Perfume history should be taught in high school


The Perfume Maker by Ernst Rudolphe (1854-1932)

I’ve been reacquainting myself recently with professor and feminist Camille Paglia through several YouTube interviews and I’m also reading her latest work, Glittering Images. I read her Sexual Personae as a young graduate and I remember it being fascinating and grueling! Something she said in a talk at the Chicago Humanities Festival reminded me of something I’ve been thinking about for years :

I want to get the study of art history into primary schools! Right now what is called art class, in American schools, is do-it-yourself “Express your inner creativity”. The teachers hand construction paper and glue pots to the students… this is art… NO!  Real art history needs to be presented to students at a very early age so that they learn how to look at pictures, so that they know the names of major artists.  The majority of the American population has no way of ever contacting the arts… it’s an absolute scandal! Most young people are graduating from high school without ever having seen a major painting!

Personally, I would like to see any art history course at the secondary level include a survey of modern perfume history… say, from Paul Parquet’s Fougère Royale (1882) to Thierry Mugler’s Angel (1992), with a couple of earlier and later exceptions such as Jean-Marie Farina’s 18th century Eau de Cologne and Olivier Polge’s Dior Homme (2011). Students are graduating from high school without ever having experienced Chanel No. 5 or understanding what makes it so great.  Or Shalimar.  Or Jicky.  Or Eau Sauvage.

The major problem is that, in today’s world, anything to do with beauty or the arts is disregarded as unnecessary.  I would agree that an overview of perfume may not help you get or keep a job… but it might just help you keep your life!  Can you imagine this world without the arts?  I can’t.  I think we should also be teaching classical music as early as possible.  Still today, as pertains to  music, only the classics seem to address the broad spectrum of emotions… from elation to despair. Perfume is the same… from the optimistic and happy Pamplelune to the serenity of Chanel No. 5.  Its creator, Ernest Beaux said this of No. 5 :

In exactly 1920. Upon my return from the war. I had been led on campaign to the northern part of Europe beyond the Arctic Circle at the time of the midnight sun, when the lakes and rivers release a perfume of extreme freshness. I retained that note and replicated it, not without some difficulty, as the first aldehydes I could find were unstable and of an irregular production.

And what about the brooding, sad L’Heure Bleue (1912) which has been attributed to the early evening when Paris turns a kind of blue alluding to the light but also the stopover of men to see their mistresses on their way home to their wives and children. Its creator, however, talked about the imminence of World War I.

I’m suggesting that the time is right for a perfume history course at the secondary level, along with art and fashion histories.

Leave a comment


  1. L’étude des parfums pourrait être abordée dans le cadre des cours de chimie.

    • Oui absolument! Ou l’histoire de l’art ou même l’économie. Il faut l’enseigner dans un contexte. Dans mon prochain billet, je vais préciser. Merci pour ton commentaire!

  2. That’s a great idea. I think it would be amazing to have perfume taught along with the visual arts and music.

    Even if the other art forms don’t get much recognition in schools today, you can still pick them as electives. Perfume and scent, however, it is not taught at a single school that I have heard of.

    This is the reason why we are so bad at smelling. We are fairly well-versed in telling colours apart and verbalizing visual differences in colours or sounds. When it comes to smelling things, however, we are at a total loss. It’s not that we can’t smell. It’s that we can put into words what we smell.

    • Yesss! Absolutely. And, I think adding perfume to a course on the visual arts or music is a great idea. When one gets to the abstract movement of the early 20th century, what a great idea to bring in abstraction in perfume! You could talk about Chanel No. 5. Afterall, Coco Chanel, living in Paris, would have known about abstraction in painting and wanting a perfume based on the “idea of a flower” is abstraction at its core!

      Thanks for the comment!


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