A British perfume aficionado’s breezy “tour” of some of the 20th century’s most popular scents.
In her debut, Ostrom examines 100 years of fragrance history, dividing the text into 10 chapters—each of which discusses 10 different perfumes—that cover a single decade in the 20th century. The earliest decades saw a turn from all-natural floral scents to those like Le Trèfle Incarnat, which incorporated such synthetic molecules as coumarin and vanillin. At the same time, perfume began to “seep beyond its traditional home among royalty and the aristocracy” and become a novelty for popular consumption. The 1920s and even the Depression-era ’30s saw a dazzling profusion of scents. These perfumes were sold as part of an elegant and liberated (for women) lifestyle, of the kind suggested by Chanel No. 5, which was declared a classic from the moment it was unveiled in 1921. World War II brought with it a scarcity of production and shift away from France as the sole center of fragrance production. American perfumes like White Shoulders began to arrive on the scene. With the ’50s came a return to elegance, but without the free-spiritedness of the ’20s. Change and rebellion characterized the scents of the ’60s, which ran the gamut from classics like Shalimar to the hippie favorite, patchouli oil. The ’70s were an era of “blockbuster perfumes” intended for mass consumption—e.g., Love's Baby Soft. In the decade that followed, scent “grew in volume” to become “an extension” of female and, increasingly, exposed and glorified male bodies. After the excesses of the ’80s, the ’90s brought a refreshing unisex simplicity and youthfulness, of the kind found in CK One, Tommy Girl and Joop! Homme. Witty and informative, Ostrom’s history reveals the way fragrance speaks for historical eras while also evoking them.
Light, pleasant reading for both lovers of perfume and popular culture.