I have a reader named Julie who is obsessed with Weil's Mollie Parnis. Mollie who? you may ask, as I did. Apparently, Mollie Parnis came out in 1978, and it seems to me to have orange blossom, maybe Persicol or some peach note, and perhaps vanilla, oakmoss and/or musk. (Emphasis on the "seems.")
I recently got my hands on a pristine mini of D'Orsay's Voulez-Vous perfume, a gorgeous green chypre with tobacco notes and a massive dose of civet. The Perfumed Court describes it as a green floral with some citrus, and Gaia at The Non-Blonde says that it's a "haughty floral with plenty of green, hyacinth, rose and a light aldehydic opening" that dries down to "a powdery green with a touch of vetiver." Are we all kind of in the same ballpark? Ummm, I dunno! That's the beauty and frustrating thing about perfume: it's a wily thing...
I'm encountering more and more perfumes of the "obscure" or forgotten variety that I love and want to feature in my upcoming book on 20th century perfume, Scent and Subversion. But I want to be able to say something substantial about them, and I often find that when I have some notes to hold onto, I don't feel like I'm sinking into the "impalpable effluvia" of perfume (as Italo Calvino described it). I love perfume (obviously), my nose isn't half bad at detecting notes, but I'm not a perfumer or a chemist, so my educated guesses are just that — guesses.
As regular readers of this blog know, I'm as interested in perfume culture as I am in perfume itself. So imagine my delight when I was reading one of my favorite blogs, World of Wonder, and came across this awesome excerpt from Arlene Dahl's 1965 advice book, unfortunately titled Always Ask a Man: Arlene Dahl's Key to Femininity.*
Mother to actor Lorenzo Lamas, this once Hollywood star-turned-advice- columnist/astrologer-paper-doll-maker (to read more about her, check out Bradford Shellhammer's blog) provided a "useful" list detailing what Chic Is and What Chic Is Not.
Let's start with What Chic Is Not. It's not "Diamonds at breakfast." (Damn! I guess I'll have to clutch my pearls instead over my morning eggs and bacon.) It's also not "More than three colors in any ensemble" or "An aggressive manner." Among the things she thinks Chic Is: "A gay dinner hat." "Taupe." And intriguingly — "Perfumed fans."
Really? In 1965? Perfumed fans seem like a thing from Louis XV's Perfumed Court era. A perfumed fan is also something I imagine a Southern Belle, back in the day, fluttering in front of her face while sitting in a swing on a plantation veranda.
"Epigraphs in an undecipherable language, half their letters rubbed away by the sand-laden wind: this is what you will be, O parfumeries, for the noseless man of the future. You will still open your doors to us, your carpets will still muffle our footsteps, you will receive us in your jewel-box space, with no jutting corners, the walls of lacquered wood, and shopgirls or patronnes, colorful and soft as artificial flowers, will let their plump arms, wielding atomizers, graze us, or the hem of their skirts, as they stand tip-toe on stools, reaching upwards. But the phials, the ampules, the jars with their spire-like or cut-glass stoppers will weave in vain from shelf to shelf their network of harmonies, assonances, dissonances, counterpoints, modulations, cadenzas: our deaf nostrils will no longer catch the notes of their scale. We will not distinguish musk from verbena: amber and mignonette, bergamot and bitter-almond will remain mute, sealed in the calm slumber of their bottles. When the olfactory alphabet, which made them so many words in a precious lexicon, is forgotten, perfumes will be left speechless, inarticulate, illegible."
Italo Calvino, "The Name, the Nose" from Under the Jaguar Sun
Please discuss, perfumaniacs. What does this mean to you?
In Black Narcissus, Michael Powell's hypnotically beautiful film about nuns who relocate to a convent in the Himalayas only to become haunted by the earthly delights of their pasts, Caron's 1911 perfume Narcisse Noir is but one enticement to the world of sensuality.
For those of you lucky enough to have smelled the deliciously decadent vintage perfume Narcisse Noir by Caron, the above clip from Michael Powell's 1947 film Black Narcissus depicting its disquieting effect will make perfect sense. With its white orange blossom flower's pact with the devil and one of the lowest animalic base note growls in the history of perfume, Narcisse Noir is a reference perfume for those fetishized perfume terms "indolic" and "animalic" that make some perfumistas look for their fainting couches.
One spring night in 2008, I was in bed reading a New Yorker article by John Lanchester called Scents and Sensibilities. It was a meditation on the difficulty of conveying what he called "taste experiences" into language, as well as reviews of a couple books that did a splendid job of doing just that. One was a book about wine, and one — you guys know where I'm going with this — was a book about perfume by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, the magnificent Perfumes: The Guide.
I was transfixed by the elegant and funny writing Lanchester excerpted and tantalized by the possibility of smelling these perfumes Turin and Sanchez so evocatively described. I'd loved perfume as a child and tween, but my love had lain dormant for a couple decades despite my continued (desultory) purchasing and wearing of perfume. After reading The Guide, my Limbic System, like an awakened Rip Van Winkle, went on a zombie-like quest for braaaaains!!!!PERFUUUUUUME!!!!, and here I am, four years later, still obsessed by it.
As I continued to read about perfume in books (Chandler Burr's two awesome books The Emperor of Scent and The Perfect Scent) and blogs (Perfume Shrine, The Scented Salamander, 1000 Perfumes, Basenotes, Fragrantica, Grain de Musc, I Smell Therefore I Am, Bois de Jasmin, Olfactarama, The Non-Blonde, Katie Puckrik Smells etc., etc. look to your right for the others!), my perfume tastes focused on what could be described as Temporal Niche: vintage perfume.
Don't get me wrong, as I was collecting vintage, I was still sniffin' the new. There was my obsession with Serge Lutens' Muscs Koublai Khan, and particularly with this wonderful category I'd never heard of called "animalic." (Read this classic Basenotes thread to see why!) Etat Libre d'Orange's Sécrétions Magnifique blew me away with its skirting the "bleeding edge," so to speak, of what a perfume could smell like. And Christopher Brosius at CB I Hate Perfume seemed to have a restless, New Millennium urge to reset the barometer on smell to Year One, with his representational scents of Roast Beef, Old Fur Coat, and Burning Leaves. There were many, many others. Trust.
But there was, I felt, time to learn about the new. Turin and Sanchez made a compelling case against bad reformulations of classics, and waxed poetic about certain perfumes that, in their original form, were sublime. Vintage perfumes were disappearing, and I needed to smell as many as I could before I could never experience them again. Thanks to eBay, estate sales, Ye Olde Junque Shoppes, The Perfumed Court, and friends like Leslie Ann at the Miniature Perfume Shoppe and this blog's readers — some of these originals soon became mine.
I had so many a-ha, falling-down-the-perfume-rabbit-hole moments with vintage. A night of sniffing vintage Chanel No. 19 was revelatory for me, in that I realized that a well-made perfume is a Mute Invisible Cinema, with its own mise-en-scene, characters, atmosphere and narrative. Diorella was kaleidescopic in its strangeness and complexity. Narcisse Noir, Bandit and so many others showed me just how erotic and subversive perfume could be, their perfume notes and combinations a language full of stories. As well as being beautiful, these creatures held secrets about the women they were meant for and the culture they were made in, and I wanted to find out what I could. All this led me on my slightly insane quest to smell as much of 20th century perfume as I could, and to discuss how each decade's style reflected the culture it emerged from.
There have been times, including now, when the hierarchy of needs up there in the Madame Rochas ad have placed Perfume squarely before Food, Clothing, and Shelter. But here I am. Two cities (SF to NOLA), one agent (the patient and wonderful Gordon Warnock of Andrea Hurst Literary Agency who believed in this project), and one publisher (Lyons Press/Globe Pequot Press) later, and these years of perfume obsession are culminating in a book that will be published in 2013.
I'm excited about Scent and Subversion: A Century of Provocative Perfume. It will include descriptions and histories of over 300 vintage perfumes, decade by decade, from Jicky to Demeter's Laundromat (2000). It will cover drugstore perfumes as well as haute perfumes. It will have over 100 gorgeous and interesting vintage perfume ads I've been collecting over the years. There will be some history about perfume houses, noses, basic perfume appreciation glossaries, and essays about the history, sociology, and even philosophy of perfume. There may even be interviews with perfumers.
In many ways, Scent and Subversion is a feminist project as much as it is an aesthetic one, because I'm also interested in how women have experienced this art that has been (predominantly) dedicated to them. What does it mean to them? Why do they love it? That's why the comments on this blog, the conversations I've struck up with readers, and the friendships that I've formed around perfume have been invaluable to me. I've learned so much from every one of my perfume friends.
Scent and Subversion is a work in progress. I'm still collecting some vintage perfumes, and I'm still doing some research. I'll still occasionally blog, but I'm furiously working on the book now, so the posts will be less frequent. I may post a question I want to tackle in the book, and your feedback could help me formulate an answer. If any of you have suggestions — books you want to make sure I've read, vintage perfume you want to ensure gets covered (or that you want to send), ideas for the book, anything! — please drop me a line either in the comments section, or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Thanks to everyone who's chatted with me about perfume over these years. Y'all will definitely be getting acknowledged in the book!
I've reviewed Corday's lovely perfume Toujours Moi here on Yesterday's Perfume, but I've been wanting to "hear" it ever since I learned that composer Harry Revel translated it into music in the 1940s.
Revel had the synaesthetic inspiration to turn scent into melody when he caught a whiff of Toujours Moi on a Parisian woman. Apparently, it was only when he heard the Theremin instrument in the soundtrack of Hitchcock's Spellbound that he felt he was truly able to capture perfume's "ethereal quality."
I wanted to hear for myself how successful he was, so I got the 45, had a friend digitize it for me (thanks, Steeby!), and below are the first couple of Corday 'fumes-turned-tunes: Toujours Moi and Fame.
I'm not sure if I agree with the claim on the back of the album that "it is probably the only successful attempt to capture and reproduce...the 'sounds' of fragrance and scent." As fun and at times beautiful as the music is on "Perfume Set to Music," I don't see the correspondence between the perfume and the tune. Toujours Moi, for example, is a seductive and sultry scent, and its musical counterpart? It sounds like the soundtrack to a Saturday morning cartoon, or the background music of an old movie. Interesting, but not perfume-like. Any Debussy piece, to me, sounds infinitely more perfumey.
Just listen for yourself. Do the tracks below for Toujours Moi and Fame sound like perfume to you? Or even those perfumes? Let me know! (One caveat: it takes at least two minutes to download the MP3 once you click on the link. Give it time; it's worth it!) And for your viewing pleasure and edification, I've also included a video of a cat playing a Theremin. It is awesome.
Perfume Set to Music: The "Sound" of Scents (liner notes)
"The suite of musical sketches on this record is the result of a new and fascinating field of exploration by the British-born composer, Harry Revel. Inspired by the heady scents of the famous French Corday perfumes, it is probably the only successful attempt to capture and reproduce with musical instruments and human voice the 'sounds' of fragrance and scent.
Revel attributes the development of the sketches to a chance meeting he had with an attractive Frenchwoman in the bar of the Hotel George V in Paris late in 1936. 'The fragrance of her perfume,' the composer relates, 'transposed itself in my mind to a melodic theme. I was curious to know what the scent was and she explained that it was a famous perfume made by Corday — Toujours Moi. It occurred to me then that if one fragrance could inspire a melody there must be others that could do the same. Before leaving Paris I visited the offices of Corday and told them of my experience. They were intrigued by the event and suggested I visit Grasse, in Southern France, where Corday secures the oils and materials which go into the making of their perfumes. While in Grasse, and later, back in Paris, I spent many hours sampling perfumes and finally the idea for a suite became fixed in my mind. Before I returned to the States I had set down the first draft of a series of sketches which I titled 'Perfume Set To Music.'
MAGIC OF THE THEREMIN
"In the years that followed, I attempted to put the finishing touches to the sketches but was disturbed by my inability to score them in such a way that they would convey the actual ethereal quality of rare perfume.
It was not until I attended the premier of the motion picture 'Spellbound' and heard its magnificent score which employs the Theremin that I found the answer to my problem. The Theremin is a difficult musical instrument to describe. From it comes a sustained sound which is drawn out by moving the hands before the sounding board without touching it. The moment I heard its subtle tones I knew that in this instrument lay the key to the scoring of my suite.
Shortly thereafter, Revel completed the suite and the actual recording took place at the RCA Victor studios in Hollywood. Dr. Samuel Homan, who participated in the sound track recording of 'Spellbound' played the Theremin, with the orchestra and chorus under the direction of Leslie Baxter."
Last Sunday, fans of AMC’s Mad Men were treated to a return of the addictive drama about the golden age of advertising on Madison Avenue during the tumultuous 1960s. Mad Men gives us a glimpse into what it might have felt like to witness that era's politico-cultural changes from the viewpoint of workers in the office of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency, an agency whose job it is to read the zeitgeist for the venal purpose of manipulating people consumers into buying stuff.
As devoted viewers already know, through characters so well-drawn we feel like we know them, we get to see the collision of sexism, racism, and capitalism, and the results aren’t pretty — but they sure are fascinating!
Not only are Mad Men’s characters drawn realistically, the show’s style is also impeccably curated, from the bullet bras we see underneath the female characters’ tight dresses to the opening credit’s "falling man" homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. And style here is also substance. The style details are right not only for fetishistic accuracy, but also to reinforce the characters’ inner lives.
Don Draper’s brand of toxic misogyny is depicted as complex (insofar as Mad Men is smart enough to show us that he is also its victim). In a parallel fashion, his perfect suits and cool and in-control Mid-Century modern office serve as objective correlatives for a kind of surface polish with no interior. Who is Don, really? Or Peggy, with her oddly asexual Mod dresses? Or Joan, with figure-enhancing outfits that serve both as weapons (they didn’t call them bullet-bras for nothing!) and armour? Or Betty, with her flowery ladies-who-lunch style at odds with her icy stares and melancholy brooding?
Which leads me to the point of this post. With all of Mad Men’s stylistic details spot-on, one detail that would interest perfumistas is undepictable via the medium of television: Perfume. What perfume would Peggy, or Joanie, or Betty wear? Or Don, Pete, or Roger for that matter?
Seeing as we don’t always wear perfumes that came out the precise year we’re living in — it’s usually give or take a decade or two, no? — in my answer, I took into account the year this season’s Mad Men takes place (1966) along with the personality of the character and her possible aspirational yearnings.
Betty Draper, a graduate of Bryn Mawr and former model turned “mad” housewife, has since remarried after her marriage to cheating Don Draper fell apart. Betty, mother of three, is the quintessential unfulfilled 50s-type housewife now living in an era on the cusp of the 70s women’s movement. She wants to break free, so I think her perfume choice should reflect a yearning (not yet fully conscious) to express herself, while at the same time remaining “classy.” I could see her wearing Fracas (1948), My Sin (1924), or Femme (1944), perfumes that either through name or notes, suggest a (conventional) rebellion against her good-girl status.
Peggy Olson started out at Sterling Cooper as Don Draper’s secretary, living in the outer boroughs of Manhattan. But through ambition, a knack for copywriting, and Don’s surprising mentorship, she became a Manhattan-based copywriter there. (A copywriter at the same agency, Pete Campbell , got her pregnant in what can only be described as a rape. She terminated the pregnancy had the baby, but turned Pete down later when he told her he loved her.) She’s one tough cookie, in other words. If she’s wearing perfume at all (she wants to blend in with the boys, after all), it’s probably something she just picked up at the drugstore that's not too intrusive: maybe Fabergé's Woodhue (1944).
The office manager at Sterling Cooper, Joan Hollowayuses her beauty and sex appeal to wield what power she can in the office. She’s had affairs with coworkers (notably with the then-powerful Roger Sterling), and she teaches newbies how to work the system using their feminine wiles. In an interesting subplot, Joan seemed jealous that Peggy began to rise in the ranks at Sterling Cooper not as a secretary, but with the male copywriters. Joan, like Betty, is caught between two eras, and it will be interesting to see how she develops as a character. Joan probably wants to smell feminine but elegant, downplaying va-va-va voom sexuality since her clothes certainly aren’t doing that. I imagine her wearing classics such as Arpège (1927) or Chanel No. 5 (1921).
French-Canadian beauty Megan Draper: Former front desk receptionist turned wife of Don Draper, Megan is young, vibrant, smart and sensitive. Her looks have helped her get by in life, but she’s also headstrong and intelligent. The most hip fashionable figure of this group, Megan’s perfume is going to be fresh and of-the-moment: I imagine her in Fidji (1966) or Vivara (1965).
As a bonus, one of my favorite cameo characters: Joyce Ramsay, an assistant photo editor at Life Magazine. Joyce’s job, sexual orientation (she’s a lesbian) and contacts in the bohemian world give Peggy a window into different worlds flourishing outside of her Madison Avenue bubble. Joyce lets it all hang loose, so I doubt she’s wearing perfume. Her scent of choice? B.O., baby! or possibly patchouli oil. My guess, though? The natural scent of the cannabis smoke that seemed to surround her in all of the episodes she was in.
What do you think the women of Mad Men would have worn? And what about the (M)ad Men themselves?
Green perfumes contain notes and accords that are reminiscent of the freshness and bracing quality of leaves, grass, and herbs. They can lift your spirits and revitalize your senses, but they're not for everyone.