou (1931) was marketed as “The most expensive perfume ever made.” An earlier version of this post stated that Joy by Patou (1931) was considered “The most expensive perfume ever made.”
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