After a century of technical progress that saw the emergence of synthetic chemistry and the advent of new and more creative scents, modern perfumery continues to develop throughout the 20th century. Initially perceived as a luxury product reinvented by fashion houses, the market generalizes to men and teenage girls and fragrances become everyone’s daily accessory. Perfume has always reflected the evolution of a changing society, and this is even more true during this century of great social transformation! Let’s set off together to discover the history of perfume in the 20th century…
Fashion and perfume: history and ties are woven together
The Belle Époque and the Roaring Twenties
From the beginning of the Belle Époque, the population enjoys Art Nouveau and the enthusiasm it provokes. It is time for optimism and entertainment. Parisian cabarets and concert cafés open up and women become the symbol of glamour but also of chic and elegance “à la française”.
Since the beginning of this century, fashion gets together with fragrance to give a new lease of life to perfumery. While reinventing the female silhouette, the couturier Paul Poiret kicks this new trend off with the creation of his famous Rosine, a fragrance dedicated to his daughter. But it was Gabrielle Chanel who reached a milestone and forever tie haute-couture and perfume. At that time, women emancipated themselves and started working. Goodbye corset, hello boyish look! With Chanel n°5, Coco pays tribute to a liberated woman who wears for the first time a perfume built around aldehydes.
Legendary essences were born during those decades, both from perfume and fashion houses.
The liberation of perfume
After the First World War, the 30s are synonymous with the “Great Depression” and the economic crisis. Unemployment reaches news heights and a second world conflict breaks out against a backdrop of fascism and genocide. To counter this austerity, fragrances become more glamorous than ever. They are inspired by Hollywood cinema and reveal opulent and very feminine juices. Michel Rochas created Femme, whose bottle is reminiscent of the curves of the actress Mae West. Even though the perfume really suffered during the Second World War, it will know a real enthusiasm again in the post-war period, both commercially and olfactory. New houses appear and a designer starts making fragrances in 1947: after having revolutionized fashion with his New Look, Christian Dior unveils the famous Miss Dior. Haute-couture perfumes became the means to stand out from the crowd.
History of a new generation: perfume for everyone
The American dream
The 50s marked a turning point in the history of perfume. At the time of the Cold War, all eyes turn to United States. Everyday life is profoundly transformed and consumption reigns supreme. Sex symbols from across the Atlantic, blue jeans and rock’n’roll are teenagers, housewives and men new dreams. Ready-to-wear is becoming commonplace and fragrance more accessible. The eau de toilette is appearing and will conquer all noses, starting with those of men. Lavender, vetiver and hedione are used in softer, fresher compositions, going against the tide of past trends. Even if the perfume remains attached to the ritual of shaving, it is becoming more popular with men who proudly wear their Eau Sauvage by Dior or Monsieur by Givenchy. This decade, however, will not be very fruitful for women’s fragrances.
Hippie movement and reign of patchouli
And as trends from the United States continued to influence Europe, the hippie movement born in San Francisco in the 60s gradually take hold in France. In the streets, people shout “Make love, not war”. They demonstrate against the Vietnam War and fight for sexual liberation. This wind of rebellion is enveloped in the scent of patchouli, which will become the symbol of this “flower power” generation with strong ideals. While patchouli permeates the streets, fashion houses are proposing lighter alternatives with fresh and sophisticated compositions.
In the 70s, statutory codes continue to crumble, and clothing styles evolve: gay, punk, neo-romantic or bohemian movements emerge. The fragrance will follow these new codes to directly be addressed to these changing generations. It delivers a message and the concept becomes as determining as the smell. Advertising is increasingly important and appeals to provocative, sophisticated and natural women alike. Men are now wearing full-bodied fragrances designed for them, separating its use from aftershave.
80s – 90s: from opulence to purity
The perfume of all excesses
While fresh scents seemed to set in, the 80s once again sweep established concepts away as the fall of the Berlin Wall that disrupt an entire generation. Fragrances became as powerful and heady as the shoulder pads widen! Virility, power and exuberance are the key words of an era where the cult of the body is at its height. Genders are intensified: while men’s fragrances are aimed for sportsmen with energizing water, women’s perfumes are becoming more and more sensual thanks to orientals and amber scents. Fragrances from the United States continue to impact European trends, and fruity notes are gradually being used in compositions.
Back to natural
As if it was breathless by so much intensity, perfume is renewed in the 90s. People are looking for more gentleness, purity and a strong desire for simplicity and authenticity. Men and women exchange their fragrances and like to smell “clean” thanks to more floral or downright marine juices. At the time of the Golfe War and the spread of AIDS, unconscious fears resurface. So, they opt for comforting fragrances with gourmand scents that plunge them back into the time of carefreeness. Vanilla makes its great comeback.
The 20th century ended with a trend of return to nature and sobriety. Perfumery is once again preparing to make its mark on its history to enter another millennium.
What fragrance did you wear during youth? Do you recognize yourself in these different movements?