Scent & Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume by Barbara Herman ~ perfume books

Scent & Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume, book cover

Once or twice a year, someone will ask why I’m so fascinated with perfume — or, more bluntly, why I’m willing to pay more than $100 for a bottle. I have an answer ready: It’s a piece of art that you get to carry with you all day instead of leaving on/above the mantle.

It’s a half-truth. I also wear perfume when I can’t pile on enough cashmere, or black eyeliner, or gin flasks to keep up with my mood. That’s when I reach for Bottega Veneta, or Dior Poison, or Jean Patou Joy. Because, as Yesterday’s Perfume blogger Barbara Herman so aptly states in her book Scent & Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume, “Perfume’s power is that it has one foot in the elevated world of language, and one foot in the primal, emotional, visceral, and dreamlike.” They say what I really want to say, in a cut-to-the-chase, non-HR-involving language.1

Herman’s relationship with perfume began with the brazen belles of vintagedom whose fur and cigarettes prompt the squeaky-clean ’90s set to ask for a different table. Scent & Subversion is her guided tour of perfume history as seen through cuir-colored glasses. It opens with a keen essay on the neurological impact of animalic, “unclean” odors, and ends with observations on the industry’s future horizons. The main body of the book stars familiar faces, like Guerlain’s Mitsouko and Etat Libre d’Orange’s Sécrétions Magnifiques, in their own brief, chronological segments of prose. But the focus here is the frontiers forged, or barriers broken — not the weighing of merit.

Scent & Subversion is a worthy flanker to Perfumes: The Guide, one that takes something of the original format in order to build its own point of view. And, like any good bit of writing about perfume, it’s sparked a craving to order some samples: Guerlain’s Jicky and Aftelier Sepia should do nicely.

Scent & Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume
By Barbara Herman. 288 pp.
Lyons Press, 2013. $24.95.

1. I've always worked with aldehyde-overdosing coworkers though, your mileage may vary.

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  1. Ginny M says:

    “Gin flasks.” Yep, I know those days. ; ) Thanks for the laugh and the tease, Aleta!

  2. engelwurz says:

    I just bought Muscs Koublai Khan and I’m obsessed with it. On me, it’s not nearly as animalic or dirty as its reputation, but it is still an animalic skin scent.

    • pyramus says:

      Definitely reformulated. I got a decant a couple of years ago and was surprised how inoffensive it was compared to its reputation: apparently it was a real skank-fest upon its launch (fifteen years ago!), and has been toned down since then. Still kind of awesome, though, isn’t it?

      • Merlin says:

        At some point I almost liked it – and had my boyfriend sniff it on my wrist…

        He made a face, so I said ‘some people find a note in it to be slightly like urine!’

        ‘No, not that…’

        Apparently to him it smelled fecal – and after that I couldn’t find what it was that I had been enjoying. Sigh, I’m too easily influenced, lol!

        • engelwurz says:

          I think A La Nuit smells exactly like standing in a field of manure but I don’t get anything fecal from MKK.

          • Merlin says:

            Ha ha – he loved A La Nuit, but I felt totally smothered by it. In fact – it put me off jasmine for a looooong time!

  3. Dilana says:

    The problem of perfume as a communication is that most people have no clue of whatever code perfumenistas attach to specific scents.
    I think my perfume is saying something very specific, like I am a subtle gentle person, or I am happy, or I am a powerful, sophisticated, intelligent business person. But, usually the people around me only “hear” one thing; she smell’s “nice.”
    The other day, I was shocked to hear someone (not into perfume) describe a scent I consider a little too racy for everyday wear, as a nice, light fruity scent. I guess she smelled the juice and it communicated something entirely different to her,

    • Merlin says:

      Yes, I think as a language perfume may be somewhat unreliable – to put it mildly!

  4. poodle says:

    I really want this book. I was going to order it the other day but I figured since my husband never knows what to get me this would be good to put on the Christmas list.

  5. mals86 says:

    I’ve long been a fan of Barbara’s blog, Yesterday’s Perfume, and I’m excited to see that she’s now in print! Have already added the book to my Christmas wishlist and can’t wait to read it.

    PS – I’d be fine with aldehydes on coworkers. What I can’t bear the heavy orientals – Youth Dew and Opium. GAH. Sends me screaming, especially from cubicle-land. (or elevators. or theaters. but that’s another story.)

    • Bejoux says:

      I agree on aldehydes vs heavyweights! I once spent a very hot summer working in very close proximity to a woman who had just discovered Kenzo L’Elephant and doused herself with it everyday – it made me dizzy and sick. I t’s a perfume I loved but I had to give a miss for about 4 years before I could wear it again – with a light hand and in cool/cold weather where imho it truly belongs and indeed shines!

  6. annemarie says:

    Thanks for the review. I’m a long-term fan of Yesterday’s Perfume as well and am so excited to see that this book is available. I think it will take perfume appreciation in a whole new direction, as Barbara is wonderful at situating perfume in social and historical contexts. I have not read it yet but I don’t expect to find the book a worthy ‘flanker’ to Perfumes: the Guide. I think it will stand on its own.

  7. Bejoux says:

    Great book review – makes me want to read it now! And check out her blog. I love to read about perfume – often as in The Guide (which brought me out of the Perfume Closet) writers can put into words something I can only ‘feel’ about a perfume and then it sort of comes into focus for me and I can go YES! So that’s why I love/loathe that – and why I really must try this!

  8. maggiecat says:

    Ordering this now, if Amazon has it – I need something special to get me through the final weeks of this semester!

  9. olenska says:

    My husband pre-ordered Barbara’s book for me to tuck away as a Christmas present. We live in a 2nd floor walkup, so UPS left it on our side entrance steps. Some passing teenager must have seen the vaguely videogame-sized shipper box and got all excited. They ripped the box apart in a frenzy… but then left it (and its unharmed contents) on the ground. I envision them trudging away in disappointment after finding some PERFUME book instead of that coveted copy of Assassin’s Creed IV.

  10. hollyc says:

    Hi Aleta, I must be late to the party, this is the first review of yours I’ve read and must say I thoroughly enjoyed it! I’m putting this book on my Christmas wish list. I grieve for the perfumes of yesteryear and hope I’ll be able to relive some of their glory in this book.

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