The History Of Perfume: From Priests To Pop Stars

The history of perfume starts – and continues – with quite a few surprises!

By Lora O’Brien

Perfume is big business and a powerful accessory. We women can’t seem to step out the door without a spritz of our go-to scent. It’s that final touch that completes an outfit. The type of perfume we choose will project who we are and what we like. It’s a means of expressing our personality and building a self-image.

Perfume is sexy, and personal, and has the ability to raise memories from a single scent that will stay with you a lifetime. And as Coco Chanel herself once said, ‘No elegance is possible without perfume. It is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory.’

But while we associate perfume with the likes of famous brands like Chanel and Dior, the art of creating perfumes actually dates back thousands of years. And as you can imagine, the history of perfume has gone through some pretty interesting transformations since then!

Let’s explore the history of perfume and see just how much it has evolved over the years. 

A Quick History Of Perfumes

The History Of Perfume


Though it probably dates back before then, the origins of perfume are commonly associated with ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphics in tombs show that Ancient Egyptians were mastering perfume as far back as 3,000 BC. But it wasn’t used to attract the opposite sex.

Egyptian priests used it to celebrate prayers and religious ceremonies. Well, not perfume, so much as essential oils, aromatic resins, and perfumed ointments. These were also used to – ugh –  mask the smell of sacrificial offerings. The link between ancient Egyptians and perfume was so ingrained that when high priests were buried, it was done in fragranced tombs. These scents were so strong that the sweet concoctions used wafted out when archaeologists opened the tombs many years later in 1897. How fascinating!

And if you’re an avid perfume fan, you can pay a visit to the Edfu temple in Egypt and soak up the history of perfume firsthand. Known as one of the best ‘perfume laboratories’ hieroglyphics on the walls depict recipes for ointments and inhalations, showcasing these magical perfumes from many years ago.

Scented Seduction

Initially reserved for religious activities, perfume in Egypt later became a tool of seduction.

The Greeks who first created perfumes that could be worn on the skin. They ground down aromatic plants, resins and herbs, blending them with oils to create everyday fragrances. During this period, incense and perfumes were just as valuable as gold was. It was even hoarded during Alexander the Great’s conquests in the East.

Queen Cleopatra of Egypt launched the history of perfume into the era of femininity. History records that the tumultuous monarch took regular baths of donkey’s milk infused with almonds and flowers to smooth her skin. But it’s also believed that Cleopatra had the sails of her boat slicked with fragrance oils before setting out to sea. This was so that Mark Antony would be able to catch a whiff of her scent before he even laid eyes on her.

Following her death, the Roman Empire annexed Egypt. By 900 AD., the Persians, Greeks, and Romans invented various distillation techniques for extracting essential oils. These civilisations also used perfumes to pay homage to their gods. 

There was a decline in the use of perfume following the fall of the Roman Empire. The decline in the use of perfume began in the Middle Ages in Europe, continuing into the Renaissance. This was caused by the Church of Rome, which considered scent to be a sign of luxury and hedonism. Alongside this was the absurd belief that washing oneself and having contact with water was the cause of infections! Even the rich only washed occasionally.

Luckily, the art of perfumery survived in the Orient. Where people smelled a lot better than Europeans, I’ll bet!

The Fragrant French

The history of perfume continued to Europe during the 13th century. Back then, perfumes were an exclusive reserve for nobles and Kings – just as it was in Egypt. Eventually, up until the 18th century, perfumes began to be used by women who could afford them. But then King Louis XVI changed the narrative by introducing the fashion for opulent scents – for men. 

He was called the “perfume king” with good reason. Apparently, he spritzed his clothes, walls, tableware, and furniture with perfume. Some accounts went further to say that the King ordered his servants to spray his visitors with perfume before they were allowed to see him! He may even have perfumed the water of the fountains at the Palace of Versailles. Yipes!

Perfumes then became especially popular in France. So doused were people in scent, that heavily spraying yourself with perfume became known as ‘the French bath.

The Rebirth Of Perfumes

Today, perfumes are available to anyone who can afford to buy one. Scents like La Vie est Belle Perfume, Yves Saint Laurent Black Opium, and Armani Si Eau de Parfum spray top trends list of widely worn fragrances.

During the mid 19th and 20th centuries, the history of perfume went through a further change. The development of chemistry laid the foundations for more modern fragrances.

François Coty, born Joseph Marie François Spoturno, was the main producer of commercial, and more chemical-ridden, perfumes. He, and other producers, applied many natural and synthetic chemicals that are often referred to as “notes” or “overtones” to scent. Chanel No5 is probably the most known of the first perfumes to apply modern chemical principles and contain synthetics.

However, it would only be decades later that we learned how harmful these chemicals could be to our health and the planet.

Celebrity Influence 

Like it or not, the celeb world has had a huge influence over the history of perfume. Of course Coco Chanel was one of the first to introduce a signature fragrance to a brand, and was the first to use her own name on a scent. Since then, it’s almost impossible to find a major fashion house that doesn’t have their own perfume!

But it’s not just designers that create signature scents. It’s almost a right of passage for big stars to release their cheesy line of fragrance to devoted fans. From Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande to JLo and David Beckham, namesake celebrity fragrances have proven to be incredibly popular.

I remember a celeb scent being the only perfume I wanted to own. It was ‘Fantasy’ by Britney Spears, and it was one of the most famous celebrity fragrances to date. Apparently, it’s the singer’s favourite fragrance to wear. But that being said, it’s likely that celeb perfumes are just another marketing tool to milk money out of impressionable youth. And I’m sure it’s full of hormone-altering crap.

Organic Perfumery 

Today, given the amount of harmful chemicals in fragrance, the history of perfume has shifted once again. More people are demanding natural scents that are based in organic oils that won’t harm their health, animals or the earth.

Modern perfumes contain a toxic mix of chemical ingredients including acetone, benzyl alcohol, ethanol, ethyl acetate, limonene, linalool, methylene chloride as well as parabens and phthalates. These may seem like gibberish, but just know they can be the cause of many health issues, ranging from dizziness and fatigue to damage to both the nervous system and kidneys, respiratory failure and even intestinal inflammation.

Most fragrances today are also cruelly tested on animals. They’re dabbed into their eyes, on their skin, and even into their mouths. And even worse, in the past, and still today, animals are slaughtered or tortured for musk (from the glands of the civet) or ambergris (from the stomachs of whales).

The solution?

Organic, vegan perfumes, such as Clean Reserve, Bloomtown and Walden are growing in popularity. Not just because they’re ethical and non-toxic, but because they smell divine, too!

Isn’t it funny how perfumes started out as pure and natural several millennia ago, and have now made it back full circle?

We’d call that evolution!


Lora O'Brien

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