Museum Of Musings

Heritage, history, and books.

#Book Club – Microhistories – ‘Perfume’

Microhistory is the “intensive historical investigation of a well-defined smaller unit of research (most often a single event, the community of a village, or an individual)” (stolen from Wikipedia)

 

There has been quite a few books popping up recently that focus in on a small object or event, and then look at a larger picture in history. Its a refreshing perspective on the writing of history books, and in many ways makes vast histories of people and events more accessible. And I’m absolutely addicted to them.

As a new feature of this blog, I’m going to read and give short reviews of a few of these microhistories, beginning with ‘Perfume: A Century of Scents’ by Lizzie Ostrom (2015).


Perfume: A Century of Scents

 

The human ability to smell is not perhaps at the forefront of the list when we think about our most important human senses. Yet, smell is everywhere, and our brains are capable of storing and remembering around 10,000 various smells (according to the BBC…). Even more so, our brains constantly connect smells and scents with memories, which is why we can get all nostalgic when we catch a whiff of something, even if you can’t quite place where you’d ‘sniffed’ it before. Such is like the memories given to us by scents in the form of perfumes. Perfume is one of those things in the modern world that we often take for granted. Many of us wear it daily, or have that one bottle applied religiously on special occasions, it has become part and parcel of getting ourselves ready for life. It is because it is such an everyday thing that it is easy to forget that the wearing of scent has been around for centuries, if not millennia. Nobody would blame you if you thought there couldn’t be a rich cultural history attached to this. But as Lizzie herself comments in the first paragraph:

Scent has radiated from the the collars of politicians as they stand on the steps triumphant, and when they leave, hounded and broken. It has been dabbed on by performers getting into character  for their next role. And it has been present – even playing a supporting or confidence boosting role – in negotiations, tussles, crimes, parties, productions and seductions.

 

Lizzie, in this wonderfully glitzy hardback, reflects upon the last 100 years of perfume wearing by delving into exactly 100 different scents, popular in their time. She really captures the feel and the impact of each scent, without flapping about trying to convey the actual smell, seeing as they are, in fact, long gone. Its written in an entirely accessible way, and by no means do you have to be a history buff to follow it.

I think the best way for me to explain this book is to give you a little sniff of it:

 

Mouchoir de Monsieur by Guerlain, 1904. (p.22-23)

I thought this would be a great example from the book to illustrate whats included, not just women’s scents!

Lizzie tells us that this one by Guerlain was what was known as a ‘handkerchief’ scent. Scents in this period would often be daubed onto pieces of cloth or clothing, rather than onto the skin. This was designed to ward off the ‘bad airs’  or revive someone with the flick of your handkerchief. But, as Lizzie explains, these scents weren’t just meant to be strong and powerful, like Dettol, they were designed by expert perfumers.

Lizzie explains that this particular perfume’s cultural history ties in with the Flaneurs. This was a name given to certain men of leisure, men who wandered about towns from cafe, to  theatre, to park, seeking philosophical enlightenment (probably unsuccessfully). A little like a rich bohemian, perhaps. Finally, somehow Lizzie has been able to track down how this perfume actually smelt. She describes it as a “balance between creamy-smelling coumarin and campherous lavender” with some “typical animalic dirtiness beneath” to mimic the urban smells of the Flaneur’s city.

I quite like to imagine this book as a sort of tour-de-force exhibition on the history of perfume. In fact it would make a great physical exhibition, say, at the V&A. But for now we have Lizzie’s book, and I can only hope someone who reads this will give it a go. You won’t be disappointed.

Available at: 

Waterstones

Amazon UK

The next #BookClub microhistory will be ‘The Button Box’ by Lynn Knight.

 

 

 

MoM recommends: Fashion Museum

The Fashion Museum, in Bath, is one of those museums that could not be located in a better place. Bang in the middle of the city, and only a short walk from other attractions such as the famous Roman Baths, it gets away with charging £9 for a standard adult ticket. Rather a costly sum for most, especially in a family-touristy area, but I can tell you I was glad that I paid it.

The museum is located inside the old Assembly Rooms, built in 1769, for the Georgian social elite. This of course lends a certain added meaning to the collection on display in the museum, as each piece is of exquisite quality, just like the Assembly Rooms themselves. The museum’s main exhibition, A History of Fashion in 100 objects, has been nestled into the building’s basement, with some perfectly purpose-fitted display cases. The galleries aren’t particular large, and in fact I imagine it would get a bit claustrophobic if it was very busy. Instead its somewhat cosy, and requires you to follow the perimeter of the rooms in chronological order.

The first gallery, 1660-1770s.

The historic costumes are beautifully displayed with what appears like minimal effort. Of course we know that in fact a lot of time and design went into this, but it appears so effortless and effective. I was more than glad that they had opted to use headless mannequins to display the garments, one of my pet hates is old-style creepy mannequins (often old shop stock) so often seen in older, underfunded museums.

We were also given an audio guide, free of charge, and incredibly easy to use, and which gave us a little description for each object on display. Although the audio guide wasn’t overly informative, only a snippet of interesting background for each, it really did help me to engage with the many chronological garments. As well as this, the signs for the objects were located towards the ground, and so it limited the amount of times you had to bend your head up and down between object and interpretation.

Collection of C17th gloves with archival boxes

The majority of items on display were dresses, suits, or other quite formal items of clothing. But there were also items of underwear, hats, and shoes on display. There was also a small collection of fans and some fantastic gloves in the first gallery. Some of the gloves on display dated from the period of Shakespeare, making an excellent start to the exhibition. But from the viewpoint of a museum professional, I absolutely loved the design of the glove display. The use of archival boxes in exhibitions is fairly common these days, but its so effective. Usually freely available from your own collection, and with the added benefit of being aesthetically simple yet effective, they’re a great way to create a modern looking display without using lots of extra funds.

A macaroni’s outfit

It was made clear that each piece of clothing was selected as example of clear changes in fashion history. For example, a suit dating from the 1780s is described by the museum as an example of the kind of clothing sported by Macaronis. I’ve an endless fascination with the escapades of C.18th gentleman, especially the Grand Tour undertaken by many a young man in the making. Macaronis symbolised everything fashionable and epicene. Macaronis, kind of fops, were essentially a precursor to the more known and rather more masculine dandies of the later C.18th. As the audio guide was explaining the outfit to the right, the clothes were far narrower and more well fitted than previously more conservative styles. Another little display design I liked went with this item in the form of an C.18th caricature included next to the signage text. I always like extra interpretive material, especially if it grounds an object in the historical context it is trying to convey. C.18th caricatures have an almost innate way of being able to interpret another self-reflective perspective of an event/object/society, as they are themselves a direct product of the attitudes of the time. This allows both curators and visitors a window to engage with the object’s past in a humorous way.

Macaroni caricature

Stomacher

Another fascinating element to the exhibition was how you were encouraged to see the change in women’s history through their dress habits. The first gallery included some beautifully crafted dresses, with examples of various dress types, such as the open dress. It also showed various parts of a woman’s dress, including the horribly named ‘stomacher’, a piece of v-shaped stiff fabric placed across the stomach and chest in the inside of an open dress. It was great to see an attempt to describe the separate elements to these complicated garments, in contrast to the easier, more convenient styles later on.

The exhibition design in terms of lighting was also excellent, with signage being well lit from within, a great addition for visitors with depleted eyesight. Each garment was beautifully lit, not letting any detail get lost in shadow.

Though the Fashion Museum may not be to everyone’s tastes, I can guarantee that there is a garment for everyone here. The exhibition’s use of the ‘100 objects’ framework lends an accessibility to those without any kind of previous fashion knowledge, and yet remains fascinating and very enjoyable.

Now here’s a bonus picture:

 

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