NWPR Books
4:55 pm
Thu February 6, 2014

Perfume's Scents Of Subversion? Sweat, Musk And Patchouli

Barbara Herman has spent the better part of the past six years taking a deep nosedive into the world of vintage fragrances. Her quest has been to find the bold, sexy and downright odd smells that have defined women over the decades.

The result is a book called Scent And Subversion: Decoding A Century Of Provocative Perfume. It explains how, at the turn of the 20th century, most perfumes were still just one note, floral. Then, a now-iconic perfume came along — one that combined musk with a traditional floral scent.

Herman tells NPR's Audie Cornish, "With Chanel No. 5, Coco Chanel said, 'A woman needs to smell like a woman, and not a rose.'"

With that, the modern perfume business took flight. Through the '30s and '40s, as the role of women became more complex, so did their perfumes.


Interview Highlights

On how perfumes changed after World War II, when leather and tobacco scents targeted women working in factories

Women were sent back home and women were kind of fed this image that they needed to be at home and baking cookies, but also kind of being sexy. And so you smell this in perfumes with floral notes and kind of good girl, fresh, clean scents.

But then at the base of it are a lot of intense [animalistic] notes, notes that are sourced from animal bodies. And they smell like sweat or secretions, shall we say. And my first experience with one of those perfumes was Miss Dior. And it was the first perfume that really made me realize that when people say, "Oh, it smells like my grandma," that they might not quite want to say that, unless they want to think about their grandmother as a femme fatale.

On Charlie

I love Charlie, first of all, because that was a perfume that my mother wore. And she was a single mother going back to college and I just associate that perfume with that time and with her ...

The thing that I love about the perfume too is that the name is so ambiguous. Like, Charlie, is that her? Is that her name? Is she kind of this unisex creature now? And the perfume itself, it's got florals, but then it has this kind of chypre base, which is a kind of perfume that has oak, moss and patchouli. And, you know, she's both free — it's more of a sport scent, really, than a floral — but she still has some heft to her.

On some scents being so big that people complained

Lore has it that in New York there were signs put up at fancy restaurants that said, "Please, no wearers of Passion, Giorgio or Poison," which were the perfumes of the day with huge floral notes, and had great sillage, which means if you walked into a room people would smell you like 45 minutes later.

On modern perfumes being more tame than vintage fragrances

Why were women in a kind of pre-feminist era able to smell so complex? And now here I am in the '90s or in the early '00s, and the only scents that are available to me are clean and boring, really. Office scents, literally. It seemed paradoxical or ironic that [in] post-feminism, and kind of in a pornified era, our perfumes are actually very tame.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Blogger Barbara Herman has spent the better part of the past six years taking a deep nosedive into the world of vintage fragrances. Her quest? To find the bold, the sexy and the downright odd smells that have defined women over the decades. The result is a book called "Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century Of Provocative Perfume."

At the turn of the 20th century, most perfumes were still just, as they say, one note, floral. Then, Barbara Herman says, a now-iconic perfume came along.

BARBARA HERMAN: With Chanel No. 5, Coco said, a woman needs to smell like a woman, and not a rose.

CORNISH: Coco Chanel did something bold. She combined musk with the traditional floral scent and, voila, the modern perfume business took flight. From there, perfumes became even more complex, as did the role of women. So by the '30s and '40s...

HERMAN: They had leather perfumes. There were tobacco perfumes. There were, you know, really butch perfumes.

CORNISH: They were scents created for women who were now out in the workforce. By the '40s, women were busy working in factories, helping out in war time. Herman says that changed after the war in the 1950s.

HERMAN: Women were sent back home and women were kind of fed this image that they needed to be at home and baking cookies, but also kind of being sexy. And so you smell this in perfumes with floral notes and kind of good girl, fresh, clean scents.

But then, at the base of it are a lot of intense animalic notes, notes that are sourced from animal bodies. And they smell like sweat or secretions, shall we say. And my first experience with one of those perfumes was Miss Dior. And it was the first perfume that really made me realize that when people say, oh, it smells like my grandma, that they might not quite want to say that, unless they want to think about their grandmother as a femme fatale.

CORNISH: Now, where this gets funny, I think, is when we get to the '70s, right? Right when women are questioning their role in culture. And you write that essentially the perfume world is questioning their role in the lives of women. Talk about Charlie.

HERMAN: Yeah. I love Charlie, first of all, because that was a perfume that my mother wore. And she was a single mother going back to college and in the ad, you know, there's Shelly Hack(ph) strutting to the club or wherever she's going. She's wearing fantastic pantsuit...

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Charlie, kind of free, kind of wow. Charlie.

HERMAN: The thing that I love about the perfume too is that the name is so ambiguous. Like, Charlie, is that her? Is that her name?

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Now, the world belongs to Charlie.

HERMAN: Is she kind of this unisex creature now? And the perfume itself, it's got florals, but then it has this kind of chypre base, which is a kind of perfume that has oak, moss and patchouli. And, you know, she's both free it's more of a sport scent, really, than a floral, but she still has some heft to her.

CORNISH: Now, when it comes to the '80s, I have to play an ad from Calvin Klein.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: And when she devoured my very could, please, when I had nothing left to surrender, she abandoned me to the wreckage of myself and I (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: In the kingdom of passion, the ruler is Obsession, Calvin Klein's Obsession.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Oh, the smell of it.

CORNISH: We all had a good laugh about that.

HERMAN: I feel like that ad is representative of the '80s and of '80s perfume. It's just over the top. Everything's big. Everything's dramatic.

CORNISH: Even the bottles seemed to have shoulder pads.

HERMAN: Yeah.

CORNISH: And then the scents themselves, you say, were so big that people actually complained.

HERMAN: Yes. Lore has it that in New York there were signs put up at fancy restaurants that said, please, no wearers of Passion, Giorgio or Poison, which were the perfumes of the day with huge floral notes, and had great silage, which means if you walked into a room people would smell you like 45 minutes later.

CORNISH: In the end, did you find that you learned more about our culture through the perfumes themselves or through the ads and marketing?

HERMAN: I would say that I found out a more profound truth about our culture through the perfume. I think one of the first revelations for me is why were women in a kind of pre-feminist era able to smell so complex? And now here I am in the '90s or in the early '00s, and the only scents that are available to me are clean and boring, really.

Office scents, literally. It seemed paradoxical that post-feminism, and kind of in a pornified era, our perfumes are actually very tame.

CORNISH: Barbara Herman, she's the author of "Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume." Thanks so much for speaking with us.

HERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.