Book review: Scent & Subversion brings vintage perfumes to glorious life
“A gourmand leather and tobacco fragrance so good it belongs to a rare scent category for me: perfume so good I want to drink it. Dark vanilla and creamy white florals voluptuously bloom as leather, tobacco and civet rise up. Peach and plum add some bruised sweetness.”
-excerpt from the description of Lanvin's Rumeur (1934) in
Scent & Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume
by Barbara Herman
As regular readers of this blog know by now, I have a serious ongoing love affair with vintage perfume. Most books about perfume seem to about the inner workings of the industry (Chandler Burr's The Perfect Scent) or reviews of currently available fragrances (Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez). There are also books about the history of perfume, or how fragrances are made, filled with pictures of Bulgarian rose fields and Middle Eastern spice markets. I enjoy reading all kinds of books about fragrance, but there has always been something missing. At last, now there is a book that celebrates the perfumes of the past and really tells us what they smell like: Scent & Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume by Barbara Herman. Many of you may also be readers of Ms. Herman's delightful blog, Yesterday's Perfume. The logical next step from writing reviews and giving us fascinating historical tidbits about vintage scents was writing a book, and I am so very glad that she did.
The book takes us on a decade-by-decade journey from the origins of modern perfumery up to the end of the twentieth century. Iconic fragrances such as Houbigant's Fougère Royale (1882) and Guerlain's Jicky (1889) were revolutionary in their time, marking the beginning of the era when synthetic materials were first used in perfumery; this advance made it possible for an explosion of creativity that continues today as perfumers use everything in their arsenals to make interesting, unusual and yes, provocative fragrances instead of the simple floral waters that were popular before that time. The “subversion” part comes from the hidden language of perfumes; the animalic and indolic essences used to compose them can speak louder than words and express the intentions of the wearer with no verbal explanation needed. This was also a time when women were finding ways to express themselves beyond the boundaries of hearth and home, and perfumery reflected this seismic cultural shift. Caron's fiercely feral Tabac Blond (1919) was made for covering up the smell of cigarette smoke, which was still a shocking habit for women at the time. Lanvin's My Sin (1924) is nominally a floral, but oh, what a floral it is, narcotically sweet, redolent, mesmerizing, with animal base notes that virtually growl. It is also one of my own favorite examples of what the now-banned nitro musks contributed to perfumery. Ms. Herman aptly compares their use in fragrances to the way foods taste and feel with and without butter, a perfect analogy; today's perfumes just can't capture that feeling.
The book is seductive in its own right – I could not put it down as I eagerly devoured every page. After an introduction that details the author's own developing fascination “real” perfume, the heart of her book is an overview of a broad spectrum of famous (and not so famous) perfumes through the years. Where possible, the main fragrance notes are also listed along with her own impressions. Many of the fragrances are those that I also know and love, and as I got into the later chapters I found “vintage” perfumes that I remember from before they were vintage, being a lady of a certain age myself. The author's descriptions made me look at them with new eyes, and now I want to rediscover such once-common gems as Revlon's Intimate (1955) and Moon Drops (1970) all over again. It is made even more enticing by the impressive array of vintage print perfume ads on almost every page, many of which I had never seen before and some of which are hilariously retro, and little-known historical details and fun facts about the perfume houses and perfumers that will be like so much catnip to avid readers.
What I found most engaging in this book is the unabashed love and enthusiasm it projects – this is not an “expert's” careful dissection of notes or a scientific treatise on perfume making. It's an extended fan letter written by a true amateur, someone very much like me, like us, like so many perfume fanatics who fall into the perfume world and get hopelessly pulled in by the romance, the history, the glamour, the personalities, and the sheer beauty of the perfumes themselves.
The book's third act is a bit of a surprise – it has a section that tells how modern perfumery is rising to the challenge of making perfumes that are neither bland nor boring, but continuing the heritage of the greats of the past, including Christopher Brosius of CB I Hate Perfume and Antoine Lie, the perfumer for the avant-garde house of Etat Libre d'Orange, known for its sometimes shocking fragrances and packaging. It is reassuring to know that today's niche and artisan perfumers are turning their backs on the corporate mainstream and its increasingly restrictive rules and making perfume that speaks from the heart. It ends with a very informative “Perfume 101” section on how to learn about perfume, how to start a vintage fragrance collection, a glossary, and a list of recommended reading. I predict with confidence that this book will be on everyone else's list of recommended reading from now on – it's indispensable, and more fun than should be legal. What are you waiting for, go get your copy!
Image credit: the cover of Scent and Subversion via barnesandnoble.com
Disclosure: I purchased my copy of this book.