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Perfume: A Century of Scents by Lizzie Ostrom ~ book review

Perfume: A Century of Scents by Lizzie Ostrom

Halfway through Lizzie Ostrom’s Perfume: A Century of Scents, I set down the book and wondered who it was written for. Not the perfumista. Ostrom’s essays on the book’s 100 featured fragrances often leave out key lore or information on a perfume’s place in the pantheon, its history, or sometimes even how the perfume smells. Then it occurred to me: the book isn’t about perfume, it’s a telling of social history through perfume.

Perfume: A Century of Scents presents ten fragrances for each of the twentieth century’s decades and an essay introducing each decade. Each fragrance gets a Thurber-style illustration and a snappy nickname. The book starts with Houbigant Parfum Idéal in 1900 (“the Queen-Bee Perfume”) and ends with 1996’s Demeter Dirt (“the Un-Perfume”).

When I say that the book isn’t really about perfume, I mean that, for instance, in Ostrom’s essay on Diorissimo you won’t find the story of Roudnitska’s study of his patch of lilies of the valley, or even much of a description of how the fragrance smells. Instead, once you’ve waded through a page of how tough it is for men to buy perfume for their wives, you get a comparison of Diorissimo to Grace Kelly and Dior fashion’s “modest, appealingly feminine lines.” It’s a comment on the times…

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