Thursday, 23 September 2010

The Perfume Diaries - a must visit exhibition

When I was a little girl, I remember perfume being as something special and magical. The scent my mum put on when she wanted to make an impression when she was going somewhere nice. She always says, 'this will let people know I've arrived.' She's always worked in the tourism industry and for as long as I can remember, her presents from guests always came in the form of perfume, from places all over the world. I can clearly remember curling on on her dressing room chaise lounge as she got ready for almost daily cocktail parties and watched her dot perfume on her wrists, behind her ears, on the crook of the elbow, on shoulders and on the ankle. To this day, I put perfume in all the same places. 

Clearly mum followed Coco Chanel's thinking, ' is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion.' 

My romanticised view of spraying perfume!
Therefore when the Perfume Diaries rolled into town via Harrods, I knew I couldn't miss it. Perfume Diaries is a must visit for all lovers of perfume. It is all your favourite fragrances in one room set within their historical context and their reasons for being made. An intoxicating fragrance heaven.

The exhibition tests most sensory organs, eyes, nose and touch especially. With every era the key frangances are available to sniff in scent bottles and there's visual representations as well, like clothing and shoes. You get a hit of the top notes and it stirs your memories. I had a lot of 'ooh mum used to wear that' or 'that  was dad's power meeting smell.'

Talking about bottles, all I can say is bless hoarders and collectors because there were all types of bottles to please the eye. The original Shalimar bottles were fantastic to see, but also the old bottles with stop caps that you'd dab on. Spray bottles now seem so unromantic to me, why did they ever get rid of atomisers or the stop cap bottles? I know they are bygone, but they were so much more luxurious. Seeing bottles designed by Lubin for Napoleon and Queen Victoria was fascinating. The house didn't put its name on it, but instead kept it discreet by only putting in their address.

Notably Chanel No 5 was there in its many forms and its many bottle shapes. It was interesting to see why designers forayed into perfumes. Christian Dior put it that when you open a Dior perfume you see a thousand dresses. The perfume is an extension of the dress and its wondrous how scents plays on our emotions and ability to recall. 

Did you know the Hermes perfume bottle is designed to look like one of its famous scarfs blowing in the wind? What fantastic detail! Ferrangamo designed his perfume bottles after his shoes with stacked heels.  This is really evident in the Attimo perfume bottle. Each designer want your use of the fragrance to be an extension and aspiration to the wearing of their clothes. I loved the visuals of the 1960's, it was all Halston dresses and colourful free love 
outfits. Think Pucci prints too!

'Fragrance is an indispensable complement to a woman's personality, like the finishing touch to a dress.' Christian Dior

Some of the best bits was seeing the original manuscripts and equipment all perfectly preserved. Instructions for mixing or quantities of shipment. Truly fascinating! Sadly (for me) a lot of the documents were in French and in old script, so hard to decipher, given my rusty recall of A Level French. But the original posters were great to see too. You get a feel for the time and era the perfumes were made and the women they were marketed to. You feel transported into the magic and mystic of the fragrance world.

Did you know that eau de toilette stands for water of the morning toilet? Suppose those were the days when cleanliness wasn't all the rage as it is now, so the water was fragranced to give off a pleasant scent.  It was interesting to know that some of the most famous perfumeries like Galimard and Molinard were borne out of the need to mask the smell of softening leather in urine in the town of Grasse in France. Spectacular! Needless to say, Grasse is infamous now in the perfume industry.

To go through every detail on this blog would be a bit much, plus I want to leave you wanting to visit the exhibition. It is a must see, its a unique and engaging journey into the world of perfumery.  The nostalgia hit is high and the excitement of seeing all the world's favourite, ground breaking and most influential smells in one place is too good to miss. 


  1. I love perfume and would really like to see this exhibition - am in London at end of October with the family so may have to ditch them and have a quick peek - thanks for reminding me about this. Jan x

  2. I think I would really enjoy the exhibition. Smells are so evocative. The description of you watching your Mum get ready reminds me a lot of my own memories. I loved her collection of perfumes on her dresser too. They always seemed so special and grown up! Thanks for the lovely post.
    Jane x

  3. @ Lipstickmama - its only on till 2nd October, so get your stakes on if you want to see it :-)

    @ModestyBrown - I think you really would enjoy it, so try and see it if you can. When I was younger, sitting in mum's dressing room was so fascinating. All my getting ready rituals are very much the same as hers now. I spray perfume in identical places to her x


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