Scent and Subversion

Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative PerfumeScent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume by Barbara Herman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been fascinated by scents for years now—not perfumes, but everyday scents: cedar closets, wet earth, cement, tea leaves, tree leaves, fir and pine needles, pencils, basements, matches, old books. When I started learning about perfume, my interest was really more solipsistic than academic: I dreamed of finding the perfect concoction that somehow perfectly expressed my thoughts and moods. Herman says we can “see perfume as instructive, a bridge between the world and our oft-neglected sense of smell. Like reading poetry to understand the lyricism in demotic, everyday speech, perfume connects us to the olfactory wonderland that is around us.” Scent and Subversion moves beyond—way beyond—the personal connection we have to scents and digs into the history, art, and science of perfumery.

Most of the book is like an encyclopedia of landmark vintage perfumes, organized chronologically. For each scent, author Barbara Herman provides cultural, historical, and social commentary; describes, analyses, and interprets the fragrance; and lists the top, heart, and base notes. We have different taste in fragrances: she favors animalic chypres and I suppose I’m more into minimalist woody scents. But Herman had a knack for imbuing each fragrance with mystery and allure, almost tempting me to bid on decants of Bandit so I could smell “a bouquet of flowers wrapped with a black whip” and Tabu, “the prostitute’s perfume.”

I was so taken with Herman’s descriptions of perfumes that I started a long list of scents I want to sniff or re-sniff. I’m especially curious to smell the perfumes I remember from my childhood and early adulthood now that I know more about them. It turns out that I have memories and associations with many, many perfumes. As a preteen, I had a small sample of Dior’s Fahrenheit for men (1988), which Herman describes as “classically masculine.” I was surprised that she didn’t mention what I’ve always found so striking and appealing about Fahrenheit—that unmistakable petrol note that rises up out of the fresh, citrusy opening.

Another one on the re-sniff list is Bulgari Black (1998). I’ve never quite understood they hype surrounding this one, which Herman declares a “masterpiece of twenty-first century perfumery.” For me, after the initial blast of rubber, which is so intriguing, the scent charges straight to the dry down. On my skin, the rubber turns into a bland, powdery vanilla and stays there. I want to try it again and see if I can get the complexity. I want to pick out the lapsang souchang in the top notes. The base sounds more dynamic than I remembered, with a blend of cedar, sandalwood, and leather in addition to the vanilla/musk/amber I could detect the last time I tried it.

Throughout the book, Herman rants against the banality of the insipid fruity and shampoo-y clean scents that have dominated the perfume scene for the last two decades. She makes a great case for embracing older, more complex formulas that blend pleasant smells with darker, animalic notes. Though I’m not sure I’d ever grow to love the musky and civety concoctions of ages past the way Herman has, I feel like I get them now—or I could learn to get them. Maybe it’s time to give Shalimar and Chanel No. 5 another sniff!

Scent and Subversion is a well-researched, well-written, fascinating tour of modern perfumery (from the 1880s to now). Barbara Herman makes a compelling argument for considering perfume as an art form, “as an aesthetic of pop culture that is worth of analysis, shaped by and shaping the culture in which it is embedded.”

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