Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Scent & Subversion By Barbara Herman- Book Review

"Scent is a path to getting closer to our senses, to instinct, and to our bodies and the earth at a time when those attachments are threatened." -- Barbara Herman,  Scent & Subversion, 2013

Visiting a perfume counter in an average department store today, a young person making first steps in perfume appreciation would soon learn that the purpose of wearing fragrance is to smell fresh and clean. At the same time, the advertising of these perfumes is usually very predictable: a young woman in skimpy clothes telling us... what? that smelling freshly showered and like everyone else is going to make us more attractive? Who knows. But perfume is a lot more than that. Historically, culturally, artistically. If you read this blog you probably already know this. If you read Barbara Herman's blog, Yesterday's Perfume, you're probably a fan of vintage perfumes and what they have to offer us. In her new book, Scent & Subversion, Barbara explores ten decades of perfume and how they expressed ideas, desires, cultural prejudices-- anything other than a cover-up of our humanity.

Scent & subversion has three major parts. The first, an introduction, gives one of the best arguments and reasoning for the importance of vintage perfume and original formulations. Barbara Herman explains why scent is subversive, and how perfumes of yore ("yore" being anything from the turn of the 20th century to the 1990s) helped us stake a claim and make a statement about ourselves. The second and largest part of the book is perfume reviews arranged by decade. You'll find everything from Iris Gris to Giorgio Beverly Hills, usually with the official notes and a hint about the various reformulations. This is an unparalleled  resource for learning about perfumes of the past, both classic and forgotten. It'll not only help you understand the stuff you found in a basket at a rummage sale but will also send you on nearly impossible quests to find the Precious. The reviews are precise, concise, and informative. And also a great fun.

The last section of the book, The Future Of Scent And Subversion, is equally depressing and hopeful. The EU's threat to obliterate natural ingredients from perfume is very real and puts not just Mitsouko as we once knew it on the Endangered Species list but also Musc Ravegeur and Le Parfum de Therese. However, with truly subversive brands like CB I Hate Perfume and Etat Libre d'Orange (among many others) there is still enough vision and passion in an industry that has mostly given up its artistic vision (and respect to its customers).

Barbara Herman has written a delightful book that offers a great value to anyone interested in perfume of the past and present. She educates us without preaching (something that  isn't always so easy to do, as I know from experience), and provides a  treasure trove of information, both in prose and in images, as she has included a large number of vintage advertisements that are entertaining, revealing, and often very satisfying for those of us who are interested in design and culture of decades past.

 Scent & Subversion By Barbara Herman is available from Amazon ($18.64 for the hardcover or $9.99 for the kindle edition).


  1. Almost finished reading, the book is a great guide to this mysterious world that opens up all kinds of directions for modern perfumers too. It's my reference guide.

  2. Just raced over to Amazon to order a copy. Her blog reviews have always been brilliant and a fantastic reference source for me since I started collecting vintage perfumes. I've been really looking forward to this release. Thought about the Kindle version for a brief second, but ended up w/ the hardcover - I think I want to see the vintage ads in particular in a suitably semi-vintage format (well, probably very soon to be semi-vintage or full fledged vintage format).


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