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This Victorian Perfume Advice Is Still Relevant Today

La Mode 1836 Fashion Plate via Met Museum e1520885776519 81424

In the Victorian era, perfumed products abounded. In addition to perfume, cologne, and toilet water, there were scented soaps, scented pomades, and even scented mouth waters and dentifrices for the teeth. But how much scent could a lady or a gentleman wear without being offensive? It’s a question many of us puzzle over even today. Fortunately for the Victorians, books and articles on proper etiquette offered plenty of advice to guide the unwary.

An article in the 1894 edition of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine quotes a passage from an 1811 book of etiquette in which the author advises young gentleman on their personal scent, stating: “You ought to make it your care neither to smell too sweet nor the contrary; for a gentleman ought neither to be offensive like a he-goat nor perfumed like a civet-cat.”

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Useful advice, to be sure. Then again, a fairly large gray area exists between the offensive scent of a he-goat and the stink of a civet-cat. In his 1874 publication The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, Cecil Hartley offers advice that is more specific. Instead of dousing their bodies with scent, he instead recommends that gentlemen engage in “frequent bathing.” As far as fragrance, he writes: “Use but very little perfume, much of it is in bad taste.”

Journal des Tailleurs Gazette of Fashion 1862 menswear plate via met museum e1520885870417 76933Journal des Tailleurs, Gazette of Fashion, 1862 (Met Museum)

Some etiquette experts advised that gentlemen forego perfume altogether. According to the 1884 edition of James McCabe’s Household Encyclopaedia of Business and Social Forms, “perfumes should be avoided as effeminate.” However, if a gentleman insisted upon wearing scent, he was cautioned to use it only on his handkerchief. As McCabe explains: 

“If used at all, for the handkerchief, [perfumes] should be of the very best and most delicate character, or they may give offence, as persons often entertain strong aversions to peculiar scents.”

Advice for women followed much the same lines. While perfume was not strictly prohibited, it was considered offensive to wear an excess of strong scent. Instead, a lady was advised to wear only a hint of delicate fragrance—often on her handkerchief. According to the 1880 edition of The Manners That Win: “It is in bad taste for a lady to use strong perfumes. A hint of a delicate perfume is quite enough.”

La Mode Illustre Women 1877 Plate 010 via Met Museum e1520886483719 65ac9La Mode Illustre, Women, 1877 (Met Museum)

But what qualifies as a hint of perfume? Was it a merely a light dab behind the ears or a spray of vapor from an atomizer? In her 1881 etiquette manual Gems of Deportment, Martha Louise Rayne provides the best description of just how delicate a delicate perfume should be, writing:“A perfume should be so delicate, so daintily used, and so lingeringly fragrant that no one could define it as any thing but the ghost of a sweet scent, a faint, clinging memory of sweetness.”

Today, we have a far wider range of fragrances available than ladies and gentlemen did in the Victorian era. However, I believe much of the above advice on the use of perfumes still applies. Whether a man or a woman, when it comes to applying scent, a light hand is often the best.

This post originally appeared on MimiMatthews.com and is reprinted here with permission.

Top image: La Mode, 1836 (Met Museum) 

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Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty (Pen and Sword Books, July 2018). Her articles on nineteenth-century history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web and the Journal of Victorian Culture. When not writing historical non-fiction, Mimi authors exquisitely proper historical romance novels. Her debut Victorian romance The Lost Letter can be ordered at Amazon. To learn more, please visit www.MimiMatthews.com.

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