Date of this Version
As a museum professional, I work with memories. And nothing is more evocative than scent, which is both fragile and powerful. Perfumed textiles and costume are a standard part of every culture, yet few have been identified, and virtually none have been preserved. Perfuming was traditionally used to mask malodors from use or from production processes like tanning and dyeing, for ceremonial reasons, or simply to create a favorable impression of the wearer. Perfuming methods included using incense, laundry aids, sweet bags and fuming pans. Unintentional perfuming also occurred, of which we sometimes get a whiff in our museum collections.
Years of research have shown that museums and archives hold the key to this forgotten, intangible art. Inventories, tailors’ bills, wardrobe lists, doctors’ accounts, custom duties and other historical sources provide reliable information about perfuming textiles. Originally begun as a reminder to conservators that they must also learn to recognize and preserve scented objects, this work constitutes not only a new discipline but also an immediately appealing, inspiring and thought-provoking aspect for people already knowledgeable about other areas of textiles.
Working with a professional parfumeur has resulted in recreating a series of scents, so participants can experience the smell of Henry VIII’s perfumed shirts, Indian shawls redolent of patchouli, Cassanova’s handkerchief, the macassar oil left on hatbands and furniture, Japanese wedding kimonos, Paul Poiret’s gowns sprayed with the first designer perfume in 1920, and modern technology’s nano- and microcapsules permanently embedding scent in athletic socks, business suits and stockings.