Author Archives

Hi, I'm Katy. I'm a writer and editor who lives in Portland, Maine. I write frequently for Maine magazine and Maine Home+Design. My work has also appeared on The Hairpin, Jezebel, and the Huffington Post. I'm a free spirit with a taste for adventure that's only tempered by my budget. I write every day, do yoga sometimes, and spend far too much time in my bed, cuddling with my two silly dogs. I have yet to meet a food I won't put in my mouth and if I were an animal, I'd probably be a fox.

The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Angora

Illustration by Jacob Stead

Katy Kelleher | Longreads | December 2018 | 14 minutes (3,822 words)

In the Ugly History of Beautiful Things, Katy Kelleher shines a light on the dark underbellies of the things we adorn ourselves with. Previously: the grisly side of perfume.

* * *

In 2013, PETA released a video that changed the fashion industry. The footage, which is still available on YouTube, showed a man sitting on a bench, straddling a white rabbit that had been stretched out lengthwise and strapped down. It’s an angora, a rabbit breed prized for its long, thick, hollow-haired coat. The man begins to grab fistfuls of the rabbit’s soft fur and pulls it quickly, jerkily, tearing it from the rabbit’s flesh. As the video continues, you see more clips of rabbits being stripped naked to their pink skin. They look flayed and raw, and they cry out in pain. When I watched the video, the animal bleats disturbed my two dogs, who began running in circles, sniffing the air and wondering. I’m not sure if they were inspired to hunt, or if they could just smell my distress.

“They were the screams heard round the world,” proclaimed the the animal rights organization’s website. The copy accompanying the video is triumphant, notwithstanding the stomach-churning nature of the clip: “When PETA Asia released its shocking eyewitness video footage showing that workers violently rip the fur out of angora rabbits’ writhing bodies, customers shared the video widely, vowed never to wear angora again.” After this PR disaster, retailers began pledging publicly to stop using angora wool in their products. International clothing giants like H&M, ASOS, and Gap, Inc. informed customers that they would no longer offer angora products, while unsurprisingly remaining silent on their use of exploitative labor practices to produce their disposable fashion. The pain of sweet, fluffy bunnies was a bridge too far.

I’m glad corporations are being pressured to reexamine their policies around animal products. It is disturbing to witness animal suffering, and the rabbits’ squished and feral faces, their bright-white fur, their long ears, their pink mouths — all these characteristics makes it somehow worse. It doesn’t help that I had a collection of stuffed rabbits as a child; I liked to sleep surrounded by a ring of watchful plastic eyes and alert velvety ears. Like most children, I was a proto-animist, and in my primitive system of worship rabbits reigned supreme.

And yet: I own an angora sweater, made from real rabbit hair fibers. It is silky soft, and when I wear it, the appearance of my torso is elevated by the halo effect (called a “bloom”) created by thousands of tiny fibers poking through the tight weave. It makes me look a bit fuzzy and faded, like a ’60s movie star seen through a Vaseline lens. It is so soft, so light, so beautiful. I didn’t know when I bought it that angora wool came from mistreated rabbits. But I could have guessed. Most lovely things have a higher moral price tag than we like to admit.

* * *

The use of wool in clothing may date as far back as 7000 BCE. For much of that history, fabrics and knits were made from fibers harvested from sheep or goats. In 1993, archeologists found a piece of linen cloth from a site in Cayonu, Turkey. “It is not certain when people first began to weave animal fibers,” wrote John Noble Wilford for the New York Times. “It is likely that wool would have been used for weaving almost as early as flax was, but wool decays more readily than linen and so is not preserved in early archeological sites.” We know that humans had domesticated sheep and goats by this time, and it is believed that our distant ancestors were herding them for food. It is possible, and perhaps likely, that early humans were creating woven textiles from animal products some 7,000 years before Jesus Christ walked the earth.

Wool is a very sensible material, and not a very sexy one. It is naturally insulating, water-repellant, and durable. Rabbit hair sounds far more exotic than wool, and its function is slightly more decorative than sheep’s fleece. But “wool” is a bit of an umbrella term. Sometimes it refers to rabbit hair, sometimes it refers to lamb’s wool (sheared from the first coat of a newborn) and sometimes it refers to fleece from a goat or an alpaca. Sheep’s wool is the most common type, and even then it’s often broken down by providence. No matter what animal it comes from, one of the most important ways of gauging wool’s worth is by measuring the diameter of the follicle. A Shetland sheep has hair that is 23 microns thick, on average. Goat fiber under 19 microns thick is considered “cashmere” (sometimes this comes from Cashmere goats, but not always). Rabbit hair is even finer than this, and rings in at 11 microns.

I didn’t know when I bought it that angora wool came from mistreated rabbits. But I could have guessed. Most lovely things have a higher moral price tag than we like to admit.

Aside from its minuscule size, rabbit hair has other textural benefits. The fibers that come from angora rabbits are long, silky, and hollow. The scales on their surface form an interlocking chevron pattern, which makes them both harder to work with (less friction to grip other fibers) and more desirable for certain garments (the aforementioned halo effect, made when the fibers slip from their weave). Most importantly, angora feels different from wool. Anyone who has purchased an Icelandic wool sweater knows that, while warm and cozy and oh-so-hygge, thick-knit wool sweaters are itchy against naked skin and smelly when wet. Angora sweaters are fluffy and lightweight. A lobsterman pulls on a thick sheep’s wool sweater; a Hollywood ingénue dons an angora knit.

While weaving wool dates back to early civilization, sweaters didn’t begin to show up on the torso-cladding scene until the 15th century. The earliest knitted wool shirts came from the British islands of Jersey and Guernsey. The sweater as we know it was most likely invented by an anonymous fisherman’s wife, seeking to keep her breadwinner alive as he braved the freezing waters of the English Channel day in and day out, and for centuries it was most closely associated with workingmen and soldiers. Women, particularly high-class, fashionable women, did not wear sweaters. While there are examples of creatively patterned and aesthetically pleasing sweaters from before the Industrial Revolution, these pieces were attractive in the same way that folk art is beautiful: They look cool today, but weren’t considered chic or classy by the tastemakers of the day.

The sweater as a fashion item was Coco Chanel’s creation. The French designer famously MacGyvered the first modern women’s cardigan prototype out of a men’s crew-neck sweater. The neck hole was too tight to pull comfortably over her head, so Chanel took a pair of scissors and cut it down the front. She added ribbons to hide the raw edges of the wool, and began wearing it out and about. People went crazy for the new style, and soon everyone was copying Chanel.

The history of angora in fashion is inextricably linked to the history of the sweater. Angora sweaters became popular in the 1920s, more than 200 years after European sailors first brought angora rabbits from Turkey, where the breed originates, to France, where they were raised as livestock and kept as pets. While many kept rabbits for their meat and fur, angora rabbits were also popular companions for 18th century aristocracy. Legend has it that Marie Antoinette kept a fluff-themed menagerie, and various blogs have proclaimed her fondness for Maine Coon cats, Bichons, and white rabbits. (Historians have only been able to document the existence of several Papillons, so the rest may stem from Sofia Coppola’s 2006 pastel-washed movie.) For the most part, angora rabbits in Europe and America were slaughtered for their pelts rather than sheared for their fibers, but that changed around the turn of the 20th century, when sweaters became “a fashion item for women” in a way that they never had been before, according to fashion historian Jonathan Walford. In an email, he wrote:

As women became more active in sporting activities—hiking, cycling, swimming, even hockey—the sports sweater became a favorite, and quickly moved into fashion, most often as a cardigan, The Great War promoted the art of knitting as a way for civilian women to do their part by making soldiers and sailors mittens, scarves, sweaters, and balaclavas.

Furthermore, the 1920s saw a shift in women’s knitwear toward lightweight, clingy styles designed to accentuate curves, a trend that Walford says came in response to the “otherwise shapeless silhouette” of the era. The flapper dress hung loose over breasts and thighs, obscuring the waist and turning the body into a column of fabric. A well-chosen sweater could combat this. Sweaters looked more fresh and modern than nipped-waist dresses or corsets, and aligned neatly with the androgynous appeal of the flapper look.

By the 1930s and 1940s, angora was more popular than it had ever been before. It was recognized for its silky beauty and its utility, and prized for its thermal qualities and its tactile appeal. The fiber was particularly popular with two influential groups of the 20th century: Hollywood starlets and Nazi officers.

* * *

The term “sweater girl” described a particular type of Lolita-esque sexpot. The sweater girl was a study in contradictions — or the epitome of the Madonna/whore dichotomy — who was simultaneously big-breasted and womanly, and innocent and childlike. Hollywood publicists first coined the phrase to describe Lana Turner, who played a sweater-wearing teenage murder victim in the 1937 film They Won’t Forget. In the movie, 16-year-old Turner is bombshell beautiful, and her tight sweaters (paired with equally tight pencil skirts) accentuate her hourglass waist and prominent breasts. In Life magazine, screenwriter Niven Busch wrote that Turner “didn’t have to act” much, for her scene “consisted mostly of 75-ft. dolly shot of her as she hurried along a crowded street in a small Southern town. … She just walked along wearing a tight-fitting sweater. There was nothing prurient about the shot but the male U.S. found it more stimulating than a year’s quote of chorus girls dancing in wampum loin cloths.”

This was also an era when “breast fetishism” was on the rise. Women had begun wearing pointy “bullet bras” that exaggerated their shapes, turning naturally pillowy and pliable breasts into hard conical hills. A sweater paired with a bullet bra was the perfect combination of hard and soft, innocent and sexy, curvy and contained. Even though Turner was underage, it seemed permissible to lust after her, for she embodied a certain wholesome sex appeal that spoke to mid-century American audiences. “Maybe [Turner] didn’t look like the average high-school girl,” wrote Busch, “but she looked like what the average high-school boy wished the average high-school girl looked like.” Turner’s slightly risqué look resonated with women as well as men. There was a simplicity to this fashion — it was easy to replicate the sweater girl look. It was accessible and utterly American. (Busch also notes that the only person “profoundly shocked” by the audience reaction to her body was Turner herself, who began to “bitterly oppose” her sweater girl name, and for the years following her debut film, the starlet refused to wear tight-fitting knits on camera.) Following Turner’s splash as a glamorous dead girl, starlets like Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell began adopting the style and by the 1940s and 1950s, the sweater girl was one of the more persistent tropes in American media. Walford notes that director and artist Ed Wood “always” wore angora as part of his drag. “Fit would be part of the reason,” Walford says, “because they would fit his male form better than women’s blouses, but touch was also at play. Angora has a sensual touch, like silk, camel hair, leather or rubber — all materials that have fetishistic followers.”

While wide-eyed actress in Hollywood were squeezing their torsos into fuzzy tops, soldiers in Germany had begun a focused series of experiments designed to test the long-term viability of raising angora rabbits for their hollow hairs. Angora appealed to the Nazis for several reasons. First, it had a sense of glamor to it — the fabric was associated with luxurious evening wear, and the Nazis were acutely aware of the importance of presentation and fashion (hence the continued fascination with “Nazi chic”). Secondly, angora was ideal for lining pilot’s jackets, since it was thin, water-repellant, warm, and unlikely to cause itching in the cold cockpit. They also planned to use it for sweaters, socks, and underwear — all garments that would lie close to the body and keep soldiers warm and dry while they were trekking across the Ukrainian steppe to wage war on the Eastern Front. In 1943, SS officers created a photo album to document the work they were doing at Dachau. The volume contains approximately 150 mounted photographs, maps, charts, and hand-lettered texts. There are pictures of rabbit hutches (which Stassa Edwards at Atlas Obscura calls “sanitary, modern”), descriptions of their feeding schedule, and instructions for feeding, shearing, and grooming rabbits. This album was “some of the last remaining evidence of Project Angora,” Edwards writes, “an obscure program begun by Himmler for the purpose of producing enough angora wool to make warm clothes for several branches of the German military.”

By 1943, Project Angora had been underway for two years, and workers had bred nearly 65,000 rabbits and created more than 10,000 pounds of wool. Few examples of these military textiles survive. But Project Angora isn’t notable for its material output or its influence on clothing or fashion, but rather the cleanliness of its wards, the purported humanity of it all. The rabbits housed at German concentration camps were kept in large hutches. They were fed well and petted routinely. SS officers bonded with the animals. Singrid Schultz, the reporter who uncovered the notorious photo album in 1945, described the cruel irony of the project:

In the same compound where 800 human beings would be packed into barracks that were barely adequate for 200, the rabbits lived in luxury in their own elegant hutches. In Buchenwald, where tens of thousands of human beings were starved to death, rabbits enjoyed scientifically prepared meals. The SS men who whipped, tortured, and killed prisoners saw to it that the rabbits enjoyed loving care.

The Nazis didn’t see humans as equivalent to rabbits or rats or other mammalian creatures — they had sympathy for animals and valued their welfare. That was part of their mythology; it was important to Himmler that the German people viewed the Nazis as progressive when it came to animal rights. “The thesis that viewing others as objects or animals enables our very worst conduct would seem to explain a great deal,” wrote Paul Bloom in the New Yorker. “Yet there’s reason to think that it’s almost the opposite of the truth.” According to Bloom, the focus on shame and humiliation reveals that Nazis (and other racist groups) don’t use the language of the zoo to excuse their actions or annul their guilt. They don’t imagine people as animals so that they can hurt them more easily. Rather, their tortures are explicitly designed to highlight their humanity. “The sadism of treating human beings like vermin lies precisely in the recognition that they are not,” Bloom argues.  

The very same Nazis who were torturing and brutalizing the Jewish people in the camps were also posing with rabbits, brushing them, and snuggling them. They were capable of offering mercy to living creatures, and they were equally capable of acting out their sadistic fantasies on other people. At Project Angora, sadism lived next-door to tenderness, and I can’t think of anything uglier than that.

* * *

On a rainy Sunday in July, I visited the Kerfluffle Fiber Farm in Lebanon, Maine, which raises alpacas, sheep, and angora rabbits for their wool. I walked among the rabbit hutches and held a Satin angora rabbit named Sweetie Pie and felt her small heart beat against my fingertips. Unlike the farms in the PETA videos, at Kerfluffle, the rabbits are not squished into cages to tremble and squeal and wait for their next brutal shearing. Yes, they live in cages, they tremble, and they are (sometimes) sheared. But though the same words can be used to describe their basic conditions, the substance is completely different. The family farm is sprawling and green, with children’s toys strewn about the lawn. The rabbit cages are housed in an old horse stall in the wooden barn. Each rabbit has enough space to move around — they can hop and play and defecate and feed without contaminating their food or making a mess of their space. The rabbits are clean and well-groomed. I don’t see any oozing sores or open wounds and the hair is never ripped from their bodies, but harvested through brushing. I hear no screams, only the sounds of geese cackling and goats bleating. As I stroke my hands down the back of the angora, I can feel how easily this fur could be removed. There is no need to yank — it comes out naturally, long white fibers sticking to my sweaty palms before blowing away on the humid summer wind like dandelion seeds.

Mandy McDonald, certified fiber sorter and owner of Kerfluffle Farm, began keeping rabbits years ago. She was a lifelong knitter on a continual quest to find the best yarn, eventually choosing to raise angora rabbits because they were more affordable than alpacas or sheep. But even though it’s possible for a dedicated knitter to raise enough rabbits to make a scarf, it is difficult to reproduce this type of humane animal husbandry on a large scale. “New England used to be the mecca of textile manufacturing in the early 1900s,” McDonald says. “But now we don’t have the type of economy where we could raise our own fiber and make a living off it.” It’s impossible to compete with the fibers from overseas, though McDonald does manage to sell some of her knitted wares, like baby bonnets and scarves. “They’re heirloom gifts,” she says.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


“Heirloom gifts” is a sweet and marketable way to phrase it. In reality, angora fur may simply be “incompatible with industrial capitalism,” writes Tansy Hoskins for The Guardian. “In this sense it should be a scarce fabric, rather than something cheaply produced.” She notes that the Chinese angora farms like the ones documented by PETA have all but killed angora production in the U.K. Out of the 3,000 tons produced each year, 90 percent comes from China, according to the International Wool Textile Association. And while there’s growing support for animal welfare laws in China, there are still few laws protecting animal rights and no nationwide laws that explicitly prohibit mistreatment of animals.

But sales of angora wool have decreased since PETA released its disturbing video. In 2010, China exported $23 million worth of angora rabbit wool, according to the International Trade Center, and in 2015 that number was down to $4.3 million. The Business of Fashion also reports that “countries with cottage industries in angora — including the U.K., France, Italy, and Germany — have also seen exports decrease.” Italy, a major angora consumer thanks to their famous fabric mills, has seen a 77 percent decrease in angora imports.

There are many stories about brands pledging not to use rabbit fur but very little information available about how the Chinese angora industry has changed  — which leads me to suspect that it hasn’t. Instead of buying pricier humane angora, retailers have simply stopped using the stuff altogether; it’s simply too expensive for cheap-chic spots like H&M and too obscure to be a true status material for higher-end brands. It’s also worth noting that China isn’t alone in their cruel treatment of these skittish creatures. In 2016, a French animal rights group went undercover at an undisclosed location in France to document similarly inhumane treatment of angora rabbits, including animals that had been exposed to extreme temperatures and plucked so indiscriminately that even their genitals were covered with painful scabs.

In order to harvest angora on a large scale and make it affordable for the average person, it seems inevitable that animals will be harmed. Raising angora the way that McDonald does would drive the prices up so high that few could afford the fabric. A set of mittens from Ambika, a New York–based independent designer whose website touts their humane treatment of rabbits and their solar-powered facilities, will set you back $260, and a cardigan-style coat costs a cool $2,175. The jacket is gorgeous, a white frothy confection made from 100 percent angora rabbit fiber, but the price tag means that this item will forever be beyond my reach. (There has never been a large angora industry in the United States, though plenty of farmers raise angora rabbits for fun or profit. People eat the meat, harvest the fur, and even breed them as show animals; the truly dedicated breeders head to Palmyra, New York, for the National Angora Show, an event the New York Times calls the “Westminster for Angoras.”)

Despite the fact that there are few economic benefits of raising rabbits, McDonald continues to raise fiber animals, including alpaca and sheep, because she loves the act of caretaking. “It makes me feel alive to nurture an animal,” she says. “And I love soft and fluffy things.” Angora is soft and silky, luscious and sensual. It’s also the product of an adorable animal, a creature that looks like an animated cloud puff. A contradiction in a sweater.

* * *

Rabbits are cute, and like most cute things, they make us want to hold them close and squeeze them, protect them from harm, bond with them. This is a visceral emotion, one that can look a little like love if you stand at a great enough distance. Even a Nazi can recognize the cuteness of an angora rabbit, stroke its wispy hair, feel its soft pink paws, and even a Nazi can think, somewhere in his monstrous mind, that this is a creature that does not deserve to suffer. This impulse can look like kindness — but it isn’t, not truly. Kindness and compassion are more complicated than protectiveness, and harder to embody. When we boycott sweaters made from abused animals yet fail to extend the same outrage to clothes made in sweatshop conditions, we’ve falling prey to the dark side of cuteness. When we break women down into individual pieces, breasts and arms and fluffy torsos, we fail to see the whole human, the sensitive teenager behind the sexpot. Cuteness narrows our vision, making it difficult to see the greater picture. Pull a thread long enough and the entire system unravels, revealing the underground abuse woven into our wardrobes and culture.

* * *

Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer and editor based in Maine whose work has appeared in Art New England, Boston magazine, The Paris Review, The Hairpin, Eater, Jezebel, and The New York Times Magazine. She’s also the author of the book Handcrafted Maine.

Editor: Michelle Weber
Factchecker: Sam Schuyler
Copyeditor: Jacob Z. Gross

The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Perfume

Illustration by Jacob Stead

Katy Kelleher | Longreads | September 2018 | 15 minutes (3,859 words)

If given the choice to smell like whale excrement or delicate white flowers, few people would chose the first option. Bile, feces, vomit, and animal oils sound as though they would smell repulsive. The words conjure up scent memories of that time your dog released his anal glands on the duvet, or that summer you worked by the wharf and the August air was thick with the miasma of oily herring heads. Jasmine, on the other hand, sounds like a love song, a Disneyfied dream. Try, right now, to imagine the smell of blooming jasmine. Your memory, ill-equipped to locate scents in its baroque filing system, might pull up something syrupy sweet or softly floral. Is that how you want your body to smell?

Too bad: if you choose door number two, you’ll walk away reeking of sharp vegetal tones tempered by a slightly earthy, foul scent. Jasmine absolute is an oily, semi-viscid, dark amber fluid that is denser and more concentrated than jasmine essential oil. Essential oils come from distilled, boiled, or pressed plant matter, while absolutes are traditionally made through a processed called enfleurage, which involves submerging the delicate blossoms or spices in fat before extracting their fragrance molecules into a tincture of ethyl alcohol. While it’s a common ingredient in a natural perfumer’s tool kit, jasmine absolute smells strange: complicated, beautiful, not entirely pleasurable. It reeks of indole (rhymes with “enroll”), an organic chemical compound also found in coal tar, human feces, and decomposing bodies.

If you choose door number one, you’ll be blessed with the kiss of ambergris, a highly desirable natural substance that smells sweet yet rather marine, like vanilla and unrefined sugar mixed with seawater. The scent reminds me a little of the smell of my dog’s paws — pink and light and animal. It smells like cashmere feels. Smelling ambergris is an innate pleasure, one that even an infant would recognize as enjoyable, like the first sip of sweet milk.

For more than a thousand years, humans have been adorning our bodies with animal products like ambergris and putrid-smelling plant derivatives like jasmine absolute. We apply off-putting materials to our bodies to enhance and mask our natural scents. Like dogs that roll in deer carcasses, humans seek to change our olfactory emissions by borrowing from other creatures. It’s not always about simply smelling good: We want to smell complex, so that others will be compelled to keep coming back, like bees to a flower, to sniff us again and again, to revel in our scents, and draw ever closer to our warm, damp parts.

According to natural perfumer Charna Ethier, ambergris can smell like “golden light” or a “flannel shirt that has been dried on a clothes line on a warm summer day.” Although there are several types of ambergris (including gray, gold, and white), Ethier is referring to her own personal sample, which she characterizes as “soft, fresh, and ozonic.” Ethier is the owner of Providence Perfume Company in Rhode Island, and inside her well-stocked cabinet of olfactory curiosities, she keeps a single bottle of the precious stuff. Next to her 100-year-old cade oil (a foul-smelling liquid made from juniper trees, purchased at an estate sale) and below her collection of floral absolutes and herbal essences, she has stashed a bit of ambergris tincture. The clear glass vial contains a mixture of ambergris and alcohol that includes just 5 percent whale matter. In its pure form, this substance is a waxy gray ball of animal secretion, a floating fat-berg that is “more expensive than gold.” Unlike jasmine absolute, which plays a role in many of her perfumes, real ambergris is simply too expensive to use in a commercial product. “It’s considered the miracle ingredient for perfumes,” she says. “It makes everything better.”

It’s not always simply about smelling good: We want to smell complex, so that others will be compelled to keep coming back, like bees to a flower, to sniff us again and again, to revel in our scents, and draw ever closer to our warm, damp parts.

Ethier doesn’t use any synthetics in her perfume, nor does she use animal products, though animal scents are a traditional ingredient in perfumery. Not only are these compounds expensive, but true mammalian products like musk, civet, and ambergris often come at a cruel cost. Whales have been murdered for their oily blubber and concealed stomach bile, civets are caged and prodded for their fear-induced anal gland secretions, and musk is harvested from the glands of slaughtered deer. Many people know that perfumers build their trade on the graves of millions of tiny white flowers, but fewer people realize they also bottle and sell the byproducts of animal pain and suffering. Perfumers who use synthetic materials are exempt, in a sense, as are those who use found or vintage materials. Ethier’s ambergris is “quite old” and reportedly  beach-found (“I hope it is,” she says). But even perfumes that use synthetic compounds or salvaged bile carry the whiff of death; the history of the industry is seeped in it, and that smell doesn’t wash out easily.

There’s a reason perfumers use these notes. They enhance the floral scents, undercutting lightness with a reminder of darkness. Animal products are the antiheroes in this drama — even when you hate them, you still, just a little, love them. That’s how siren songs work, and ambergris sings the loudest. Once, Ethier made a perfume using her most prized ingredients. She mixed 100-year-old sandalwood essence with ambergris tincture and frangipane and boronia absolutes, two flowers native to Central America and Tasmania, respectively. It was the first time she’d used ambergris, and this one-off perfume was so lovely that “it was like gold-washing something.” She remembers wistfully, “It was so beautiful.”

* * *

Smell is the most underrated and mysterious sense. In her 1908 autobiography, The World I Live In, Helen Keller called scent the “fallen angel.” “For some inexplicable reason, smell does not hold the high position it deserves amongst its sisters,” she wrote. Keller mapped her world by smell — she could smell a coming storm hours before it arrived and knew when lumber had been harvested from her favorite copse of trees by the sharp scent of pine. In contrast to touch, which she called “permanent and definite,” Keller experienced odors as “fugitive” sensations. Touch guided her; scent fed her. Without smell, Keller imagined her world would be lacking “light, color, and the Protean spark. The sensuous reality which interthreads and supports all the gropings of my imagination would be shattered.”

We don’t often think in terms of color and light when it comes to smell, perhaps because we have so few words for scent that we borrow from the lexicons of our other senses. Despite the fact that smell is our most ancient sense — our so-called “lizard brain” is also sometimes termed the rhinencephalon, literally the “nose brain” — it is also one that seems to elude language. “Smell is the mute sense, the one without words,” wrote Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses. “Lacking a vocabulary, we are left tongue-tied, groping for words in a sea of inarticulate pleasures and exaltation.” We’ve had eons to come up with words for the precise smell of fresh-turned earth or the exact scent of a blazing beach fire, and still the best we can do is earthy and smoky.

Perfumers have their own language, but their words have only recently begun to trickle down into popular culture through beauty magazines and blogs. Not only do perfumers and their superfans speak of absolutes, oils, and tinctures, but they can also rattle off compounds like coumarin and eugenol. A trained master perfumer (or “nose”) can pick out precise scents within a layered perfume. They don’t just call something foul — they can pick out the pungency of musk or the reek of tobacco, ingredients that are delicious in small doses but overwhelming when used out of balance.

In my quest to understand the appeal of seemingly repugnant ingredients, I spoke with doctors who study the nose, perfumers who feed the organ, and even a zookeeper who spends her days breathing in the pure, undiluted scent of civet discharge. While they had various theories as to why darkness seems to be an essential element of beauty, they all agreed on one thing: It’s all about context. In the right context, even the smell of death can be appealing. In the right context, vomit can be more desirable than gold. In the right context, with the right music playing in the background, you begin to root for the glamorous hit woman or the sardonic drug dealer.

They also agreed that sex is part of this equation, and it’s the easiest explanation to trot out. But perfumery is also about more than just smelling nice and attracting a mate. It’s about aesthetics, taste, and desire in a more general sense. We want to smell intoxicating, and truly intoxicating things are often a little bit nasty — they have an edge that cuts deeper than simple sensory pleasure. And despite how it may seem, encounters with the beautiful are rarely entirely enjoyable. If that were the case, Thomas Kinkade’s light-dappled cottages would be considered the height of fine art, and we would all walk around misted lightly with synthetic jasmine and fake orange blossom. Instead, we adore the luscious gore of Caravaggio’s canvases and dab our pulse points with concoctions containing the miasma of swamp rot, the cloying smell of feces, and the pungent, tonsil-kicking fetor of death. Beauty is sharp, it is intense, and it comes at a cost. Just as desire and repulsion walk through the same corridors of our minds, so too do beauty and destruction move hand in hand. Whenever you find something unbearably beautiful, look closer and you’ll see the familiar shadow of decay.

* * *

One of the first known perfumers in history was a woman named Tapputi-Belatekallim. According to clay cuneiform tablets dating back to 1200 BCE, Tapputi lived in ancient Babylon and likely worked for a king. The second part of her name, “Belatekallim,” indicates that she was head of her own household, in addition to holding a valued position at court. Thousands of years before the advent of the “SheEO,” Tapputi was leaning in and bossing around underlings. She was a master of her craft, and recognized as such by her peers. Much of what we know about her comes from secondary sources, but the process of distilling and refining ingredients to produce a fragrant balm — oil, flowers, water, and calamus, a reed-like plant similar to lemongrass — is described on surviving clay tablets. It’s miraculous how modern her scents seem — or rather, it’s surprising how little has changed. Tapputi used scent-extracting techniques like distillation, cold enfleurage, and tincture that natural perfumers still use today. She also mixed grain alcohol with her scents, creating perfumes that were brighter, lighter, and had more staying power than anything else available at the time. These scents may have played a religious role in ancient culture, but they may have simply been another way to prettify the body and please the senses.

Beauty is sharp, it is intense, and it comes at a cost.

Unfortunately, Tapputi’s story is a fragmented one — she’s possibly the first female chemist, and yet she’s been lost to history. There is much more evidence available about the perfumes of ancient Egypt, Persia, and Rome. In 2003, archeologists unearthed the world’s oldest known perfume factory in Cyprus. Archaeologists theorize that this mud-brick building and the perfumes it produced caused Greek worshippers to begin associating the island with Aphrodite, the goddess of sex and love. (Born from the magical remnants of the sky god’s testicles, which had been separated from his body and cast into the sea by Cronos, the Titan god of harvest, Aphrodite supposedly walked from the foaming waters of the sea and onto the beach at Paphos, an ancient settlement located on the southern coast of the island.) Analysis of the material found on-site revealed that these ancient perfumers were using plant-based ingredients like pine, coriander, bergamot, almond, and parsley, among others.

These perfumes all sound rather pleasant, don’t they? I can imagine dabbing almond oil mixed with a bit of bergamot on my wrists, catching a botanical draft of scent here and there as I move. It seems terribly obvious that people may want to smell like plants. Some of the earliest pieces of art represent flowers, leaves, and trees. Studies have shown that we crave symmetry on an unconscious level, and we’re drawn to color, so it makes perfect sense that flowers would hold our attention with their Fibonacci spirals and vivid hues. I can even understand why curiosity might compel someone walking along a beach to pick up a chunk of marine fat and sniff it. It’s a bit harder to understand the moment when medieval perfumers made the conceptual leap from smelling the glandular sacs of dead musk deer to dabbing it on their pulse points. Yet at some point, this must have happened, for starting after the Crusades, Europeans became obsessed with musk.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


Like many prized spices, fabrics, and luxury items, musk came to Europe from the Far East. Derived from the Sanskrit word for testicle, “musk” refers to the glandular products of small male Asian deer. These little sacs of animal juice were harvested from the bodies of slain deer and left to dry in the sun. In its raw form, musk smells like urine, pungent and sharp. But after being left to dry, musk develops a softer scent. The reek of ammonia fades, and it becomes mellow and leathery. It stops smelling like piss and begins to smell like fresh sweat, or the downy crown of a baby’s head. It gained a reputation as an aphrodisiac; according to some legends, Cleopatra used musk oils to seduce Mark Anthony into her bed. The size of musk molecules also contribute to its perfume popularity: Larger molecules oxidize slower, so musk’s comparatively large molecules last longer than other odors and allow it to extend the life of other scents. Its fixative property means musk is a base note in many perfumes, even ones that don’t smell overtly musky.

In 1979, musk deer were listed as an endangered species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), so it’s no longer legal to use natural musk in commercial perfumes. However, Tibetian musk deer are still killed for their glands, and a brisk trade in poaching has resulted in some illegal musk showing up online. Musk is also used in some traditional Chinese and Korean remedies, which helps the substance remain one of the most valuable animal products on earth. In his book The Fly in the Ointment, Joe Schwarcz, director of the McGill University Office for Science and Society, points out that musk is “more valuable than gold.”

Civet is a more unknown fragrance, though it also appears frequently in perfumes. Made from the glands of a mammal that shares the name of the scent, civet is similar in structure to musk on a molecular level but smells even more animalistic, according to people who have actually sniffed it. “They have a general odor about them that is very pungent,” says Jacqueline Menish, curator of behavioral husbandry at the Nashville Zoo. Civets are uncommon zoo creatures. They are neither felines nor rodents, though they’re commonly mistaken for both. Although few visit the zoo just to glimpse these odd little nocturnal creatures, the Nashville Zoo has several banded palm civets because the zoo director “just loves them.” (You may have heard of civet coffee, a product made by force-feeding Asian palm civets coffee beans, then harvesting them from their poop. Society, it seems, has come up with several odd ways to make money from civet asses.) When they are startled, frightened, or excited, civets “express” their anal glands, and the greasy liquid “shoots right out.” The scent hangs in the air for days. “I guess I could see if it was diluted it might not smell as offensive,” Menish concedes. “But it can be really bad if it hits you.”

Unlike musk, civet can be collected without killing the animal, but it’s not a cruelty-free process. Civets are kept in tiny cages and poked with sticks or frightened with loud noises until they react and spray out their valuable secretions. Commercial perfumers no longer use genuine civet in their fragrances, but James Peterson, a perfumer based in Brooklyn, owns a very small vial of civet tincture. “It smells terrible when you first smell it,” he says. “But I have some that is five years old, and it gets this fruity quality as it ages. In a tincture, it gets this rich scent that works wonderful with florals.” On a few occasions, Peterson has used genuine musk or civet to make “tiny amounts” of specialty perfumes, and the resulting blends have an “intensely erotic draw.” Customers report that these dark and dirty smells are potent aphrodisiacs. “When it’s below the level of consciousness, that’s when it works best,” he adds.

The reek of ammonia fades, and it becomes mellow and leathery. It stops smelling like piss and begins to smell like fresh sweat, or the downy crown of a baby’s head.

Like musk and civet, ambergris comes from an animal, but making it doesn’t necessarily involve murdering whales. Whales have historically been killed for their bodily products, including their oil, spermaceti, and their stomach contents, but it’s more likely now that ambergris is beach-found since it is only produced by an endangered species, sperm whales. The waxy substance forms in the hindgut of a sperm whale to protect their soft interiors from hard, spiky squid beaks. According to Christopher Kemp, author of Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris, ambergris begins as a mass of claw-shaped horns that irritate the whale’s digestive systems. As the mass gets pushed through the whale’s hindgut, it grows and slowly becomes “a tangled indigestible solid, saturated with feces, which begins to obstruct the rectum.” Once it passes into the ocean, it begins to slowly mellow out. The black, tar-like wad is bleached by the ocean until it becomes smooth, pale, and fragrant. It ranges in color from butter to charcoal. The most valuable ambergris is white, then silver, and finally moon-gray and waxy. It’s believed that only 1 percent of the world’s sperm whale population produces ambergris. It’s very rare, very bizarre, and very valuable.

The human appetite for ambergris dates back to ancient times. The Chinese believed it was dragon spit that had fallen into the ocean and hardened, and the ancient Greeks liked to add powdered ambergris to drinks for an extra kick. King Charles II of England liked to eat ambergris with eggs, which was apparently a fairly common practice among the aristocracy in England and the Netherlands. It shouldn’t be surprising that people engaged in some light coprophagia — smell and taste are so deeply linked, and while I can’t attest to the taste of ambergris, I can say that it smells beguiling. Given the chance, I would sprinkle some silvery whale powder on my eggs, just to see what it was like. (It’s certainly no stranger than eating gold-coated chicken wings — another practice seemingly designed to destroy value by passing the desired object through a series of rectums until it reaches the inevitable white bowl.)

In perfume, ambergris is often used to boost other scents. It plays a supporting role rather than a starring one, for although the smell is fascinating, it isn’t very strong. It has an unearthly fragrance. It smells like the sea, but also like sweet grasses and fresh rain. It’s amazing that something made in the bowels of the whale could smell so pure. If you found fresh ambergris, midnight black and sticky and stinking, perhaps you wouldn’t want to eat it. But with distance and dilution, ambergris is transformed from animal garbage to human ambrosia.

* * *

Schwarcz’s book offers one reason why we’re drawn to these scents, citing studies that suggest people with ovaries be more sensitive to musk, particularly around ovulation. He cautiously speculates that musk might resemble chemicals produced in humans to attract potential mates.

Over the phone, he is even more wary of speculating about a possible evolutionary explanation for our fragrance preferences. “The sense of smell has been studied thoroughly with surprisingly little results in terms of what we actually know. It’s such a complicated business,” he said. “We don’t know why musk is more attractive to some people than others. We don’t know why it smells differently when it’s diluted, but we know that it does.” When I asked whether we like musk because we’re programmed to enjoy the smells of bodies, he was quick to turn our talk toward the “issue of pheromones, which “may not actually even exist at all” in humans, despite our desire to attribute various observed phenomenon to the invisible messengers. According to Schwarcz, much of what the general population knows about pheromones only applies to certain nonhuman species. For instance, boar pheromones are well understood, easy to replicate, and used by farmers to increase the farrowing rate amongst their stock. Some of the perfumes that boast “real pheromones,” like Jovan Musk and Paris Hilton’s eponymously named scent, may contain pheromone molecules — ones that pigs would find very enticing.

But where science fails to offer a satisfactory explanation, artists can step in, providing an illuminating tool to help understanding our relationship to desire and aesthetics. For perfumer Anne McClain, co-owner of MCMC Fragrances in Brooklyn, it is the tension between foul and sweet that elevates a fragrance from consumer product into the realm of art. This is key when it comes to repugnant ingredients, from indolic florals to musky secretions. The indecent element becomes a secret of sorts, a gruesome piece of marginalia scribbled alongside the recipe, visible to only those in the know but appreciated by all. The foulness whispers below the prettiness, and combined, these various elements create a scent that smells paradoxically clean and dirty, light and dark.

“Indole is what makes the scent of jasmine interesting,” she says. “It makes you want to come back and smell it again — it has an addictive quality to it.” Unlike citrus scents, which are one-note and rather simplistic, florals have an element of decay, a whiff of putridity. McClain rightfully points out that this is part of what makes flowers themselves attractive to bees and other pollinators. Corpse flowers famously smell like dead bodies, but so do many other blossoms, just to a lesser extent.

Plus, humans are by nature “just a little bit gross,” McClain says. Like civets, musk deer, and whales, we shit, we secrete, we mate, and sometimes we vomit. But we also give birth and create beauty, and for McClain, it’s this life-giving ability that links blossoms and humans. “I think there is a depth to anything that is made of life and creates life. There’s something inherently sexual in that,” she says. “Even though something like civet will smell gross on its own, it adds an element of reality.” When layered properly with other olfactory delights, this can create an evocative smell, one that you want to return to, to interrogate with your nostrils the same way you might pore over a painting. Through layering pleasure on top of disgust, perfumers can create something that resembles life — exquisite, fleeting, and mysterious.

* * *

Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer and editor based in Maine whose work has appeared in Art New England, Boston magazine, The Paris Review, The Hairpin, Eater, Jezebel, and The New York Times Magazine. She’s also the author of the book Handcrafted Maine.

Editor: Michelle Weber
Factchecker: Matt Giles
Copyeditor: Jacob Z. Gross