Some years ago, I used to work in an office with a guy who didn't wash. There is no subtle way of saying this: he stank.

The odour of a human body is complicated. It's not all armpits and stale sweat; most of your pheromones are produced by the oil glands on the scalp, and my old colleague had oil glands aplenty. There is (excuse me for the indelicacy) that groiny smell particular to men - women have their own smell too. And there are feet, and farts, and untold grotty things trapped in bodily crevices. My ex-colleague announced himself with a loud smell before he entered the room, and stayed there for a long time after he'd left.

Oddly, we're very shy about smelling and being smelled. Nobody ever mentioned to Mr Nosetrembler that he had a problem, for fear of upsetting him and embarrassing themselves. Instead, the desk next to him just remained empty, while everyone else brewed excessive amounts of fresh coffee, wore a lot of cologne and kept the windows open. For years. It's the same modern instinct that has us larding on the deodorant in the morning, using air freshener in the bathroom and soaking the bedsheets in Febreze fabric conditioner. Body smells are simply not the done thing these days, so much so that we can't talk about them in polite company, and perfumery is one of the places you can look to for proof. Just look at how we're constructing fragrances - since the 1990s, Calone, a synthetic molecule which has an oh-so-clean ozonic, marine scent completely unlike any beach you've ever been to, has become boringly ubiquitous. In large measure, this is because we think it makes us smell fresh and clean. (Think L'Eau d'Issey, Calvin Klein Escape, Kenzo pour Homme, Aquawoman by Rochas and so on.)

When I was a child, my brother and I had a He-Man doll - yes, I know you men like to call them figurines, but face it; they're dolls - called Stinkor, who came packaged with a little comic called 'The Stench of Evil'. Stinkor was not a favourite of our mother, who demanded we went into another room before playing with him. He had a scratch-and-sniff patch on his front which released an overwhelming musky reek. It was terrible and glorious. Of course, we scratched and sniffed again, and again, and again, until poor old Stinkor wore a hole in his chest. Something odd was going on here; Stinkor smelled dreadful, but his musky tang was strangely addictive. Human body smells, like those of my old colleague, can be horrifying once they've fermented and aged a little. It makes us forget that in other circumstances, like Stinkor's, they can also be fascinating, exciting, dangerous, beautiful and even sexy. I've one friend who loves it when his wife is pregnant, "because she smells like puppies". Another friend will only date men with hairy chests, "because I love the smell". (Why do people only ever admit these things when drunk?) And you've all heard about Napoleon's short but lustful battlefield message to Josephine reading: "Am returning in three days. Don't wash."

Happily for those of us who are brave enough, there are still fragrances out there that don't try to overwhelm or hide our own odours - they pick the best parts and heighten them in dizzy combinations with other ingredients. Caron's Narcisse Noir has a musky, civety base under its heady orange blossom (try to get hold of an old bottle; there seems to have been a reformulation lately which has dampened down the best of the musk). Applied with a light touch, it will make you feel like a 1920s flapper, dancing on tables with no knickers. Use too much and, as I overheard a disgusted younger woman complain in the Caron boutique in Paris, you'll smell like the wrong end of a cat.

Some of the most exciting musks are in older fragrances, and as with Narcisse Noir, many of these have been reformulated because of worries about modern taste, photosensitivity, ingredient scarcity (no large-production fragrances use real ambergris these days) and cost. Eighteenth and 19th-century perfumes were often, according to diarists and the formulae which have come down to us, musky to a degree that simply wouldn't be acceptable today. Cue a sigh of relief from the rock-badger, deer and civet, whose glandular squeezings were employed before chemists started to synthesise musk and civet. People used to drench themselves in musks. When Napoleon decided he'd had enough of Josephine (perhaps she was washing too much) and replaced her with the violet-loving Duchess of Parma, Josephine left a pungent reminder of herself by soaking the fabric-covered walls of her rooms with bottle after bottle of a musk and civet concoction created for her by Houbigant, leaving the rooms unusable. Rancé produced a fragrance for Napoleon himself which you can smell for yourself - it's recently been re-released under the name Le Vainqueur, and it's a musky, civety stinkbomb of trousery masculinity. I don't know many men who could carry it off comfortably today.

Musk-heavy perfumes survived well into the 20th century, with standouts like Schiaparelli's 1937 Shocking (still in production, but better in the vintage version). It's a resolutely sexual fragrance, with its curvaceous bottle and almost uncomfortably animalic civet/oakmoss base. This was still a time without deodorant and before biological washing powders and the daily shower ritual; Shocking conjures up images of a woman comfortable with her natural scent, and aware of how fatally men react to it. Sweat-smells and sex-smells are not as disgusting as the deodorant marketers would have you believe. You don't recoil from them as you would from, say, aging banana peels or long-dead fish. But we're so unused to them these days that a woman wearing Shocking (as one voluptuously sexy lady I know did for her wedding last year) can make you turn your head with surprise - and, yes, shock - at her sheer olfactory presence. Bal a Versailles was considered unusual at its release in 1962, by which date people had started using Dial soap and gargling with Listerine. It has a deep, close musky base, which has the very peculiar effect of extending your sense of body-space by a few inches. Suddenly, other people in the room feel very close by. Even the fabric of your clothes feels thicker. And you feel bold, feminine and breathtakingly present.

By the 1980s, musks had been toned down and softened to such an extent that the Body Shop's White Musk was perfectly acceptable on young girls. I remember wearing it when I was about 12 to no comment at all. Imagine Shocking, Narcisse Noir or Bal a Versailles on a girl of the same age - they'd be unthinkable. Vulgar. Inappropriate.

Of course, perfumers are still producing very musk-heavy fragrances today, but some of these seem more in the line of perfume-as-art-form than really genuinely wearable. Serge Lutens' Muscs Koublai Khan (part of the exclusive collection and only available at the Paris boutique) can, with light application, be fabulously sexy, but is also fabulously weird. There is something brashly testicular and bloody about it - it's like sniffing the Khan's still-moist saddle, splashed with the blood of his enemies, and the sweat and drippings of his loins, after a week's busy pillaging. It's wonderful, but you can't imagine it selling well in a mall. Musc Ravageur, from Frederic Malle's Editions de Parfums, is a clever piece of perfume art - on the skin it is sweaty, round and overtly sexual, but also soft, vanillic and somehow sweet and comfortable. The strong impression of a musk which is bold yet gentle is created by some extraordinarily deft blending.

Don't fear body-smells. In the course of writing this, I've been dabbing most of the fragrances named above on bits of spare skin. The musk in the room has built up to such a degree that I can almost hear my mother's voice telling me I smell like a brothel. That voice might be right, but it's a fabulously expensive, glamorous, velvet, suede and ostrich-feather type of brothel, and I think it smells just wonderful.