I’ve been Scent from the Past: 17th and 18th Century Perfumes

How to Smell like Kings and Queens

Have you ever been stuck next to someone who had put on too much perfume? The experience can be either highly pleasant or highly intolerable depending on how the scent works. Modern perfumes are categorized by their “notes,” or scent types mixed together to create a full-bodied scent:

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Source

  • Top/Head notes: The scents that are perceived immediately on application of a perfume. Top notes consist of small, light molecules that evaporate quickly. They form a person’s initial impression of a perfume and thus are very important in the selling of a perfume.
  • Middle/Heart notes: The scent of a perfume that emerges just prior to when the top notes dissipate. The middle note compounds form the “heart” or main body of a perfume and act to mask the often unpleasant initial impression of base notes, which become more pleasant with time.
  • Base notes: The scent of a perfume that develops as the other scents dissipate. The base and middle notes together are the main theme of a perfume. Base notes bring depth and solidity to a perfume. Compounds of this class of scents are typically rich and “deep.”

17th and 18th century perfumes fell into two general categories: floral and musky. Floral scents of the time were made from flower oils or waters distilled from blooms such as roses, orange flowers, and jasmine. These scents float near the top of the modern note range. Musks are base notes– heavy yet subtle at the same time. They are often animal-based and were favored by both sexes because they blend well with the natural human scent, itself a musky note. In an age of inconsistent bathing practices (some bathed often, other did not), perfume served as a popular odor equalizer in the merchant and noble classes. During the 17th and 18th century, there was very little difference between men’s and women’s perfumes. A man might wear a wash of rose water to fresh his skin while a lady might don a heady amber toilet for a candle-lit dance.

He: “My, don’t you smell heavenly, dearest! Like orange flowers and vanilla”
She: “And, you smell, too…of leather and spiced liqueur.”
He: “Ah, so you’ve caught me stealing your perfume again, then…”

Perfume was important and perfumers guarded their secrets well, but today we have access to some of their revered recipes. Some perfumes were as simple as distilling the scent of popular flowers. Rose water, popular since ancient times as both a scent and beauty treatment, was wildly popular in the 17th and 18th century. You can actually make your own rose water at home, if you are up for a little perfuming experimentation!

Rose Water being Distilled

Other 17th and 18th century perfumes are much more complex. Take, for example, this recipe for “Aqua-Mellis, or The King’s Honeywater,” which, as Madame Isis points out, contains not a drop of honey!

  1. Coriander seeds An herb, with a citrusy flavor.
  2. Marjoram An herb with a citrus and pine flavor.
  3. Calamus Aromaticus A water plant used as a substitute for ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg
  4. Yellow sandalwood Aromatic tree. A common ingredient in scents.
  5. Orange and Lemon peels
  6. Nutmeg Spice
  7. Clove
  8. Cinnamon
  9. Pimento Can mean a red pepper, but usually Allspice, the dried fruits of the of the Pimenta dioica plant
  10. Cassia Sometimes called Bastard cinnamon. Has less taste and rougher texture than true cinnamon and is therefore cheaper.
  11. Storax the resin of the oriental sweetgum (amber)
  12. Gum Benjamin or Benzoin resin
  13. Labdanum A resin
  14. Venellios Tonka bean A substitute for vanilla
  15. Spirit of Musk Derived from the glands from various animals, like musk deer. Today synthetic musk is almost exclusively used. Probably the most common base note in perfumes.
  16. Spirit of Ambergris A waxy substance that comes from the digestive tracks of Sperm whales. Prepared, it smells wonderful and has been used as fixative and base note in perfume for a long time.
  17. Lavender oil
  18. Bergamot essence From Bergamot orange. Used to flavor Earl Grey tea.
  19. Rhodium oil or Rosewood oil
  20. Orange flower water
  21. Rose water
  22. Milk

What an exhaustive list, and all for one perfume! The process combining them is just as exhaustive and well worth the read. Such complex perfumes were popular amongst rich nobles. Nearly every lady received a toilet/vanity set as a wedding gift and with it, a few large flasks for precious, ostentatious perfumes such as the one mentioned above.

Pair of Silver Perfume Flasks, circa 1671-72
“Toilet services were traditionally given as wedding presents by a wealthy husband to his new wife for use in her bedchamber. They usually included a mirror, boxes for ornaments, jewellery and cosmetics and perfume bottles. These flasks were dug up in Parliament Hill Fields (between Hampstead and Highgate) in 1892 by an inquisitive child and sold to the V&A for a modest sum by his father.” – V&A Museum

Perfume came in a variety of consistencies: alcohol-based (perhaps the most familiar to modern audiences), oil-based, water-based, and wax-based. Alcohol and oil bases are what we traditionally consider perfume and would have been applied from a bottle using a dauber or a fingertip. Water-based fragrances were usually floral and used as face tonics. Wax-based perfumes are solidified and easy to carry in pomanders. Scent pendants were very popular, especially considering the putrid reek of muck in the streets that a fine lady had to contend with! A little scent in a handkerchief or on a locket at the end of a chain was invaluable. On that note, perfumes were not just applied to the body. Anything and everything that could hold a scent was perfumed, from gloves and rouge to garters and hair powder! In fact, gloves and perfume went so hand in hand (pardon the pun!) that in 1656, the Guild of Glove and Perfumers was formed. Perfumed gloves weren’t just worn on the hands, but could be tucked into waist sashes and hatbands. A lady might send her beloved a delicate glove soaked in her perfume just like we might send a perfumed love letter.

Lady’s Glove, circa 1610-20
Always a welcome gift, unless they are laced with poison!

If you are a lover of perfume, by all means indulge yourself even when in costume! Finding a modern equivalent for a 17th or 18th century scent can be difficult, unless you know what to look for. Stick with natural scents or even make your own! A good, oil-based organic perfume can be quite expensive (just like back in the day). For the scent scientist, there are plenty of authentic historical recipes online that you can experiment with.

There was as much scent variety in the past as there are today. People could choose floral, citrus, sweet, spicy, or milky fragrances. My favorite modern-made-ancient perfumes are base notes. They work best with my natural chemistry and fit my taste. 17th century perfumes tend to contain more musky base notes, so my preferences fit right in with my favorite era! I have two modern favorites that I like to wear when in character:

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Shanghai Rose Solid Perfume in Amber

This amazing little fragrance tin (10g) is warm, earthy, slightly sour, and very musky. It mellows as you wear it, blending with your own scent. It smells very similar to a sample of 18th century cologne I had a chance to savor at the a museum presentation. The slight sour note may sound off-putting, but it keeps the perfume grounded. Many modern ambers are just too sweet smelling. I would equate it with the sourness of an unripe plum. Another fragrance in this line, Marine, is equally pleasant, but on the higher end of the note scale with a hint of ambergris and blossoms. I would call Amber androgynous and Marine a feminine perfume by modern standards. For historical presentations, however, they are perfect for either gender. The tins are more widely available in the UK, but I found mine stateside in World Market for the bargain price of $5! Since this is a fairly solid wax perfume, it is best applied directly to the skin. The best place for it? The bosoms. No court lady is complete with out a lovely, scented chest!

Chiaroscuro by Illuminated Perfume on Etsy

I recieved a tiny vial of this as a gift. It’s quite magical! I have only worn it twice because it is so precious to me, but the scent is beautiful– I enjoy smelling it from the bottle. The ingredients remind me of many of the perfume recipes I have read from the 18th century. The seller’s description speaks better than I can:
“Chiaroscuro as a liquid perfume begins quite dark and indolic laced with notes of roots and camphor. As you journey through the night in the deep moist woods a clearing of jasmine is illuminated with the light of myrtle. The robust fragrance features a very unusual scent evolution by moving from dark to light with deep, warm notes that linger like a dreamy lover. The perfume is sweet and dark, naughty and nice. The sweetness of the jasmine is amplified by myrtle and spice contrasting against patchouli and jatamansi (spikenard).
True perfumes such as this one react with your natural body chemistry and while they have a “basic” scent profile, your own body transforms it. On me, the floral is a little too heady, but on my sister, it smells like blossoms and warm autumn. I wore a dab on my neck the first time, but I like the scent much better on fabric. I dabbed a bit onto my neckline and it kept truer to the scent out of the bottle, which I love!

For more information about historical perfume and cosmetic recipes:

Madame Isis’ Toilette” – A wonderful blog dedicated to exploring the world of historical beauty from perfumes to hair powder!

How to Make Your Own Rose Water” – I linked to this earlier in the article, but making rosewater, while challenging, is more fun than just buying a bottle!

Traces of Marie Antoinette, Caught in a Phial of Perfume” on The Washington Post – Creating a perfume France’s most infamous queen would approve of

The Ultimate One Pattern Piece Project: Elizabethan Coif

6 Steps to Fabulous!

Once again, I am breaking my vow to keep HSF posts off of my blog. However, this project has actually been on my plate for quite some time and by some miracle, it’s completion happened to coincide with HSF Challenge #11.

Since my costume fascination began, my favorite era has been the 17th Century. In particular, I fell in love with blackwork. However, I am incredibly inept at embroidery, almost to the point of being that cliché historical fiction character that scandalizes her family by acting like a impetuous tomboy…

Extras inside indeed: an extra dose of terrible embroidery skills and stubbornness, that is.

…okay, so that really would be me…

Though I have no embroidery skills, I do have enough hand-sewing skills to make me a decent small-scale seamstress. Combined with my love of the 17th Century, blackwork, hats and thrift, I have the perfect set of skills to be a decent coif maker, or at least an excellent blackwork coif faker.

Inspiration

I started this project without a pattern, just pictures and measurements from various online museums. I basically followed my wobbly seamstress instincts. The subsequent tutorial follows the method I developed to create my coif.

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Detail of “Portrait of a Bride” by Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck
Besides her pretty coif, notice how tightly the wire of her headdress is pressing into her cheeks.

English Woman’s Blackwork Coif, circa 1600

Top Stitching and Gathering Detail on an English Woman’s Coif, circa 1590-1610
(see Step 5)

Women’s Coifs showing repetitive patterns and a variety of shapes, circa 1600
Another pair of similar coifs are also in the V&A, notable for one’s bottom edge: “Along the bottom edge, instead of a turned casing there are a series of loops braided in linen bread and stitched to the coif.” Another option for Step 4!

How to Make an Elizabethan/17th Century Coif

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Illustrated in Microsoft Office Word  for your convenience and pleasure!

Large_Coif 1I used newsprint to create my pattern. Coifs from this period come in a variety of shapes, but most are based on a simple rectangle of fabric cut into a gentle urn shape. The top of the urn forms a widow’s peak at the top of the head and the curved bulge covers the ears. You can make your shape as simple or extreme as you like. Here’s my pattern:

Paper Pattern

You can test the paper pattern by pinning the top edges together. Bear in mind that the fabric coif will be smaller because of your seams.

Paper Pattern Test

Opportunity for excellent party hats? I think so!

Large_Coif 2Since I cannot embroider well enough, I prefer to use pre-embroidered fabric. Finding a pre-embroidered fabric with a proper motif  and decent colors on a suitable fabric can be a real challenge, but I was lucky enough to find an embroidered cotton shirt for $3 at the local thrift shop. While it’s not perfect, it’s close enough!

Embroidered Shirt

After two weeks of searching for the perfect blackwork fabric, this is probably the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen in my life. If finding an embroidered fabric is too difficult, you can use plain linen or silk.

I plucked the seams out, leaving me with enough fabric to make about 4 coifs.

Unpicking Stitches

Chinese machine embroidery is fairly easy to unpick, but it did leave prick marks down the edges and where there were darts. A little steam ironing helped make them less noticeable.

Capture

I can make two coifs from the back panel and one from each of the front panels.

For my lining, I used some cheap cotton sheeting from my stash. Elizabethan coifs could be lined or unlined. Many had removable linings so when the inside got dirty, the lining could be removed and washed, saving the delicately embroidered outside from wear and tear. Since my fashion fabric is completely washable, I sewed the lining into my coif as a permanent feature.

Large_Coif 3

I really wish I’d taken more construction pictures, but I was too excited to pause for photos. I sewed my coif using backstitches set about 3/8 inch away from the fabric edge for clean seams. If your lining has a right side, make sure it faces teh right side of your fashion fabric so when you turn it inside out, it faces the proper way.

Large_Coif 4The drawstring casing can be done multiple ways, but just turning up the bottom edge worked best for my coif. I used backstitching again to close the casing because it’s strong and you can manipulate the stitches so that they hardly show up on the outside of the fabric. Since the seam can be seen from the outside of the coif, I made sure the outside stitches were as small as possible.

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This is the front edge of my coif, showing the smooth seam you get when you use the “pillow” sewing method to connect your lining. To make the front edges crisp, iron them from the lining side before and after sewing the drawstring casing. You can see the stitches on the inside of the drawstring casing on the right.

Large_Coif 5

This is the most complicated-looking step, but it’s actually rather simple. You’ve already finished 2/3 of the top edges by sewing them in step 3, so all you need to do is whipstitch the very top edge shut with small stitches. When you reach the end of you finished edge, sew around the unfinished edges. You can adjust how your coif fits by gathering more or less fabric. Gathering less fabric will make the coif pointy at the back while gathering more will give it a rounder look.

Coif Top Seam

Large_Coif 6

I used bias tape fror my drawstrings because it was what I had immediately on hand, but you can make ties out of yarn, linen tape, twill tape, shoelace, or braided cord. Threading your ties can be tricky. Some people like to use safety pins while others use wire to help guide it through the casing. I used a cheap, thin pair of tweezers to hold one end of my drawstring while I used the other end of the tweezers like a giant needle, pushing it through the casing.

Done!

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I would like to trim my next coif with a little bit of lace along the front by sewing it inside the seams in step 3. I would also like some twill tape for ties instead of my last-minute bias-tape drawstring, and to take pictures with the strings wrapped around the top like they are supposed to be worn. But for a blind first attempt, I’m rather proud of it!

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HSF Breakdown

17th Century “Blackwork” Coif

The Challenge: #11 Squares, Rectangles and Triangles
Fabric: A thrifted cotton shirt with cotton machine embroidery lined with even more cotton!
Pattern: I basically just measured a rectangle using coifs documented at the V&A and cut a light “urn” curve into the sides
Year: 1600-1630
Notions: Cotton thread and bias tape
How historically accurate is it? 50% It’s not linen or silk, but it is all natural fibers. The embroidery pattern is entirely modern, but from a distance, if you squint, it looks fairly legitimate. The construction method is pretty accurate as is the size and how it sits; however, I have much more hair than this coif can contain. It will sit on my head by itself, but I feel more comfortable tying it on so I don’t feel like it’s constantly going to fall off. Next time I will make the coif a bit deeper or try using hair pins to hold it on.
Hours to complete: 3 hours
First worn: By me…at 3am…in my apartment
Total cost: $3 for the embroidered shirt, stash sheeting, and stash thread

A matching forehead cloth would also be nice, and I have plenty of fabric left over for at least one!

Coif and Forehead Cloth, circa 1610

More Coif Tutorials and Information

Full-length Coif Tutorial” – All of the steps from this page in one looooong image

The Coif Question” by Kate at Dressing Terpsichore – Explains why most extant coifs are one-piece, but most paintings appear to have two-piece coifs

Elizabethan Coifs!” by Morgan Donner – Examples of how a coif should be worn with  a forehead cloth to get the proper look

Coif Patterns” at No Strings Attached – Multiple patterns for different styles of coifs

UPDATE!

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Truly Hats now offers coif-sized blackworked (by machine) fabric for only $10! The pattern is a replica of an extant 16th century piece.