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The Fashion of Fragrance

Let's start at the beginning with the evolution of scent.

Scent is linked to fashion, culture, history, colours, feelings, memories… That's why we feel so nostalgic when we smell a particular fragrance.

Scroll to the bottom to see my book recommendations if you are fascinated by perfume history.

Scents are not a recent creation. They actually date all the way back to at least 4500BC IN China and in 3000 BC Ancient Egyptians would burn incense as offerings to their gods. Since fragrance was associated with superior powers, these offerings were used to appease their deities.

Fun fact: Many people think that essential oils were discovered in amulets in the ancient pyramids. This is just not true! Back in those days, there was simply no distillation method. In fact, they didn’t even know that it was possible to get the oils out of a plant. Instead, they used the actual plants themselves.

Ground, burned and infused plants became an important part of their own beauty treatments.

We can learn a great deal from how they did this. A fascinating 20 metre scroll found in 1872 shows how perfumes, cosmetics, ointments and balms were actually produced in ancient Egypt.

Take a trip to Leipzig, Germany and see it for yourself at their university library. Don’t forget to copy a few of the recipes down to transport you back in time to the land of the pharaohs.

Further proof that perfumes are ancient can be found in this timeline:


700 BC — ancient perfume making starts in Crete

600 BC — a grave inscription shows how lilies were transformed into perfumes

500 BC — Arabians started a thriving trade in frankincense

The trade in frankincense turned into a booming business for the Arabians. Look up the Frankincense Trail Map on Google and you will see how far and wide it extended — it’s simply incredible considering the time period. But more on frankincense at another time.

In 41 BCE, the ultimate seductress Cleopatra knew the importance of scent as she seduced Mark Antony.

In the Roman Empire King Nero would spray his dinner guests with rosewater between courses. Anyone fancy a historically themed dinner party?

And as we all know, burning incense is synonymous with churches, and many other places of worship.

In the twelfth century Venice became a key centre of perfumery, a position it would hold for a few hundred years. How did it start? Due to the foul odour of the sewerage, people would carry flowers under their noses to cover the stench.

The first alcohol-based perfume recipe on record was created for Queen Elizabeth of Hungary in the 1500s. The formula? Take rosemary and infuse it in alcohol wine. Voilà.

That’s it. Simple, effective, and fit for a queen!


In the 1600s, Grasse in France, became the main supplier of perfume ingredients in Europe. Not only did they tan leather 一 a very unpleasant smelling process 一 they also made perfumed gloves so that you could cover the stench. They profited from a solution to their own problem! Today, Grasse is known as the ‘City of Flowers’. They no longer tan leather, but their perfume industry is thriving.

King Louis XIV became involved, commissioning a new scent for every day of the week. And even more extravagant was Marie Antoinette, who in the 1700s hired her own personal perfumer.

The Victorian era ushered in the idea that ‘nice’ women smelled, not like sugar and spice, but rather of roses and delicate florals.

More recently at the end of the nineteenth century, Coumarin and Vanillin (synthetic products) became replacements for the much higher priced Tonka Bean and Vanilla, which were commonly used in perfumes. With these cheaper substitutes, even the not-so-rich could afford to smell like royalty. Perfume houses such as Guerlain began to blend naturals with synthetic ingredients.


Fancy some Chanel Number 5? Introduced in 1921, legend has it that it came about due to a mistake! The perfumer's assistant accidentally added ten times the amount of aldehyde to the formula than he should have. Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel loved it so much she chose it to be launched.

The perfumer Ernest Beau's family has always denied knowledge of this 'mistake' and said he never acknowledged it or mentioned it to his family or colleagues.

Who knew that an alleged mistake could become a number one bestseller for a century and the most iconic perfume of all time? This is the reason I tell my students to embrace fear and make mistakes, as you never know what they'll lead to.


Did you know that unlike most other industries, the perfume industry did not take a huge hit during the Great Depression in the 1930s? Everyone needs a moment to feel important and decadent, even during the most difficult moments life throws at you, and therefore fragrance sales did not decrease dramatically.


The 1970s used the women’s liberation movement in their ad campaigns for perfumes such as Charlie by Revlon. Perfumes became bolder, empowering women to be equal to men.

The 1980s was the era of the Room Rocker perfumes such as Opium and Poison, these scents made a statement - I AM HERE AND I MATTER

These were so strong that some American restaurants even banned them, as they feared that the intensity of the smell would spoil the enjoyment of the fellow diners. Long gone were the “pretty” scents for ladies. This era signified women becoming more empowered, and becoming leaders, CEO's, politicians, prime ministers and so on. Perfume reflected this change in the attitudes of women and the world.

Remember the movie Working Girl with Melanie Griffith? What about Dallas or Dynasty? Big Hair and shoulder pads and strong perfume that made an entrance before the woman herself.

The 1990s came full circle and brought the return of unisex perfumes with Issey Miyake’s L’eay d’Issey and CK One by Calvin Klein. Centuries ago, males and females used the same fragrances. This trend had returned., bringing with it cleaner, fresher, and gender neutral scents.


Another milestone in the perfume industry was when Frederic Malle helped to lift the veil of secrecy that shrouded the creators of perfumes. Much like drawing back the curtain on The Wizard of Oz

He started a fragrance range that highlighted the name of each master perfumer on the bottle and gave them creative freedom and the opportunity to create a scent without any budget restraints.

Before then, it was usually the case that perfume houses created briefs with their clients, which then had to be strictly followed to create the perfumes the clients wanted. Perfumers working for houses or brands in this way were not creating the scents they wanted. Malle gave these geniuses the opportunity to create their own personal masterpieces, not the scents that the customers were demanding.

Finally we are seeing the names of the formerly-anonymous masterminds behind the scents.


Think of it this way; Perfumes are like amazing books. They all have their purpose, their history, their author and their story. We cannot forget their heritage and the role that they still play today.


Melanie Jane's recommended books about the history of perfume:



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