Making Scents


Emily Gould reviews Barbara Herman’s recent book, Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume:

The story is about evolving gender roles and societal norms, from the smoky, sharp, groundbreaking fragrances of the twenties all the way to the watery, unisex “office smells” of the nineties, and beyond. But it’s not as simple as the story of feminine scents turning more masculine (Charlie!) then turning unisex (L’Eau d’Issey). According to Herman, when you pay attention to the narrative of how perfume actually smells, rather than how it is marketed, the story becomes delightfully non-linear.

A chief example of this complexity is in Herman’s chapter on the nineteen-forties, when Femme was born. Herman gives the impression that this was a particularly confusing time to try to figure out how to smell. For the first half of the decade, women had to go to work in factories to support the war effort, and, when men came back, women were supposed to happily return to their kitchens. It was a moment when fashion enforced a cartoonish, almost camp femininity: think crinolined, wasp-waisted dresses. But, according to Herman, women’s perfume belied the New Look, or at least underscored its artificiality. She points to the “butch, leather-clad masculinity” of Bandit and the “aggressive, almost-drag femininity” of Fracas to demonstrate that women now at least knew that they were capable of playing multiple roles.

(Image of vintage perfume ads via Love My Dress)