Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.


As a museum professional, I work with memories. And nothing is more evocative than scent, which is at the same time both fragile and powerful. Perfumed textiles and costume are a standard part of every culture, yet few objects have been identified, and virtually none have been preserved. Perfuming was traditionally used to mask bad odors 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, fragrant oils 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 largely forgotten, intangible art. Inventories, tailors’ bills, wardrobe lists, doctors’ accounts, custom duties and other historical sources provide scattered but reliable bits of information about perfuming textiles. I began this line of inquiry as a reminder to conservators that they must also learn to recognize and preserve scented textiles, but this work constitutes not only a new discipline but also an immediately appealing, inspiring and thought-provoking aspect for anyone interested in textiles.

A professional perfumer and I have collaborated on recreating a series of scents, so we can now experience first-hand the smell of Henry VIII’s perfumed shirts, Indian shawls redolent of patchouli, Casanova’s handkerchief, the macassar oil left on men’s hatbands and furniture, fragrant Japanese wedding kimonos, Paul Poiret’s gowns sprayed with the first designer perfume in 1920, as well as modern technology’s nano- and microcapsules embedding synthetic scent in athletic socks, business suits, and baby clothes.