A ‘Scents’ of History: Bringing Back Perfume’s Prestige

It’s fair to say that a bottle of perfume can be found on almost everyone’s vanity table. From Dior to Lynx bodyspray, there is arguably a fragrance out there for every pallet and personal preference. While fragrances may come and go, our love of perfume remains undiminished, and the application of our favourite scent has become an integral part of our daily rituals.

However the introduction of mass production has arguably commoditised something that was historically viewed as a true luxury. Perfume has become so recognisable and readily accessible, that it’s easy to forget the important role fragrance has played throughout society for thousands of years. While there are individuals (us included) who undoubtedly love all things “perfume”, with so many brands and options available, there is the argument that as a society, we’ve lost some of the reverence for fragrance that we once had.

But the story of perfume is not simply about brand names, more importantly it’s helped to tell a human story for thousands of years – and perhaps by understanding the deep, meaningful history of fragrance, it can help us appreciate its place in history, and help us return perfume to a place of prestige.

Scentsual Spirituality

Perfume has long held a privileged place in human history.

Ever since the very first perfumer was mentioned in a cuneiform tablet from the 2nd millennium BC in Mesopotamia, it has been given spiritual, medicinal and social significance.

Those of us versed in nativities are accustomed to the story of the three wise men, and how they offered Myrrh and Frankincense as gifts to the baby Jesus. While today we may give a bottle of perfume as a gift to our aunts and uncles, two thousand years ago fragrances were held in such high regard that they were deemed suitable offerings for the son of God.

Before the three wise men, however, fragrance had an even greater link to spirituality. It’s hard to imagine a time when perfume was thought to be a gift from the gods themselves, but this was integral to the Ancient Egyptians. Fragrance had such a privileged place in society that the Egyptians believed perfume to be the sweat of the sun-god Ra himself.

So heavily was fragrance linked to spirituality and deities that it was regularly used during rituals, particularly burials. Where we now ritually apply perfume before a night out, Pharaohs and high priests would often have their tombs perfumed to provide safe passage into the afterlife. In fact, when archeologists opened the first Egyptian tombs, they noticed a sweet smell filling the air, still preserved some 3,000 years later.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

The macabre topic of death was not the only ritual in which perfume was given a place of importance, however.

Fragrance was a crucial element of any Ancient Greek wedding, and was included in the list of items and rituals that would provide good luck for the happy couple. Rather than choosing the right ‘something borrowed or something blue’, Greek couples would wear special fragrances just for the wedding day, in the hope that they would act as a good omen.

Fragrance was also a vital part of the courtship ritual. The link between scents, sensuality and seduction is an easy one to make, as fragrance is literally designed to stimulate the senses. It’s a link that still persists today: from Marilyn Monroe’s famous refrain ‘why Chanel no. 5, of course’ to the litany of “artistic” and seductive perfume ads we see on TV.

Before Marilyn, however, it was Cleopatra who famously used fragrance for the art of seduction. It is said that in order to seduce Caesar into marriage, Cleopatra created a fragrance so irresistible that it was considered as foolproof as a love potion. Legend has it that the queen chose to soak the sails of her ship in fragrant oils as she sailed towards Marc Anthony, in the hopes that he would smell her before laying eyes on her.

While perfume is still undoubtedly linked with the power of seduction in the modern world, it is unlikely that a recent date from Tinder will go to such lengths in order to display their affection.

A Scent Fit For a King

Cleopatra was not the only famous monarch throughout history to have a strong reverence for perfume.

As well as being a ceremonial substance, perfume came to be associated with luxury and extravagance. In Ancient Greece, perfume was seen as a mark of hospitality and respect. Where we would perhaps open an expensive bottle of wine for a special guest, Ancient Greek guests would be greeted at the door by servants of the household, who would soak and bathe their feet in perfumed water and essential oils.

For many monarchies, perfume became a highly sought after commodity that helped further elevate their status. In some cases, bespoke perfumes were even created for specific monarchs to enhance their importance, and Elizabeth I’s perfume was even mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Although she was not the first European monarch to be enchanted by fragrance, her distinctive use of scent could be seen as an early example of what we would now call sensory branding.

With perfume, to a certain extent, aiding in the task of establishing social standing, it is understandable that monarchs and nobles did not just perfume their bodies. Wigs and accessories would also be popular items fit for perfuming. Elizabeth I was even said to receive perfumed gloves as a gift from the Earl of Oxford. The modern concept of ‘too much perfume’ didn’t seem to be an issue for medieval monarchs – fragrance was highly valuable, and showing off your own personal scent as liberally as possible was highly encouraged.

Perhaps the most famous love affair between a monarch and their perfume was Louis XIV of France. His passion for fragrance was so great that his court in Versailles became known as ‘The Perfumed Court’, and the King himself earned the name ‘The Perfume King’. When moving his court to Versailles, Louis’ mission was to elevate the palace to the pinnacle of elegance, and ensure it became the envy of all of Europe. It is a testament to the respect that was given to fragrance during this time that it became key to achieving his goal.

Louis and his court delighted in fragrance and perfumed their lives to an extraordinary degree, dusting wigs, linens, sheets and fans with scented powders. Even the garden fountains were perfumed so that the air around Versailles itself would smell of heaven. It’s arguably even harder to imagine such an imaginative, performative use of perfume today.

Coming Full Circle

The mass marketing of perfume means that today, it’s not just Kings and Queens who are able to enjoy fragrance on a daily basis – and that’s a good thing.  

However with the commodification of perfume, it’s unlikely that a fragrance will act as a transcendent or ritualistic experience when it is within arms reach – from every department store to magazine samples.

Countless launches has also led to scents becoming far more uniform than it was once, for the best and worst. Where scents were once considered special enough that a distinct fragrance would be created for one’s wedding day, now it is possible that the person next to you is wearing the same exact perfume you are.

At Experimental Perfume Club, we believe that people should have greater access to fragrances, access more knowledge of the beautiful craft that is perfumery and be able to get hands-on with the product they wear – which should be thought after and very special.

By mixing your own signature scent, wearing perfume can become an individual and unique experience once again. Perhaps you won’t have a new scent for every day of the year like King Louis, but this hands-on approach to perfume may reignite that feeling of cherishing fragrance that used to enhance our lives.

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