“Even today, when most people think of 1960s hippies, they stereotypically see a long-haired, patchouli-scented, shabbily garbed guy meditating cross-legged in a psychedelically painted room, a marijuana joint dangling from his lips and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” blaring,” writes John Anthony Moretta in his work The Hippies: A 1960s History.
Moretta makes a good point: patchouli, perhaps even more so than marijuana, is the aroma that pervades descriptions of the flower child era. Madonna scented the packaging of her Like A Prayer album with patchouli oils because “she wanted to create a flavour of the ‘60s and the church.” And even modern reboots haven’t been able to completely free themselves of their hippie heritage. Esteemed perfume critic Luca Turin wrote scathingly of a recent offering: “The combination with patchouli feels like sitting at breakfast at the MGM Grand next to an aging hippie on her first margarita of the day - at 6 a.m.”
So, just how did patchouli become associated with hippies? And is it now coming back into fashion?
Following its sillage back to the ‘60s and beyond reveals four main lines of inquiry: the popularity of ‘the hippie trail’; the use of patchouli to mask the scent of marijuana - drug of choice for most hippies; the impulse to get back in touch with nature; and the idea of free love.
All aboard the Magic Bus
On Saturday 4th July, 1846 the London Daily News carried the following advertisement: “Viner’s patchouli is confidently recommended as the only remedy known to prevent moth. In foreign countries the peculiar properties of this Indian perfume are highly appreciated, it is therefore most extensively applied to this useful purpose.”
Before export, dried patchouli leaves were tucked into the folds of Indian textiles to deter moths, impregnating them with an unmistakable, musky aroma. And in Victorian Britain, Indian shawls were all the rage, so the ubiquitous scent soon became symbolic of luxury, as well as the mark that distinguished a material of Indian origin.
Fast forward to ‘60s America and the scent of patchouli was once again being imported from Asia, but this time in backpacks, likely alongside books by Kipling and Huxley and - after 1973 - Tony Wheeler’s Across Asia on the Cheap. Herbal handbook writer Stepher Orr writes that patchouli’s association with the era is “due to the Asian travels of backpacking hippies, who brought home the scented oil and incense as a reminder of their spiritual awakenings.”
The Hippie Trail, promising adventure, mystique and, if you were lucky, spiritual enlightenment, was an overland round-trip of roughly 12,000 miles which took hippies (many identifying themselves as “Freaks”) through Istanbul to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and India. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg's move to Varanasi, India in 1962 and The Beatles’ stay in Rishikesh, India in February 1968 at least partly-inspired many of the journeys.
Mary Jane’s mask
The Quotable Stoner himself - Holden Blunts - writes: “Some people wear patchouli oil just to smell nice, but most are using it cover up the scent of sensimilla.”
This one’s pretty self-explanatory: the story goes that patchouli oil is used to mask the scent that marijuana gives off. In terms of pure usage, it’s plausible: cannabis was a booming business in the American counterculture of the 1960s, with usage reaching its peak in 1979 when 13.2 percent of the population reported to using marijuana in the previous month. But, others have suggested that marijuana and patchouli don’t smell all that different and hippies simply wanted their bodies to smell like their bedrooms.
The scent of soil
“With its wine-dregs smell, patchouli, a close relation of mint, is suggestive of gnarly plant roots and worms wriggling around in dehydrating soil,” writes author Lizzie Ostrom in Perfume: A Century of Scents.
This seems an obvious fit for the 1960s hippy, living in a counterculture that Timothy S. Miller (The Hippies and American Values) has noted for its deeply embedded environmental values: outdoor living, environmental activism and writings on nature based on Eastern metaphysics and Native American traditions.
“Patchouli oil was the perfume that pretended it wasn’t. Unlike those ‘stuffy’ Diors and Guerlains that were made from a long list of ingredients, this was a natural product, which meant untampered with by humans (allegedly) and therefore authentic - straight from the Earth.” says Ostrom. She adds that patchouli - and other supposedly au naturel scents - were part of the hippy reaction against the sanitised landscape of America, with its olfactorily sterile towns and fitted kitchens.
The attraction oil
The hippies weren’t nicknamed the love generation without good reason. They practiced an all-embracing, freely-given definition of love, overwhelmingly linked to non-violence and partly also to sexual liberation. This is where patchouli comes in. Not only is it endorsed for its ability to relieve stress, but also for its potency when it comes to increasing libido.
Lizzie Ostrom writes: “Nearly thirty years before the launch of CK One, patchouli was a passing-around fragrance, something that could be shared between men and women and which enhanced the smell of sweaty, lusty bodies. Though pheromones and the olfactory aspects of human attraction were not yet widely understood, the smell of patchouli was already perceived as complementary to our own odours, stimulating desire. It even picked up the names ‘love oil’ and ‘attraction oil’.”
From free love to India-bound wanderlust, recreational drug use to environmental consciousness, patchouli’s popularity seems like a bottled version of the hippy zeitgeist of the 1960s as a whole.
When creating modern iterations of fragrance, patchouli’s indelible connection with the era is one that perfumers have tried to shrug off. Apart from, that is, Mark Constantine: Lush co-founder and product inventor. When he came to invent Karma, he was directly inspired by his recollections of Kensington Market and the perfumed aura that surrounded it. By mixing a generous dose of patchouli with cheerful sweet orange oil, deeply relaxing lavandin and woody pine, he was able to update patchouli for a new audience and enhance its feel-good, grounding properties. The scent is now so popular with customers that it’s been reinvented as a soap, body lotion, bubble bar and even shampoo bar.
Perfume critic Tanya Sanchez said of the fine fragrance, “A good hippie fragrance is hard to find: Karma is blessedly without the bloodless pallor of so many nature-loving fragrances and without the hippie stonk of headshop oils. Basically, this is just good.”
It seems that patchouli - the hallmark of the hippies - has returned... and good things really do come back around.