Barbara Herman’s new treatise on 20th century perfumes is also a history of American femininity.
Despite our comparatively weak human sense of smell and limited vocabulary for describing our sensory experience in this area, advertising companies trying to come up with innovative ways to sell scents have tried their best – and occasionally left us dumbfounded. As Barbara Herman, the author of the new book Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume and an expert on perfume and scent culture, has discovered in her research, the commercials and the attitudes that spawned them range from shockingly backward to surprisingly progressive.
The values espoused by the stylish and sometimes kitschy commercials she’s been uploading to YouTube seem in almost ridiculous lockstep with the transformations each decade is stereotyped as having brought to pop culture and gender roles. However, Herman is also a collector of vintage perfumes and has an immense appreciation of their first-hand qualities, and what she finds about how the products actually smell demolishes any simple, linear narrative. “Why were women in a kind of pre-feminist era able to smell so complex? And now here I am in the ’90s or in the early ’00s, and the only scents that are available to me are clean and boring, really. Office scents, literally. It seemed paradoxical or ironic that [in] post-feminism, and kind of in a pornified era, our perfumes are actually very tame,” she told NPR‘s Audie Cornish. And according to journalist Katie Puckrick, “Scent and Subversion explores how in the space of a century, women went from smelling like animals while behaving like ladies–to smelling like detergent while pretending they weren’t animals.”
Despite their perennial appeal to women’s desire to appear more attractive, the desires that the scents and their commercials they reflect are as diverse as the escapes from the everyday that Herman, and perhaps every woman, seek out. Giorgio of Beverley Hills, for example, started out as an exclusive fragrance for a clothing boutique, but soon, Herman writes, the perfume ended up “ended up scenting every magazine, mall, big-haired salad eater, and Gucci bag-carrying Texas debutante in the Eighties like the “airborne toxic event” that threatens the characters in Don DeLillo’s surreal fantasia on consumerism and suburbia in White Noise…”. You can sense that in the commercial:
Others commercials are more subtle, including two that were filmed by David Lynch!
And others seem more centered around the creepy desires of perfume sniffers than those who apply the perfume to themselves: