Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why Marie-Antoinette Wore Perfume

It was considered a matter of good health. It is known that Marie-Antoinette bathed almost daily, but most other people did not. To quote:

By the time the Bourbons came into power in France, perfume had not only risen to an art, it was regarded as medical necessity. Despite the opulence of the palaces of France, they lacked indoor plumbing. According to historians who somehow report to know such things, it was not uncommon to find human excrement in the elegant carpeted stairways of the great palaces. Piles could be found in hallways and corridors. With bathing a rarity and a rather liberal interpretation of the word rest room, the world of the French court stank.

One way for the cultured nostrils of the day to survive such an environment was to constantly dab a bit of scent under the nose. It’s similar to the approach some coroners use when they apply mentholated ointment to their noses before an autopsy. Besides that, perfume was thought to be antiseptic. During the dark days of the Black Plague (when about a third of Europe died), it was believed that those who could keep sniffing perfume would be somehow protected.

This idea of rich people sniffing perfume to mask the gamey and diseased world around them soon gave rise to the perfumed glove. For many years, French aristocrats wore gloves drenched in perfume so that they could just elevate a royal finger to the nose to shield themselves from the olfactory assaults around them.

In fact, to this day, glovemaking and perfumery are related arts in France.

By the time Marie Antoinette came on the scene, floral perfumes were all the rage. Perfume was no longer seen as a miracle drug, but it was still believed to help dilute or kill the germs from the still-stinking world around the French court. Perfumes were once restricted to the royal family but by Marie Antoinette’s day they were in broader distribution. However, they were so outrageously expensive that only the richest of the rich could afford them.

In those days of the court of Versailles, bathing was a rarity. It was not altogether unknown, but more likely reserved for special occasions like birth and death. Men and women at court would wash from wash bowls in their rooms, but they probably reserved most of their attention to scrubbing make-up from their faces than washing hands or other body parts.

Furthermore, clothing of the type worn at court was exorbitantly expensive. Few people at court, except perhaps the queen, could afford to own more than one or two gowns. Corsets were sometimes worn to assist ladies in these garments but the undergarments we know as panties were unknown at Versailles.

It is known that Marie Antoinette collaborated with a perfume maker at court to develop a strong floral perfume. The formula has been preserved and there is talk of re-creating the original fragrance. If it were available today, it would be used as a fragrance....

Meanwhile, over in Germany, a little shop in Cologne was working on a light citrus scent that would become more widely distributed. This scent, nicknamed 4711, would one day find itsway to medicine cabinet all over Europe. It’s still available today.

Fragrance became more democratic. When regular bathing became vogue and sanitary laws were instituted (along with indoor plumbing) perfume became less “medical” and more cosmetic. Along with that, perfume got less expensive. Ordinary people (well, ordinary people with money) could wear perfume and get away with it.

Now perfume has always been a luxury item. Even today, it’s an expensive commodity. But the emergence of the middle class (and by that I mean that the world’s money was now being controlled by a whole lot more people) and the rise in hygiene created an unprecedented situation in which perfume could be enjoyed for itself.

Marie Antoinette wore perfume to guard against disease, protect her healthy, block the bathroom odors in the palace corridors, and thwart the body odor of those genteel gentlemen and gentlewomen who surrounded her at court. For her, perfume was like a vitamin pill (a way to keep healthy) and a mood enhancer (a way to make the world more pleasant).



Julygirl said...

These days, there are times when the opposite is true regarding odors. It is the overwhelming scent of someone's perfume that one needs to block.

Philippe said...

wonderful portrait, i've never seen it before. who is the artist?

elena maria vidal said...

Isn't it wonderful, Philippe?! I am guessing it is Gautier-Dagoty but am not absolutely certain. I found it on Facebook and the artist was not named.

Alexandra said...

I used to wear 4711 as a young teen. I had no idea there did their business in the hallways and stairs. Gross! No time to get to a chamber pot?

elena maria vidal said...

I guess there were a lot of transients there, people who were just visiting or selling something, not to mention the beggars, and there were no public chamberpots to be had.

Gareth Russell said...

This is one of the reasons why I've never believed Jean-Louis Fargeon's suggestion that the Duchesse de Polignac did not wear perfume. I'd warrant she simply did not wear his.

Alexandra said...

Thanks! I forgot that Versailles was open to the public.

You've got me thinking about 4711 Kölnisch Wasser.I'll have to look for some online. :)

Rex said...

Elena, there is a book about Marie Antoinette's perfumer here in Australia. It's called "A Scented Palace - the Secret History of Marie Antoinette's Perfumer" - author Elizabeth de Freydeau; I B Taurus London 2006. It may have a different title in the USA and other countries. It describes how her perfumes were concocted for her. It's an interesting read.

Rex Lucas

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you! I know of that book. Parts of it are apocryphal, but it has great entertainment value!

Unknown said...

Very interesting. I agree with Julygirl. Sometimes a person's perfume can be absolutely overwhelming. Thank goodness for indoor plumbing though. I would have thought they would at least go outside.

Rex said...

I can recall as a young child desparately needing a toilet in an enormous museum, in which each gallery opened into another and another......, there seemed no end to them! I have to admit I hid behind an enormous door and urinated out of sheer desparation. I think Versailles would have presented with something similar.

Aron said...

Hi Elena,
Actually, it seems that they have indeed re-created the Queen's favourite scent...and called it "Scent of a Queen!" At least, that is my English translation of the French. I've studied French, but I must admit to not having a very good head for languages! Apparently the perfume is quite expensive; something like $900 (Cdn) for less than an ounce! I would love to have a small sniff, though...*wistfully*
Where on Facebook did you find the portrait?! I am amazed; I thought that I was the only one who used their Facebook, in part, to try to vindicate the Royal Couple (and push for their Cause.) Wow.
~Aron <><

elena maria vidal said...

I wish I could remember, Aron. It was some page about Marie-Antoinette.