Post by Anne-Marie
I am fussy about perfume books because there are some terrible ones out there. But slowly I’ve built up a little library and I thought I might share some impressions of one of my favourites.
Perfume: A Century of Scents by Lizzie Ostrom
You may know Lizzie Ostrom as Odette Toilette, a British-based speaker and commentator on fragrance history and culture: a ‘purveyor of olfactory adventures’. Her book is a tour of the twentieth century via 100 mini-essays on perfumes which ‘have something to say’, as Lizzie puts it, in their own times and often in ours. The book begins with Houbigant’s Le Parfum Idéal (1900) and ends with Demeter’s Dirt (1996).
Lizzie’s selection is not always based on perfumes which have survived until today. You’ll find plenty you have not heard about because although there is coverage of many fine and expensive masterpieces of ‘olfactory art’, there is also an emphasis on mass market perfumes which tell us a lot about what ordinary people actually wore, once upon a time.
So among the great Guerlains, Carons, Chanels and Lauders you’ll find (ahem) Climax by Sears (1900), a ‘mail order perfume’ costing 25 cents ($7 today), and Dri-Perfume (1944) by J.L. Priess, a strongly scented powder produced when war conditions restricted the availability of cosmetic alcohol.
Unusually, the book is not lavishly illustrated, coffee-table style. It contains no vintage ads, just simple, charming line drawings. Lizzie finds context not in images but in literature, movies and popular culture. This for me is pure fascination. Lizzie has, I swear (because I’ve been there), spent many, many hours in libraries poring over magazines and newspapers so as to understand the cultural context of each perfume. Her essays are not reviews, but a series of rich and original insights based on this research.
Lancome’s Magie Noire (1978), for instance, is described as ‘the wiccan perfume’. Its release made the most of counter-cultural interest in spells, tarot reading, cults and drugs. The Wicker Man – do you remember the film? Yes! So of course it makes sense that Magie Noire became an instant classic.
Then there is Jean Desprez’s Bal à Versailles (1962) and the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). What?! But yes – remember the Baron and Baroness Bomburst of Vulgaria, absurdly dressed in ermine and knee breeches, dripping with diamonds? The pure silliness of it all is a perfect match with the faux-opulent eighteenth century-style bottle and the gloriously vulgar scent that is Bal à Versailles.
Meanwhile Jōvan Musk Oil (1972) brings forth memories of the cheesy crooners of the era, especially Demis Roussos in full kaftan and comb-over. Yeesh!
A word for Shalimar lovers: sorry, but your idol is not here. This does not offend me but I do think it odd, Shalimar being one of the most loved and influential perfumes ever.
Perfume: a century of scents by Lizzie Ostrom (Hutchison, 2015) is available as a hardback for US $26.95 and in Kindle for $15. Check out Lizzie’s website