I’m currently researching early twentieth century attitudes towards fragrance wearing for a chapter of the book, and have come across a hilariously contradictory article, written by Ella Wheeler Wilcox for the Oregon Daily Journal in 1908.
Now there is no picture of Ella, but I imagine her to be a little something like this:
In her feature, ‘PERFUMES- The Origins and Usages of Many Odors’, Ella is remarkably up-to-date on the latest developments in fragrance, including the cost of ingredients, and the idea behind the perfume organ and musical scale of aromatic notes.
When Ella says the following I am quite enchanted:
“Perfumes are a source of exquisite delight to me. I have frequently found a dull day of commonplace cares and anxieties changed into a season of beauty and reverence by a waft of perfume. A task which seemed impossible became easy of accomplishment, and a duty which was dreaded, turned into a pleasure, by the same subtle necromancy of a scent.”
But oh, wait. If you’re a man and wear perfume, it would seem you do not meet with the author’s approval, and her dismissiveness shows just how gendered the wearing of fragrance was starting to become, as an acceptable pleasure for women, but suspicious among men:
“Of one fact we must remain aware — the man who uses perfumes to any marked degree is degenerating from virile, aggressive masculinity to weakness and effeminancy. However he may love sweet odors, man must employ them with great subtleness – in vases, lamps and censers, in walls and hangings – never in his apparel. For, unlike the wild deer of Asia, the man who leaves a trail of strong perfume in his wake, instead of attracting, repels. Beware of him.”
Many men did wear scent, to hell with the likes of this article, but on the whole such attitudes pervaded for decades, and the use of colognes became diverted into shaving products, all of which had a smell to show you they were working (ie. stinging your cheeks), rather than for sensory pleasure. Then came the separate, designated category of mainstream male scents, loaded with testosterone and active sports in case anyone was worried they’d come across as effeminate.
I feel a little sorry for the fragrance-loving man of 1908 stuck with his perfumed lamps and vases.