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Scents of Style: Art Deco Fragrances

By Irene Moore
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Czechoslovakian crystal, 1930s.

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Rosine Pierrot, 1922.

Photo: Perfume Passage

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Czechoslovakian crystal, 1930s.

The allure of perfume and its intoxicating aroma have intrigued our olfactory senses in numerous ways for centuries through mythology, medicine, religion and anthropology. However, the perfumery, or fragrance industry as we know it today, started to come into its own at the beginning of the 1900s. 


The early part of the century marks the birth of Coty, one the great fragrance houses. Several new perfumeries were established during this time, including Guerin and Caron, firms that introduced fragrances that are still popular today. The fragrance industry became firmly established during the Art Deco era, which was the most prolific creative period in the history of perfume, when the long-lasting bond between haute couture and perfume merged into a richly productive business.

Paul Poiret’s Rosine 

Paul Poiret, whose name is synonymous with early Art Deco, was the first French couturier to market fragrances with his designs. His unconstrained, elongated fashion silhouettes liberated women from their corsets, allowing them more comfort and freedom of movement. In 1911, Poiret founded Les Parfums de Rosine (named after his daughter), the first perfume company created by a couturier. During this decade, Poiret launched several other perfumes under the Parfums de Rosine name. Poiret's exclusive clientele naturally wanted to wear his perfumes, the perfect accessory to his fashions.


Towards the end of this era, American troops returned from the First World War in Europe, bringing with them expensive French fragrances. American enthusiasm for fragrance took off and the U.S. market was born and flourished. Perfumery entered an era marked by the constant search for new tonalities and original, often audacious harmonies.

The Art Deco Era 

Following the example of Poiret, many other Parisian couture houses introduced high-quality perfumes. In the 1920s and 1930s, the couturiers Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Felix Millot, Jean Patou, Charles Worth, Nina Ricci, Pierre Balmain, Marie-Louise Carven, and Elsa Schiaparelli all launched perfumes to complement their couture fashion collections. The creators of these tony perfumes were not too very concerned with the mass market, because the woman who could afford to purchase high-fashion garments from these houses also bought the designers’ fragrances.

Chanel No.5 

By the mid-1920s Coco Chanel was considered to be the most important designer in the world of haute couture. She had made an ingenious entry into the haute couture world by freeing women from fussy, pre-war clothes, creating a more sporty, comfortable look. In addition, she wanted to create a bold fragrance for the new, liberated woman, and commissioned Ernest Beaux, her Russian-born parfumeur, to create several fragrances.


In the fifth (No. 5), his assistant made a mistake, using a tenfold number of fatty aldehydes in the formula. (Aldehydic-type fragrances are characterized by a rich, opulent, recognizable top note. A note in fragrances, just as in music, indicates a single impression.) Recognizing its unusual quality, Chanel picked this composition and took the distinctive design for the bottle's stopper from a mirror in her Rue Cambon apartment. She launched the perfume with her couture collection in 1921, under the name Chanel No. 5. This beautiful, flowery and strongly aldehydic perfume became an overnight sensation, and caused a revolution in the perfumery world. Chanel No. 5 is considered the leader of a totally new olfactory trend––brilliant fantasy accords, which give great character to a fragrance.


Lanvin's My Sin 

Jeanne Lanvin was one of the founders of La Maison Couture, the small Paris fashion group that was among some of the most influential in the fashion world. In 1924, Lanvin launched My Sin, an aldehydic   floral, which became rapidly successful.


Worth's Dans la Nuit

That same year the long-established fashion house of Worth introduced its first perfume, Dans Ia Nuit, and employed René Lalique, the famed glassmaker-artist from Fontainebleau, France, to create the classic bottle design in frosted blue glass with shimmering stars.


Though Lalique had designed many pieces of jewelry and objets d’art in the early part of the century, he is also very well known for his numerous perfume bottle designs in the Art Deco era, and his elegant and distinctive creations were often copied by other perfumeries.

Oriental Fragrances 

Throughout the 1920s the new world demand for perfume encouraged creative diversity in perfume innovations.  By the mid-twenties Oriental notes were becoming fashionable. Orientals, in some cases, are heavy, often sweet tonalities with rich, tenacious bases like musk, civet, amber, even vanillic.


Corday launched Toujours Moi, a warm, woody, amber fragrance (1924). Guerlain created the delightful Shalimar (1925), a beautiful, sweet Oriental fragrance evocative of the Arabian Nights that is still a highly successful perfume today.  It is the inspiration for many of today's popular Orientals. The Millot couturier house had been founded at the end of the nineteenth century, and until 1925 was of minor importance. In 1925, however, it found fame with Crepe de Chine, a fragrance with a lovely green, woody note. This technical masterpiece is considered one of the great classics.


Coty's L'Aimant 

François Coty was also fascinated by aldehydic notes and experimented with their use in new perfumes. Not to be outdone, in 1927 he presented L’Aimant, remarkably similar to Chanel's No.5. Lanvin explored the aldehyde theme, launching Arpege in 1927, a rich, flowery, aldehydic, woody fragrance, both light and tenacious, but with great diffusion. This perfume did not meet with success, however, until after the Second World War.

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Rosine La Veritable, 1920s. 

Photo: Perfume Passage

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Czechoslovakian crystal, 1930s.

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Jean Patou Amour Amour, 1925.

Photo: Perfume Passage

In 1928 the prestigious couturier Jean Patou launched two new fragrances, the flowery, aldehydic Amour Amour and the flowery, spicy, Moment Supreme. The furrier Weil created the flowery, aldehydic, ambery Zibeline in 1928 in honor of his clients, and it immediately became a hit because of its technically bold notes. Encouraged by his success, Weil opened a perfumery branch to augment his fur business.


The Great Fragrances 

After the crash of 1929 and the world recession that followed, for those lucky enough not to have been devastated by the Great Depression, fashion and its aromatic partner, perfume, provided a buffer from the harsh realities of the world.

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French opalescent glass, 1940-50s.

It is an enigma that out of the Great Depression, a period of deepest gloom, so many great fragrances were created that still endure. The 1930s to the 1940s marked the period of Oriental fragrances and a return to the classics. Tabu by Dana (1930), a legendary Oriental blend, was well received.


Lanvin’s Scandal (1932) was equally successful. This perfume, with its leather-iris note, came out several months before the house’s Rumeur, whose amber, fruity complex has inspired many compositions since.


Je Reviens, also launched in 1932, was without question Worth’s greatest creation. This elegant and tenacious perfume has been a continuing success despite very little advertising, and its popularity has never diminished.

Guerlain's Vol de Nuit 

In 1931, Antoine Saint-Exupéry's novel, Vol de Nuit, captured the excitement of early aviator explorers. In 1933, Jacques Guerlain borrowed the title from the book by The Little Prince author and aviator, and introduced Vol de Nuit, a lovely perfume whose green top note was quite bold for the time. That spirit of adventure inspired this spicy, Oriental fragrance dedicated to women passionate about their quests. In that same year, Caron launched Fleurs de Rocaille, a very innovative floral-carnation complex that is considered to be the great classic of all floral perfumes, and the inexhaustible Guerlain produced the subtle and delicate Sous le Vent.

Dana's Canoe 

In 1935 Dana, whose perfume Tabu was still successful, launched a new, surprising tonality. There was a general passion for sports and sportswomen in the 1930s. Canoe, as its presentation and name indicated, was created for a sporty type of woman. Canoe was based on a spicy, warm fougere. (A fougere is an interpretation of the scent of ferns; the green foresty fougere is created with natural ingredients and aroma chemicals.) lts unusual character originally caused it to receive a cool welcome, but enjoyed a renaissance in the U.S. in the 1960s as a fragrance for men.


Elizabeth Arden's Blue Grass 

In the U.S. in 1935, Elizabeth Arden deviated from her usual specialty, cosmetics, and launched Blue Grass, a warm, spicy, musky floral. The perfume was distinctly reminiscent of Moment Supreme by Patou with its strong spicy aspect.


Until that time, women had not worn spicy fragrances, considering them masculine. But Blue Grass was instantly a big success, and the first great American fragrance.


René Lalique for Worth, Dans la Nuit, 1924.


Czechoslovakian crystal, 1930s.


Guerlain Shalimar, 1925.


Le Galion, until then a small, practically unknown firm, launched Sortilege two years later. The parfumeur who had made Arpege ten years earlier created this flowery, aldehydic and very tenacious perfume. In 1937, Schiaparelli introduced Shocking, an extremely modern aldehydic fragrance that was subject to much controversy in the world of perfumery. She also created a new color, Shocking Pink, which was the color of the graphics on the perfume box.


Jean Patou’s Joy 

Since the foundation of his perfumery branch, Jean Patou had been longing to invent a unique perfume, regardless of price, which would be a blend of two beautiful perfumery bases, jasmine absolute and Bulgarian otto of rose. After a long search, Maurice Chevron of Firmenich in Paris, a fragrance supply house, submitted some new bases to Patou. They were the foundation for the heavenly, flowery blend known as Joy (1938), the last great perfume created during the Art Deco era. The luxurious perfume was highly concentrated and initially reserved exclusively for Patou's haute couture clientele. Joy is still exceptionally popular and its distinctiveness has inspired many other perfumes.


The great creations were to end with the Second World War, which brought the French perfume industry almost to a standstill. It was the end of an epoch. An extensive creative period in perfumery was over, never again to be rekindled in quite the same way.


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Czechoslovakian crystal, 1930s.

René Lalique for Nina Ricci L'Air du Temps, 1948.

Czechoslovakian crystal, 1930s.

All Photos: From the collection of an ADSNY Member unless otherwise noted.

This article was originally published in the 2000 Millennium issue of the Art Deco Society of New York’s The Modernist.

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 4, Issue 1, Winter 2019. View a digital version of the full journal here.

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