Whether its uses were for mere survival or of the ritualistic variety, smells accompanied individuals throughout all stages of life, regardless of social status, ethnicity, or culture (although these factors could influence what type of odours they would find themselves confronted with). But what has become of the cultural value of scent in an increasingly digitised age, the anosmia resulting from a Covid infection notwithstanding?
Much has been written about the historical practices of scent, from anointing bodies with fragrant oils to prepare them for the afterlife in ancient Egypt to Kodo, the Japanese ritual of incense-smelling, which is still practised today. In the Middle Ages, smells were both medicinal and moral, believed to have been forms of protection against the plague, with sulphurous smells being associated with the devil himself and, therefore, corrupt values.
Fast-forward thousands of years, and different continents have developed diverse codes of personal fragrance practices — a European aesthetic is seen to emphasise more skin-like smells, Asian cultures tend to prefer more lightweight scents, and the Middle Eastern market is known for its penchant for fragrances with a strong projection.
One might still associate a clean-smelling body with purity and a more sensuously scented one with decadence. "Scent can influence perceptions, even subconscious," Professor Tim Jacob from the Cardiff University School of Biosciences states. Dr. Alan Hirsch, the founder of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, goes so far as to correlate certain scents with different personality types: citrus scents with leaders, rose scents with introspective types, sandalwood with perfectionists, and so on.
However, perhaps the cosmetic application of the medium has seen it transcend these traditional notions of conformity. An emphasis on individual taste and olfactive preference means that while one can pinpoint overall trends, there will always be consumers who purchase fragrances in opposition to that tendency. Especially in the niche market, generalisations are slowly disappearing. Gender binaries in fragrance consumption have already eroded, and cultural division might be next.
The olfactive vocabulary is also in flux. The lack of descriptive words the average person possesses when it comes to expressing ideas of scent in the English language is one aspect that can make scent feel more exclusive rather than inclusive; the political correctness of it is another concern. The term 'oriental', previously used to describe the fragrance family, has fallen out of favour due to its fetishisation of non-Western cultures. Odorbet, founded by olfactory historian Caro Verbeek and artist Catherine Haley Epstein, aims to expand the scent vocabulary of the public and has already collected 240 words for its cause.
Most human interactions now taking place in the completely scentless digital realm pose an interesting new set of challenges. Researchers such as Devon Baur are studying expressions of human identity in this sphere with Perfume for Avatars: "A multidisciplinary art and research project that explores how smell can shape first impressions in multisensory VR storytelling."
"Virtual spaces have been built to prioritise visual and auditory signals, but in being devoid of scent, the virtual has diminished its tendrils into memory, instinct, and emotion," Baur states in her talk at the IAO's ESS 2020. Meanwhile, "Olfactory Communications in a Virtual Environment" stresses the importance of individual trust-building via the senses and how this mechanism is lost in digital interactions. Ever-improving digital technologies may enable one to see and hear the other person, but their scent gets lost in electronic translation.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath have dramatically increased the average amount of screen time, in a bizarre way, it has made connecting with our primal sense of olfaction all the more precious.
Undoubtedly, the most significant cultural revolution facing the fragrance world today will be the rehauling of its infrastructure to become more diverse. Perfume has, to a certain degree, always had a political potential, be it feminist fragrances or brands encouraging sustainable and ethical raw materials, and in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, the scent industry has been criticised for its lack of representation and overwhelmingly Euro-centric perspectives.
One initiative hoping to change that is Future Olfactives, which describes itself as: "An intersectional collective of independent perfumers and fragrance industry professionals dedicated to uplifting underrepresented BIPOC* members of the fragrance community." While such changes will not be overnight, it bodes well for the future of a scent culture that celebrates the medium in all its glorious complexity like never before.