The Price of Elegance : Women and Perfume in the 13th Century

Henna7

Do you remember “Sex and the City” episode, in which Carrie considers buying a pair of expensive shoes, knowing fully well that she has no money and that her credit card might be completely maxed out? According to the renowned traveler Ibn Battuta, women in the 13th century Arabia were prone to similar actions. Whatever the price of beauty might be, some were willing to pay it!

“The Meccans are very elegant and clean in their dress, and most of them wear white garments, which you always see fresh and snowy. They use a great deal of perfume and kohl… The Meccan women are extraordinarily beautiful and very pious and modest. They too make great use of perfumes to such a degree that they will spend the night hungry in order to buy perfumes with the price of their food… When one of these women goes away the odour of the perfume clings to the place after she has gone” (Gibb 1929, 76.)

Photography of henna by VeraKL

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12 Comments

  • Agritty: That is fascinating! It reminds me of descriptions of 18th-century Parisian woman gladly forsaking bread for a new dress. I completely relate… September 6, 2011 at 10:36am Reply

  • Victoria: During my travels in Oman, there were many times I have been tempted to ask women what perfumes they used. The scents were rich and opulent, but not overly heavy and dense. Very interesting. I have not smelled anything like that since. The Arabian Oud company sells very interesting blends, but they are in the Saudi style, which is different (and generally, much drier and more animalic.) September 6, 2011 at 10:55am Reply

  • Rose D: “When one of these women goes away the odour of the perfume clings to the place after she has gone”

    Funny, sounds like my perfume wearing habits; or at least that is what my mother says! September 6, 2011 at 3:03pm Reply

  • Joan: That’s crazy, but good to know! September 6, 2011 at 11:40am Reply

  • Victoria: I am glad that you found it interesting. September 6, 2011 at 12:05pm Reply

  • Cristine: How things have changed. It used to be considered luxurious and attractive when perfumes lingered in the air, now it’s considered offensive if other people can smell them unless they are kissing your neck. I’ve become suspicious that the REAL reason the IFRA exists is to force perfumers to make scents barely detectible– a sort of gradual phase-out by the perume haters. I’m not saying we should all go back to vintage Giorgio, but it’s rare these days to smell other’s perfumes at all. September 6, 2011 at 6:26pm Reply

  • maggiecat: Dinner…or perfume. Tough choice, but since I’m on a diet anyway…. 🙂 September 7, 2011 at 11:25am Reply

  • Ari: This is why I maintain that targeting the Middle Eastern market would be excellent business practice. Because they must appear “pious” and “modest”, cosmetics and perfume are some of the very few ways that women in religious countries can express their femininity. September 7, 2011 at 8:21am Reply

  • Victoria: 🙂 September 7, 2011 at 10:09am Reply

  • Victoria: These days I see two trends existing side by side: light, barely there perfumes and big volume blends. I think that IFRA has little bearing on this, but the regional fashion does. September 7, 2011 at 10:10am Reply

  • Victoria: Yes, the Middle Eastern market is targeted very heavily already. The numerous ouds and oriental blends appearing in the luxury lines is just one offshoot of this trend. September 7, 2011 at 10:14am Reply

  • Victoria: 🙂 September 8, 2011 at 11:24am Reply

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