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THE GOODS

Luxury on Tap

With a tubload of crystals, salts and oils on the market, the bath is again becoming the way to get clean6and to let off steam

February 20, 1996

Mae West had the right idea when she said: "When in doubt, take a bath." Billions of people take that command seriously, but until recently, Americans held out. Who needs a bath when one can take an efficient five-minute shower? Didn't I leave the bath behind with my rubber ducky?

Goaded by savvy marketers, though, folks are rethinking this attitude and sparking a resounding boom in "Le Bath": bathing rituals, bathing time, bath products are all on the upswing. No longer content to hop in the shower for a quick fizz, more people now want to linger in lavender-scented, rose-petal baths strewn with milk and queen-bee honey.

"People know they live in a crowded, loud, frenetic world and are constantly looking for ways to deal with the pressure," says Kathy Corey, co-author with Lynne Blackman of "Rituals for the Bath" (Warner Treasures Hardcover, 1995). "We don't want to stop that, we just want some tools to help us live more healthfully inside it."

Sales are jumping. At Neiman Marcus, it's "extraordinary; [they're] easily up 50% in the past two years," says John Stabenau, a vice president. Mrs. Gooch's reports "dramatic" gains and Nordstrom says sales have been "heavily healthy."

These days, your soak in the bath can be accompanied by a pretty amazing galaxy of products. Soak in a tub of Jasmine and Ylang-Ylang bath oil or salt-crystal milk powder strewn with rose petals. Perhaps you'll scrub your feet with Ethiopian black lava pumice stone, lie in a tub of steamy sea-salts from Masada, scrub with curry and Scandinavian luffa. Or dunk in a tub with huge "tea bags" of lavender, rosemary, candula, rosebuds and cornflowers.

"What many consider a waste of time is considered absolutely essential in other cultures," says Jeanne Wathier, an Orange County acupuncturist and aromatherapist. "In Japan, bathing is elevated to an art. One cleans [showers] before they take a bath."

It's similar throughout warm climates of the Mideast and Asia: Wathier enjoyed the Balinese bath ritual of massage, scrub, massage, followed by soaking in warm oils littered with hundreds of exotic, pungent flowers, set to sacred music and under the stars. "Other cultures understand the depths of the bath, as well as its provocativeness. Why do you think it's been around since the beginning of time?"

Earliest records show bathers crowding the Ganges and the Nile five times daily, splashing "life-water" onto their faces and bodies. From Christian baptism to the immersion in a Jewish mikvah, where a married woman bathes devotionally monthly after her menses, water cleansing is an ancient ritual.

The erotic 4th century Sanskrit treatise, the Kama Sutra, instructs lovers in the sensual arts of bathing and exotic massage. Cleopatra floated in mare's milk amid ivory and lotus blossoms, and King Tut and Queen Nefertiti used such strong rose baths and oils that when Tut's mummy was opened in the 1920s, the smell of roses was still present.

The Caracalla baths in Rome have 1,600 marble seats where philosophers and writers lounged around chatting about their latest books. The Japanese, Korean and Polynesian cultures revered bathing; it was sacred to both individual and community, where people shared in the scrubbing and washing of each other.

Unfortunately, bathing fell from fashion in medieval times as public bath houses became centers for licentious behavior, and the church condemned bathing for everything except punishment and medicinal purposes. It's said Queen Isabella was pleased to have had only two baths in her lifetime--one at birth, and the other on her wedding day.

Nakedness was considered so sinful and bathing so harmful to one's health the Colonial Puritans passed laws limiting the number of baths allowed per year. Genghis Khan ruled bathing punishable by death and his gypsy descendants still use sand/powder or wood smoke baths.

So you want to take the plunge? Men and women can spend fortunes to have a royal experience. Oils at Neiman Marcus sell for $85 to $150; an ounce of pure rose oil costs up to $600 ounce.

Or there's a simpler approach. Consider soaps, brushes, pumice stones and bath crystals from places like the Body Shop or Mrs. Gooch's. The Body Shop's most expensive item--in its smallest size--is $11.95. Or, make your own series of bath goodies with relaxing mineral salts; Epsom salts cost $2.50 per 4 pounds and rock salts $1 for 5 pounds.

One couple, both lawyers, claim their best time to talk over the day's events is together in their bath. "We built a huge bath, and it takes some effort to coordinate getting in together, but once we do, we can't stop talking," says the wife. "The only problem is if my husband draws the bath he'll use half the bag [of sea salts] instead of just two tablespoons. Other than that it's glorious."

* Bath products courtesy of Kristal and Neiman Marcus.

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