Friday, 4 December 2015

Persolaise Review: Perfume - A Century Of Scents by Lizzie Ostrom (Hutchinson; 2015)

Perfume is more than a smell. That's the premise of the wonderful new book by Lizzie Ostrom, the unashamed scent aficionado whose alter ego, Odette Toilette, has provided London with some of the most thought-provoking and memorable fragrance-related events of recent years. Descriptions of smells do feature in her book. Of course they do; it would be strange if they didn't. But A Century Of Scents eschews the merit-assessing agenda of the Turin & Sanchez A-Z Guide and the 'documentary narrative' approach of the two Chandler Burr tomes in favour of cultural commentary. In Ostrom's hands - or should that be nose? - perfume is a mirror of its times: sometimes faithful; sometimes deliberately contrary; always worth peering into.

The structure of her witty, entertaining socio-scentual musings is simple: for each decade of the 20th century, she has chosen 10 scents which, in some way, encapsulate the concerns, ideals and mores of the years in which they were created. In other words, she doesn't aim to present a list of the best or most acclaimed fragrances, thereby giving herself the freedom to spring several surprises, including Impulse O2, Hai Karate and Mennen's Skin Bracer. It's a refreshing approach and even if it sometimes results in unfortunate omissions - I suspect Ostrom will spend at least 20 years in purgatory for snubbing Shalimar - it ensures that the book never slips into predictability.

Indeed, its lack of cliches is its most disarming and commendable attribute. In her excellent introduction, in each of the decade prefaces and in the scent-specific write-ups themselves, Ostrom's endearing prose style - a mixture of facetiousness, irony and graceful knowledgeability - consistently finds novel points to make about scents which have had every aspect of their personality analysed over the years. Even Chanel No. 5 is re-appraised, and that's no mean feat. The geek in me could spend several more paragraphs engaging with the many ideas put forward by Ostrom - and enthusing about Cynthia Kittler's charming illustrations - but all my words would amount to a simple message: buy this! If you don't know what schoolgirls did with perfume and sugar cubes in 1924, which brand used a hot air balloon to market its wares in 1908 and how Agent Aramis, aka Dick Bishop, seduced his secretary, then there is much that will amaze and delight you in this gem of a book.

[Review based on a copy provided by Hutchinson in 2015.]


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