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.