Words: Lauren Hollis
Long before the world's most prestigious Fragrance Houses crafted their iconic bestsellers, from Chanel's No. 5 to Dior's Eau Sauvage, ancient civilisations surrounded themselves with sweet smells and scented oils. While the ancient Egyptians were entombing Pharoes with fragrances for the afterlife, the Romans later burned aromatic materials in devotion to the Gods - it's where perfume gets its name: per fumum or 'through smoke'.
The earliest evidence of perfume can be found through hieroglyphs in 5,000-year-old tombs, with the first recorded fragrance formulation coming in the 2nd millennium BC by a woman named Tapputi - the first-ever known 'nose' on record.
But before the appearance of the modern blended perfumes, we all know and love today, the art of making perfume endured a long and rich history, steeped in religion, ritual, power and seduction.
Religion and Ritual
The connection between spirituality and scents has existed for thousands of years - in fact, the earliest known perfumers were Egyptian priests. Egyptians recognised the soothing effects fragrances had on the mind and body, believing burning incense brought them closer to the Gods, and that perfume had the power to alleviate anxiety.
The ancient Greeks also used perfume for worship. Like the Egyptians, fragrances were regularly used during funerals, and for those too poor to afford perfume during their burial would simply have a perfume bottle painted on their coffin.
Health and Hygiene
For the Greeks, cleanliness was practically next to godliness, as the virtue of fragrance expanded beyond worship to bodily health and hygiene. So much so that even notable Greek physician, Hippocrates, recommended the use of perfume to prevent diseases.
The Romans also moved away from using fragrances exclusively to honour Gods and Goddesses. In pursuit of peak hygiene in their famous bathhouses, Romans would liberally apply fragrant oils before using a strigil to scrape it off the skin – along with dirt and sweat – before bathing.
Wealth and Status
As time moved on, the virtue of cleanliness practically vanished; the use of fragrance became less about good health and hygiene and more about disguising a lack of it. Louis XIV illustrated this pungent masquerade all too well; he only took two or three baths during his lifetime but was shrouded daily in strong floral scents – notably orange blossom (shown below).
Around this time, fragrances became available in liquid form, which meant that creativity in perfumery flourished. But to own a fragrance was expensive, which meant wearing perfume became a must among the upper echelons of society. The trend was so fashionable that Marie Antoinette, a figure famously known for her laborious beauty habits, even had her own personal perfumer.
Beauty and Empowerment
The art of making perfume really took off during the 19th century, thanks to the invention of synthetic perfume ingredients. The innovation led to the creation of modern fragrances as we know them today, blending both natural and synthetic notes to create signature scents.
By this time, wearing perfume was no longer just about practicality – it was a luxury. And the allure of wearing a beautifully crafted perfume was a narrative not lost on some of the world’s most celebrated perfumers. Guerlain created Shalimar using synthetic vanilla, an ingredient Guerlain considered an aphrodisiac, and Coco Chanel launched No. 5, a fragrance unapologetically created for women by a woman.
Today, perfume isn’t just worn for special occasions but has become a daily pleasure for many. Each year, perfumers release new fragrances that range from floral to fresh and vegan to unisex in pursuit of the next bestseller.
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