A Sniff of Perfume

Although perfume is not currently carried by Debonair, it is every bit as essential an accessory as a wallet, belt or wristwatch. Unfortunately, although many men wear aftershave or eau de toilette, relatively few know anything about perfume at all. Hopefully, this short article will go some way to addressing this.

First of all, some history. Although the wallet or the belt have been around for a long time, perfume must run a close third. It was certainly used in ancient China (of course) as well as India, Egypt and Mesopotamia. As perfume is generally based on the distillation of essential oils from flowers, herbs and spices, the science of perfumery is widely acknowledged as the origin of chemistry.

One of the earliest mentions of Perfume in ancient Egypt

Given that both the belt and the wallet served practical ends, you might well ask if there was a practical reason for the invention of perfume. Undoubtedly there was. Soap was developed at around the same time, but although it was certainly used for personal hygiene in some cultures, it was mostly applied to cleaning clothes and other items. There were several reasons for this. Firstly, it was pretty harsh stuff; secondly, most of it didn’t smell very nice; and thirdly, until the 18th century it was not produced in large quantities.

Then there was the problem of water. For centuries, clean water was in rather short supply, particularly in towns. You were not going to waste it on washing yourself. River water tended to be so polluted that you would inevitably smell worse after your bath than you did before it. As most people did not have extensive wardrobes, and limited access to soap, the overall result is pretty obvious: they stank.

This is where perfume came in useful. Although it was expensive, a little went a long way. The rich would use it extensively; the not-so-rich would dab a little on a handkerchief and hold it under their nose at the appropriate time. Of course, it was also a status symbol: rosewater and lavender would do for ordinary folk, while rich young ladies would swathe themselves in clouds of musk, patchouli, vetiver and sandalwood.

Key ingredients to perfume making

This belief that more is better has persisted into the modern era. Sadly, it is often possible to smell the approach of a lady well before she actually makes an appearance. Perfume – particularly expensive, heavy fragrances – have become a sort of olfactory shorthand, hinting at wealth, desirability and impeccable good taste. Tragically, the wearer of said perfume is often totally devoid of these qualities.

Men tend to be pretty well hopeless at wearing scent. Traditionally, they have relied on well-meant gifts from a significant other. This was dominant in the 1970s when a generation of men reeked of Old Spice, Tabac and the great smell of Brut. The accent gradually shifted to more up-market products, generally from France or Italy, but habits have not always kept pace. Wives and girlfriends sometimes fail to understand that what smells great on them in the shop may not necessarily smell quite as great on their bloke. Perfume reacts with the skin of the wearer, so finally the only way for the wearer to tell if the perfume is right for him, is to wear it.

Then there is the mode of application. This is pretty straightforward in the case of aftershave but wearing an eau de toilette is beset with pitfalls. Again, the more-is-better idea is well to the fore. Possibly some of the blame lies with what you might call “young lad’s perfumes” which promulgate the myth that beautiful women will madly pursue spotty adolescents because they smell like a detergent factory.

With perfume, a little can often go a long way

To put it succinctly, perfume should enhance who you are and not give a totally different impression. Unless your partner happens to be a great fan of Yves Saint Laurent, they may well find sharing a dinner table with a perfume rather than a person somewhat less than pleasant. Perfume should be applied very sparingly to the skin – never to your hair or clothes – so that it becomes apparent only when someone has entered the twenty-centimetre zone. And leave heavy, sultry perfumes to heavy, sultry ladies, who can put them to much better use.