Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume

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Let Scent and Subversion take you for a whiff on the wild side of 20th century perfume.

Perfume has been -- and continues to be -- subversive. By playing with gender conventions, highlighting the ripe smells of the human body, or celebrating queer and louche identities, 20th-century perfume broke free from the assumptions of the prior century, and became a largely unrecognized part of the social and style ...

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Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume

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Let Scent and Subversion take you for a whiff on the wild side of 20th century perfume.

Perfume has been -- and continues to be -- subversive. By playing with gender conventions, highlighting the ripe smells of the human body, or celebrating queer and louche identities, 20th-century perfume broke free from the assumptions of the prior century, and became a largely unrecognized part of the social and style revolutions of the modern era.

In Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume, Barbara Herman continues her irreverent, poetic, and often humorous analysis of vintage perfumes and perfume ads that she began on her popular blog The book features descriptions of over 300 perfumes, starting with Fougère Royale (1882) and ending with Demeter's Laundromat (2000).

Lavishly illustrated with more than 100 vintage perfume ads, it will also regale you with essays on scent appreciation, a glossary of important perfume terms and ingredients, and tips on how to begin your own foray into vintage and contemporary perfume. Herman also looks to the future through interviews with scent visionaries such as odor expert and "professional provocateur" Sissel Tolaas, punk perfumer Antoine Lie, and Martynka Wawrzyniak, the artist behind "Smell Me," the world's first olfactory self-portrait.

The perfect book for perfume aficionados (aka "perfumistas") as well as connoisseurs of modern fashion and design, feminist and LGBTQ historians, and fans of vintage advertising.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In her first book, blogger Herman, founder of, offers a well-written glimpse into “an aesthetic of pop culture that is worthy of analysis, shaped by and shaping the culture in which it’s embedded.” Indeed, the 20th-century scents she focuses on—in their olfactory personalities and advertising—were often a reflection of the politics, social mores, and evolving sexual identities of their time, and serve as sensory snapshots of history. So 1912’s L’Heure Bleue, with its “melancholy” blend of soft, sweet notes “evokes a prewar, romantic Paris, before darkness descended upon the city,” while flappers of the ’20s were dabbing on smoky, traditionally masculine scents like Habanita (to mask the smell of cigarettes) and musky Arpège, a perfume that Herman likens to a “sensual beauty, slightly corrupted, at the end of a night of dining and dancing.” Rosie the Riveters redefining their post-WWII roles could reach for scents that were “butch” or aggressively feminine, while the 70s brought perfumes that imparted a sense of “loosening up,” and the ’90’s, which ushered in the zenith of AIDS awareness and technological advances, saw “clean, uncomplicated” scents like CK One. Illustrated by vintage ads, Herman’s decade-by-decade study is followed by engrossing interviews with “scent visionaries,” and tips on boosting expertise and creating a collection of classic scents. The book will delight perfume lovers. Full-color illus. throughout. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

"I believe that the effective use of perfume is a vital stepping stone in the art of creating glamour, and I've always sought out rare and distinctive perfumes. In Scent & Subversion, Barbara Herman weaves an enchanting tapestry of words about the world’s most spectacular perfumes, a must read for any sensualist or maestra of glamour."   --Dita Von Teese, the queen of modern burlesque and creator of the fragrances Dita von Teese, Rouge, Fleurteese, and Erotique

"It's impossible to overstate the importance of scent in your glamour arsenal. In Scent & Subversion: A Century of Provocative Perfume, Barbara Herman tells you how to slip into multiple identities, define your narrative, and star in your own life."      --Mx Justin Vivian Bond, international cabaret superstar; author of Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels; and co-creator of The Afternoon of a Faun perfume for État Libre d'Orange

"Scent and Subversion collects Herman’s reviews, but its genius lies in putting them in chronological order based on when each perfume was first produced. This allows Herman to develop a theory of perfume’s evolution in the course of the past century: review by review, evidence piles up. The story is about evolving gender roles and societal norms, from the smoky, sharp, groundbreaking fragrances of the twenties all the way to the watery, unisex 'office smells' of the nineties, and beyond . . . . According to Herman, when you pay attention to the narrative of how perfume actually smells, rather than how it is marketed, the story becomes delightfully non-linear."  -- Emily Gould, The New Yorker

"Barbara Herman is an oracle of social history, and her sacred vapor is vintage perfume. For Herman, perfume is a time machine that reveals each decade's particular obsessions with gender roles and sex. Scent &  Subversion explores how in the space of a century, women went from smelling like animals while behaving like ladies--to smelling like detergent while pretending they weren't animals. A rip-snorting olfactory perspective on 20th century culture, Scent & Subversion is entertaining reading for fumeheads and casual sniffers alike, and destined to become a classic of perfume research."    --Katie Puckrik, journalist, broadcaster, and perfume writer of 

"Like writers who have understood history through painting, architecture, and music, Barbara Herman has laid out the 20th century through one of the most fascinating, personal, and innovative of lenses, the evolution of its olfactory art."     --Chandler Burr, author of The Perfect Scent and creator and curator of the Department of Olfactory Art, Museum of Arts and Design, New York City

“Illustrated by vintage ads, Herman's decade-by-decade study is followed by engrossing interviews with 'scent visionaries,’ and tips on boosting expertise and creating a collection of classic scents. The book will delight perfume lovers.”   --Publisher’s Weekly

"Barbara Herman’s Scent & Subversion (Lyons Press) is a tidy overview of perfumes and their marketing."  --Cathy Horyn, The New York Times

"Herman is a deft and inventive writer whose talent is to make the scents come alive in your mind’s nose. To a literary genre still hung over after an early overindulgence in bitchy snarkitude, her approach is welcome as a fresh breeze. This splendid little volume (it fits easily in the hand) is beautifully produced and generously illustrated with original color advertisements.”   --Avery Gilbert, and author of What the Nose Knows

“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 . . . 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.”   --Gaia Fishler,

"In this book you will read about perfume set to music; this book is perfume set to words, erudite words that bespeak a mountain of research. Barbara has walked a long path, searching and researching. This is the book of her heart."   --Jordan River,

“Barbara's book may be one of the more informative as well as entertaining books on the subject of perfume to come out yet. She covers many aspects: why the siren song of vintage fragrances spoke to her senses, aesthetically and viscerally; how she became embroiled in the Perfumed World; her examination of trends in the twentieth century, with examples/descriptions/impressions of several benchmark perfumes; the future of 'scent subversives,' including the more avant garde scientists/perfumers/seers among us; a beginner's guide to animalic notes from an historical perspective--and pointers on how to start one’s own vintage collection.”   --Ida Meister,

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780762784387
  • Publisher: Lyons Press, The
  • Publication date: 11/5/2013
  • Edition description: First
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 192,290
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Herman has been the go-to expert on vintage perfume since she began her popular blog, Yesterday’s Perfume. A former editor for, she earned a master's in Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley, and her writing on perfume and scent culture has appeared in Newsweek,, Vintage Life magazine, Time Out New York, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.  Visit her at

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