My first love is women’s history – much of it hidden or lost. You can tell a lot about a culture or an era by what it deems acceptable for women. And as a historical novelist, I can confirm, you don’t spend long in the past without comparing it to the present.
Last year, increasingly frustrated by the lack of recognition for female historical figures and spurred on by the inexplicably controversial nature of putting a woman on a banknote, I created a perfume to memorialise the past’s amazing women.
I love the idea of perfume as a statement. Historically, memorialising someone means naming a place or raising a statue. In the UK only 15% of statues are to female figures – and most of those to Queen Victoria. Somehow, it seemed to me, we were missing a trick. But maybe the answer wasn’t more statues. Perfume is an ideal vehicle for remembrance – how many scents take you back instantly to a particular place and time? The best things in life are experiential. A taste. A touch. A whiff of rebellion. Something you can carry with you.
The resulting company, REEK, launched this August. Its first scent is called DAMN REBEL BITCHES in memory of the Jacobite women, who were abused in the press of the day and particularly by the Duke of Cumberland who sent troops to subdue the ‘damn rebel bitches’ after 1745 uprising with orders to rape at will. Maggie Craig’s book of the same name put flesh on the bones of these extraordinary women. My favourite, Lady Nithsdale, broke her husband out of the Tower of London in 1716 by dressing him in drag. There is, of course, no statue to her.
I chose the Jacobites because they were so subversive. I wanted to honour the long tradition of heroines who had shocked. The word ‘feminist’ is sometimes overused and not always agreed upon but from my endless reading of history, one thing became clear – change only becomes possible when someone does something that seems shocking at the time. The Jacobite women fitted that bill.
The world of perfume is notoriously sexist. The first prominent female perfumer was Germaine Cellier who broke into the industry through sheer determination in the mid-20th century. Later, when Patricia de Nicolaï wanted to work in Paris, the fact she was part of the Guerlain family didn’t help her combat the industry’s naiscent gender bias. So there was no question I wanted a female perfumer.
When Sarah McCartney, an award-winning, artisan perfumer agreed to mix for REEK, it was a landmark. Unlike many brands, I wanted to be transparent about who mixed the scent and why. The perfume had to have meaning all the way through – and Sarah chose scents that would have been familiar in the lives of the Jacobites – malt (brewing was women’s work) and clary sage (prominent in women’s medicine at the time) were key notes along with blood orange (a new arrival in Scotland at the time) and hazelnut (a key part of the Highland diet at the time).
As the project continued, I became increasingly aware of doctored images of women and of huge budgets spent to sell a fantasy that plays on women’s insecurities. So for me, ethical practice didn’t stop at the ‘vegan’ and ‘cruelty free’ tags. When it came to shooting campaign images for DAMN REBEL BITCHES, there was no question of doing anything other than taking a stand. We chose models from size 8 to 22. The youngest was in her 20s. The oldest, almost 80. They had underarm hair, wrinkles, curves and creases, they were heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian and trans. We did not retouch the images. To me, it seems obvious that one size does not fit all – why should we pretend that it does?
Last month, unveiling the images publicly, I hadn’t realised how shocking they were in the face of a billion-pound industry that sells a sanitised and unattainable version of female beauty. While some women found the images liberating, others were offended. ‘This looks like a pig,’ one woman said of a size 10 model, aged 24. For hours it felt the REEK office was sieged by a body-shaming social media army. It was particularly telling that some of those criticising the pictures seemed to feel guilty. ‘It seems a little real,’ one woman posted, with what we took as a twinge of regret.
Like the Jacobites, we were unrepentant. That day we put, right at the top of the site, in large red letters ‘Bitches Unite’. Oh, and amidst the uproar, the good news is, we sold plenty of perfume! At one point the site actually crashed.
But REEK. was always about more than that. So in the days after the uproar over our images, we started a sticker campaign. We printed a thousand to start with and gave them away free. Only a few weeks later they’ve been turning up all over the world. We don’t put our web address on the stickers – we put campaigns for our Damn Rebel Bitches to be proud of. ‘Fuck the pay gap’ or ‘we repeal the 8th’ – women’s issues, because we’re not being memorialised and often, it feels, we’re not being listened to.
I met my MP recently on a train. She told me she wears Damn Rebel Bitches in the House of Commons. I like that. It turns out that there are a lot of Damn Rebel Bitches out there. So I say it again, Bitches Unite. Spray on a little rebellion and join us!
Photographs: Bethany Grace