Patchouli, Led Zeppelin and the moth.

‘My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon,I will return
Sure as the dust that floats high in June, when
movin’ through Kashmir….
C’mon,let me take you there…

Kashmir Led Zeppelin

Patchouli, Afghan coats, big hair and the sound of Led Zeppelin are synonymous with the hippie couture of the late 1960’s and early 70’s – a fashion with relatively few followers but one that left an indelible print on the senses of those who came into contact with it.
Add odour of joss stick and the occasional whiff of something stronger and never has there been a fashion statement as much about the smell as the look. The smelliness of the Afghan coat is attributed to the poor curing process of the sheepskin in cheaply made copies; an authentic item, hand embroidered and made in the province of Ghazni, Afghanistan had very little odour even when wet.

Afghan girl

The hippie blend, a not unpleasant sweet leather with notes of damp dog and incense had incredible tenacity and would linger post party for days. The scent, surely most pronounced in the hippie wardrobe would offer the added benefit of moth protected woollens particularly expensive cashmere. Moths or specifically moth larvae love cashmere: moths hate patchouli.

Patchouli owes its introduction to perfume by this very route – as a moth repellent, the herb used for centuries on the sub-continent to protect stored silks and woollens.Forming a small, woody stemmed shrub with soft pubescent leaves the plant requires a tropical climate to thrive: in India it is cultivated in the Tamil Nadu region.                            Much further north in Kashmir, more associated with the growing of roses for perfume….

‘Who has not heard of the Vale of Kashmir
With its roses the brightest that earth ever gave
Its temples and grottoes, and fountains clear
As the love-lighted eyes that hang over their wave?’

Lalla Rookh Thomas Moore

…there grazes the Pashmina goat producing a fleece second to none for its quality in the manufacture of cashmere wool. Cashmere shawls, originally worn by Kashmiri men were exquisitely made by local weavers and their luxurious quality was appreciated far and wide eventually finding favour with the wealthy nabobs who worked out of the administrative centres of colonial India.  shawl By the late 18th century British East India Company merchants were ordering the shawls from Kashmiri weavers. By track, road and by boat on the River Ganges they were transported hundreds of miles south to Benares (Varanasi) and then on to the British controlled port of Calcutta (Kolkata). It is here that they were repacked with layers of patchouli leaf to be stored in the company warehouses ready for shipment to London. On eventual arrival in London the shawls were unpacked to find they had acquired the distinctive patchouli scent: the scent became synonymous with the shawl.                                                         

 The shawl, incredibly warm yet lightweight proved the essential accessory to the flimsy, bare armed Empire dresses of the day. Empress Josephine loved them and had them made into cushions and dresses! In Paris demand outstripped supply and this was exacerbated by the trade blockades of the Napoleonic wars: cashmere shawls were consequently smuggled into France.

In Britain demand was met by the mechanical Jacquard looms of the weaving factories of Paisley, Norwich and Edinburgh. Although inferior in quality the copies of French made Kashmiri style shawls in a silk and wool mix proved highly profitable throughout the 19th century; the shawl having survived changes in Victorian fashion. However, to appear authentic they had to smell of patchouli! At first bales of dried patchouli leaf were imported by the same trade route – small bundles of patchouli could be bought from apothecaries for use in homemade drawer sachets and pots-pourris – then oil, as cultivation of the plant increased and distillers could supply the wholesalers of Ghazepoore, the centre of perfumery trade in India.

Situated on the north bank of the River Ganges above Benares, Ghazepoore was also the main producer of opium in an industry established by the British East India Company in 1820.

Used as a single note in Victorian handkerchief scents -Flaubert’s Emma Bovary never had enough to satisfy her extravagant use of the oil in the seduction of her lover – and then in blends notably chypres in the New Age of perfumery late in the 19th century, the dark, earthy, woody scent has an exotic almost minty top note richening and sweetening with maturity.

Although a favourite of perfumers and used in many blends patchouli has many detractors none more so than the clothes moth – both common and case-bearing species – the patchouli’s camphor upsetting the scent detecting equipment of the moth.

Darasina has been asked to put patchouli and other aromatic ingredients to the moth deterring test in trials to be conducted in coming months.

In September of this year Led Zeppelin and patchouli came together again in the new promo video for Dior Homme. A reformulation of the Olivier Polge confection it has a sweet patchouli, cacao and vanilla drydown with just a hint of tobacco. A very assured and well dressed creation it is perfectly matched to the choice of visuals on video – an immaculate besuited Robert Pattinson in all-action retro black and white imagery. Led Zeppelin provide the soundtrack with Whole Lotta Love but here, Zeppelin have gate-crashed the wrong party…………………not enough patchouli man!

Thanks to Brora, The National Trust, Aileen Ribeiro The Courtauld Institute of Art