Quaffing a historically accurate gin fizz adds dimension to watching a louche Jazz Age period drama like Boardwalk Empire, as does the clink of a blended scotch highball while settling in to live-tweet Mad Men 's season premiere. This spring, the costume-drama craze has made retro trappings the marketing tools of an unlikely category: scent. For instance, each cologne in Jo Malone's new limited edition quintet Rock the Ages (at Nordstrom and Holt Renfrew) is meant to evoke a period of British history, from sparkling Geranium & Verbena for Edwardian aficionados to the more contemporary Birch & Black Pepper, which includes an ink accord (inspired by the tattoo ink of punk).
The range's most rear-looking gamble, Tudor Rose & Amber, is, surprisingly, among the best-smelling – a dark, velvety rose with amber and metallic notes. While developing the collection, perfumer Christine Nagel perused history books and cultural material from Christopher Marlowe to Downton Abbey. She does not list Hilary Mantel's Man Booker Prize-winning historical novels about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII among her reference materials, but has unwittingly created an apt companion, something to spritz to set the mood while watching Wolf Hall, the new prestige adaptation of the books that premieres on PBS this Sunday.
If at-home Smell-O-Vision were a reality, the BBC adaptation would reek of leather, wax, liturgical amber and aromatic plants, since Mantel's pages positively stink with period odours. (She writes, for example, of a builder ordering two pounds of frankincense to perfume rooms, and of Anne Boleyn's cheek smelling faintly of amber and rose.) The choice to mention botanicals and resins is for atmosphere but also for accuracy – in the 1500s, olfactory design wasn't extravagance, it was a necessity.
Today, the art of fragrance is just another aesthetic of popular culture, making it hard to appreciate just how important wearing and carrying scent was for pleasantly getting through the day. As women of the era were wont to do, the queen consort Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, wore a perforated pomander filled with imported spices like sandalwood, clove and cinnamon. Scents were believed to ward off bad spirits and disease, but, most importantly, it distracted and covered up the unpleasant stench of living with sanitation challenges – the open raw sewage, for one thing, but also infrequent laundry and bathing practices.
Cromwell's milieu may have figuratively smelled like gunpowder treason and plot, but literally smelled like roses. Under Henry VIII, damask roses filled the gardens and, through fragrance, the corridors of his palaces. Exotic damask roses, the variety that Nagel includes in Tudor Rose & Amber, were first introduced into England around 1522 as a gift to Henry VIII from his physician, Dr. Thomas Linacre. In perfumery, the era is associated with that ingredient because the king subsequently made damask rose attar his chosen personal scent, Holly Dugan explains in The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England. It's under Henry VIII that perfumery also became what she calls the "olfactory performance of self," a.k.a. the stuff that modern perfume marketing is made of.
Rose attar, Dugan writes, was Henry's substance distilled, "both the erotic body natural and his powerful body politic." It was also the first instance of monarch marketing, of a signature scent as important tool in communicating one's personal brand (Louis XIV would later do this at Versailles, with orange blossom.) Among the many expansions and improvements that Henry oversaw when he took over Cardinal Wolsey's Hampton Court gardens was the planting of more than a hundred rosebushes not only to visually mark his territory, but so that their conspicuous scent would conjure and remind everyone of his courtly presence in outdoor spaces even when he wasn't there.
"The scent of damask roses indicated a more intimate connection to the king," Dugan also suggests. That year, the king's personal apothecary distilled essential oils as gifts to the monarch's sexual partners for the celebration of Twelfth Night, and throughout his reign also provided Henry VIII's numerous mistresses with casting bottles of the personal fragrance to wear at their waist. Marking them as his territory with his scent. The practice caught on. By the late 16th century, the rose was a frequent subject in love poetry; prostitutes rubbed their chest with rose petals.
Fade in: June, 1527. The Tudor king makes his way to his wife Catherine's apartments. "He moves in a perfumed cloud made from the essence of roses," Mantel writes in Wolf Hall, "as if he owns all the roses, owns all the summer nights." Well, he did.