Cleanliness and cleverness come to those who bathe in time-honoured tradition
Winston Churchill liked his hot. Marilyn Monroe laced hers with Chanel No 5. Tom Ford does it four times a day, an iced espresso in hand. And Donna Karan likes to linger, prune-like, in hers before facing the world. The bath: a place of steamy solitude – the keeper of secrets and soother of stresses. If the power shower is a functional sprint, a bath is a pleasurable amble. In today’s time-squeezed world, it’s a self-indulgent ritual that is deliciously (whisper it) lazy and utterly decadent.
It’s no wonder that sybarites are slipping the ‘do not disturb’ signs on their bathroom doors and rediscovering the lost art of the long soak, as Jo Newton, head fashion and beauty buyer at Fortnum & Mason, confirms. ‘We have noticed a marked rise in sales of luxury bath products,’ she says. ‘They offer the potential to be physically cleansing, psychologically transformative, ritualistic, therapeutic, even spiritual.’
‘There is something elemental about immersing the body in water,’ agrees Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History – and stickler for Penhaligon’s Lily of the Valley Bath and Shower Gel. ‘For centuries, it has been a religious rite of passage that is symbolic of purification. Conversely, the Romans experimented with the sensual pleasures of adding herbs and spices, congregating at the communal baths to frolic and further their business interests. Rather like an ancient country club.’
Trickle back through time and it’s clear that bathing behaviour is a historical and cultural marker, a signifier of status – a gush, ripple and foam that reveals who we are and how we want to feel when we emerge, wrinkle-skinned.
It was Greek physician Hippocrates who discovered the healing benefits of soaking in the mineral-rich waters of Hungary. And in the 14th century, Londoners abandoned the ‘stews’ (public bath houses) for fear of Black Death ‘contamination by bathwater’, and nobody splished and sploshed for years. Even in 1963, when Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong became the first hotel in Asia to have a bath in every room, the architect pondered, ‘Are the guests amphibious?’
Modern-day slaves to a 24-hour work schedule might look upon lengthy baths with similar derision. Surely, it’s the pursuit of sloths? And yet, what of Tom Midas-touch Ford working up a lather, morning, noon and night? Lest we forget, it was as Archimedes plunged into the bath that he observed the water level rising and cried, ‘Eureka!’ at the realisation of his theory on volume displacement. And that was without the enhancement of scent.
‘Science has proven that smell and brain function is inextricably linked,’ says Françoise Donche, Givenchy’s olfatologue, who analyses fragrance from a neurological perspective. ‘Combined with the physically relaxing elements of submersion in hot water, scent can help induce a high level of creative thinking and wellbeing.’ So, the balancing rose and uplifting sandalwood notes in Givenchy’s Dahlia Noir Perfuming Bath Gel might liberate the mind from the practicalities of life, and the ylang-ylang in Mandarin Oriental’s Quintessence essential-oil blend might induce a state of euphoria. But, alas, in Greek mythology when Hector’s wife heated him a cauldron of water in which to lick his physical, and mental, wounds after defeat by Achilles, she did so without Olverum – a liquid therapy, created in Germany in 1931, of citrusy verbena to override anxiety, and lavandin oil to aid circulation and ease muscular aches.
Beyond the therapeutic, texture is a key concern. To bubble or not to bubble? Perhaps a salt, milk or scrub would be best. A scattering of rose petals and a drop of almond oil will elevate things immediately. And, frankly, why waste effort on a faddy juice detox when a sloosh of Ila’s Himalayan Bath Salts for Cleansing will draw out toxins while you wallow?
To soften her skin, the Queen of the Nile bathed in milk. Cleopatra’s Milk Bath by The Organic Pharmacy works on the same principle, using lactic acid to smooth and de-scale.
Select from recent sudsy solutions for film-star-soft limbs and the delicate trace of your signature scent left on your skin. Bottega Veneta’s Body Scrub perfects and perfumes skin with its trademark bergamot, pink pepper and patchouli notes. Michael Kors’ Shimmer Bath Beads turns bathwater to gold, enveloping you in a jasmine, sandalwood and cassis elixir. And ever since the launch of the limited-edition Chanel No 5 Jumbo Bath Soap, the humble bar has a status that all the best bathrooms now seek to capture. Add atmospheric lighting and the decorative bottles of Uptown Soap Company’s Salted Caramel or Anju Pear Luxury Bubble Bath for a stylish sanctuary. As Ashenburg says, ‘Within the carefully curated realms of your own oasis, you’re free to be whoever you want.’
So, picture yourself as Marilyn in The Seven Year Itch, light Jonathan Adler’s Champagne Candle and pick up a crinkle-paged novel. Then pity those fidgety power showerers as you sink beneath the suds, because (hedonists, aesthetes and visionaries rejoice) it’s the bather who will win out in the end.