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Fashion 88 : Exhibit Sniffs Out the History of Perfumes and Their Bottles

It is definitely something to sniff at. “Scents of Time,” at the Museum of Science and Industry, is one of the largest multi-sensory exhibitions ever to hit Los Angeles. The show provides a rare olfactory study of the evolution of fragrance and helps explain why researchers in the fields of medicine, psychology, advertising and business are paying so much attention to the spells of smells.

Composed of more than 200 art objects related to fragrance, its creation and packaging, the unprecedented exhibit attempts to show the relationship of perfumes to the societies in which they were created. At the same time, it traces a slice of culture from Madame Pompadour and her simple eaux de Cologne of the early 18th Century to the complex essences of the 1960s, precursors of today’s $4-billion fragrance industry.

Many Influences

Viewing the bottles, reading the historical labels and ads and observing the artistic lengths to which people have gone to showcase perfume demonstrates the importance that cultures have placed on scents.

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Treating fragrance like other exhibition-worthy entities, “Scents of Time” shows how art, fashion, politics and technology have determined the use and presentation of perfume.

But without the scents themselves, the story would be half told. Thanks to modern technology, the exhibition is thorough. Those sometimes-aggravating scented strips used in perfume advertisements are put to non-commercial use, encapsulating 10 significant fragrances from various eras. Along with each fragrance is a brief description of the scent and a summary of the historic and cultural events that coincided with its popularity.

Selected 18th- and 19th-Century pieces, including a cologne flask that once contained 4711 and a perfume bottle from Houbigant, both makers of popular fragrances today, illustrate the early commercial presentations of scent.

But even more impressive are the examples of vessels personally commissioned by plutocrats. After having perfumes designed for them, they assigned artisans to create the containers. No expense was spared to create bottles detailed in gold, encrusted with gems or shaped of Wedgwood porcelain and Lalique crystal.

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“No one has ever stopped to think about the social and historical value and implications of perfume bottles before--they have only been viewed as pieces of art,” said Marc Rosen, vice president of design and communication at Elizabeth Arden and chairman of the exhibition committee.

“Men, women and children are all fascinated with the exhibit, and that’s because everyone has perfume bottles in their lives, whether it was on their mother’s dressing table, given to them as a token of love or simply purchased and saved because of its beauty,” he said.

For the first time on its five-city tour, the exhibition also includes a working model of an essential-oil extraction plant.

“It was created in the ‘30s, but the factories of today are very much the same,” explained Annette Green, who, as executive director of New York’s Fragrance Foundation, conceived the idea for the exhibit with Rosen and then personally sifted through private collections to locate many of the items on display. The foundation is a nonprofit educational arm of the fragrance industry.

Gala Opening

More than 400 people--including celebrities, fragrance industry and retailing executives, and many of Los Angeles’ social set--celebrated the opening of the exhibit. Dining in the Exposition Park Rose Garden under chilly skies, guests viewed a dramatic fashion show with gowns by European and American designers, to underscore the intimate link between fashion and fragrance.

From the $6,000 yellow silk gown by Galanos to Liz Claiborne’s $250 black-and-white evening pants and blouse, the show tried to visually express the idea that elegance is available at almost any price and taste level in the fashion industry, and that by extension, the same is true in the fragrance industry.

“The concept of the designer fragrance is not new,” Rosen noted. French couturier Paul Poiret was the first to have a signature scent in the 1920s, but, as Rosen pointed out, the borrowed authority of the fashion designer continues to be one of the most important keys to the success of a fragrance today.

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Originally organized by the Museum of the City of New York, “Scents of Time” will remain in Los Angeles through Jan. 1. Prior to its arrival in Los Angeles in October, the display clocked 500 visitors per hour during its three-month stint at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Green said.


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