Roja Dove always packs so many anecdotes into his lectures, that you never know if you'd prefer him to stick to the subject at hand or keep veering off on increasingly entertaining tangents. His recent talk at London's Wellcome Collection - part of a series of events linked to their Dirt exhibition - was no exception. On the surface, it was an examination of our complex relationship with states of cleanliness and dirtiness. But in reality, it was a breathless tour through decades of social history, interspersed with nuggets of tantalising info about the perfumery industry... and about Mr Dove's methods of dealing with relationship breakdowns.
The two main threads running through his presentation were that almost all of our responses to the relative cleanliness of smells have been learned through cultural conditioning, and that over the course of the last few centuries, the trend in Western society has been to move away from overtly sexualised odours. So in Marie Antoinette's time, it wasn't unusual for the floors of palaces and respectable chateaux to be as filthy as open sewers (which helps explain why women of the time preferred the hems of their dresses to be brown). 18th century European gents believed they could entice women more effectively by perfuming themselves with pure civet (a practice that seemed almost incomprehensible to the audience after Mr Dove allowed them to smell the substance on some blotters). But in the final decade of the 20th century - in response to the spread of HIV - the most popular fragrances were those which proclaimed: "Don't worry. I'm clean. I'm healthy. If you have sex with me, you won't catch a nasty disease."
This drive for more 'sterile' scents led to several conflicts between American and European fragrance developers. Mr Dove recounted how a well-known perfumer once struggled to create a formula which would appeal to consumers on both sides of the Atlantic until someone made the following statement to him: "In France you make love and then you shower. In America we shower and then we make love." With this in mind, he went on to fine-tune his creation, which eventually became Chanel's Chance.
Of course, Mr Dove acknowledged that within these generalisations lies a great deal of room for individual tastes. He stated that our perception of the desirability of certain smells sometimes comes down to a straightforward case of the person (or people) with whom we associate these smells. A scent worn by a confidante can come to represent safety and dependability. But if our trust is betrayed by this person, our brain may begin to associate the very same scent with feelings of revulsion and hatred. The extent to which we link specific smells with specific people can be so great, that we can sometimes use it to our advantage. For instance, Mr Dove stated that if we ever find ourselves in the unfortunate position of having been betrayed by a lover, we could consider seeking revenge by following these simple steps: 1) go round to his or her house about half an hour before he or she is due to return home; 2) spray liberal amounts of our signature perfume through the letter box; 3) withdraw to a nearby bar and enjoy a gin and tonic as we imagine him or her trying to explain our 'presence' in the house to his or her latest conquest.
Mr Dove's tongue may have been firmly in his cheek when he relayed these 'instructions', but his message was clear. Smell is and always has been a crucial factor in how we interact with other people and define our place in society. Although odours may not always be as obvious as sights and sounds, our sense of smell affects and shapes our behaviour on an almost primal level. If we ignore its importance, we do so at our peril.
About the author
Persolaise is a Jasmine Award shortlisted writer and amateur perfumer who has had a strong interest in the world of fine fragrance for over 25 years. You can find out more about his work at www.persolaise.com or by emailing him at persolaise at gmail dot com.
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