Flapper Perfume

The 1920s was an influential decade for perfume, though striking changes in fashion began in the years immediately after World War I. The dust was settling in Europe after the war which had laid waste not only to infrastructure but also political alliances and the young male population, and everybody was tired of wartime bleakness and deprivation. There was a feeling that the old ways were gone and done with, and young women in particular were ready for a change. Gone were old-fashioned morals as well as those complicated hats, hairdos, and long dresses over rigid wasp-waist corsets.

The modern young lady was wearing tube dresses with little underpinning and tank-style bodices and short skirts, as well as dramatic makeup. She was drinking, not tiny ladylike glasses of sherry but potent cocktails in jazz clubs. She was cutting her hair and smoking! in public, yet! She could vote (as of 1918 in the UK for women over 30, and as of 1920 in the US). She could drive. She could — gasp! — possess her own checkbook.

And she wasn’t wearing her mother’s perfume, either.

She wasn’t wearing a soliflore  — lavender toilet water, or a simple floral like Coty’s Jasmin de Corse. She wasn’t wearing a simple floral bouquet like Houbigant Quelques Fleurs, or a soft floral oriental like Guerlain L’Heure Bleue. No, she was wearing a decadent, sensual oriental, a sharp and bold chypre, a sparkling aldehydic floral, or a gender-bending leather or tobacco scent. New directions in scent abounded, and aren’t we glad?

Here are some fragrances that graced many flappers’ wrists and décolletages, and which are still in production today (albeit in changed form). Try one, or a handful of these, and smell history.

Guerlain Mitsouko (1919, fruity chypre) This more elegant take on the chypre is such a classic among perfumistas that it is hard to imagine it being daring, but it is. It has the bold chypre tripod structure of bergamot-oakmoss-labdanum, rounded with peach undecalactone, and it smells not only formidable but also kind of, well, ripe. I’m guessing that those flappers who danced the night through smelled a bit like this on their way home at dawn.

Millot Crêpe de Chine (1925, aldehydic chypre) Crepe de Chine was a mashup of the bold three-part chypre structure and the modern-at-the-time aldehydic floral. It is bold, but in a well-groomed, exquisite-tailoring kind of way. Where Chypre was a little, well, tribal, Crepe de Chine is much more civilized. This is for the flapper who only drinks her cocktails out of proper glasses, rather than resorting to a hip flask.

Guerlain Shalimar (1921, oriental, came into wide release in 1925) It was once said that there were three things a respectable woman did not do: smoke in public, dance the tango, or wear Shalimar. With its almost chiaroscuro contrasts of bright bergamot-lemon top and dark smoky, leathery, vanilla-balsamic base, it is striking… and sexy. Louise Brooks wore Shalimar; ’nuff said.

Corday Toujours Moi (1920, spicy oriental) This one is a kitchen-sinky oriental similar to Tabu (1932) with some green notes, and it is extremely bold. It wafts. It is a Liberated Woman scent very far from, say, the very-Victorian Berdoues Violette. It goes perfectly with its name, “Always Me,” and the attitude “Look, I have my own checkbook! and these great T-strap shoes!”

Caron Tabac Blond (1919, tobacco/leather) There is no tobacco listed in the notes, by the way, but the effect is at least somewhat tobacco-like. This scent seems to me to be an androgynous, “let’s steal all the things that smell like a gentlemen’s club,” appropriation of notes that had been regarded as traditionally masculine, softened by traditionally-feminine florals.

Molinard Habanita (1921, leather oriental) This scent began its life as an additive for cigarettes — you were supposed to dip the glass rod into the oil and stroke it along the length of your cigarette, so that while you smoked, the fragrance filled the air. Leaving aside the reason this was A Thing (you didn’t want Mumsy dear to know you were smoking? I mean, presumably she also knew about the hip flask and the lace step-ins, so you weren’t fooling anybody), Habanita probably smelled good with the tobacco smoke. Here’s Robin’s description at Now Smell This, because it’s pretty perfect: “If you can imagine dousing yourself in baby powder, donning an old leather jacket and then smoking a cigar in a closed room with a single rose in a vase 10 feet away, you’ll get the general idea.”

Chanel No. 5 (1925, aldehydic floral) Perfumer Ernest Beaux’ attempt to recreate an Arctic snow field and Coco Chanel’s affinity for the smell of starched linen combined with No. 5’s enormous overdose of aldehydes, the aromachemical that is in smell form big Hollywood klieg lights. (Maybe.) And Chanel’s famous dictum that a woman should not smell of flowers, but like a woman, played into its abstract presentation, too. (Maybe. There are a number of contradictory stories about its genesis.) No. 5 feels like a smooth marble sculpture to me. In its day it was utterly modern, and to its credit, its florals are still lovely.

Lanvin My Sin/Mon Peché (1924, aldehydic floral) Like No. 5, My Sin is an aldehydic floral, but it is dark and carnal in a way that No. 5 has never been and will never be. It’s a complicated perfume: along with the aldehydes and florals are some deep woods and an animalic base just shy of “Are there mating buffaloes somewhere on the premises?” I suspect that it got worn more often by women grabbing a little vicarious sinful pleasure than by women who were actually sinning while wearing it, but there you are. Brilliant marketing. And that cat! Love it.

Chanel Cuir de Russie (1924, leather) Again with the gender-bending for 1920s gals. Leather was previously known as a masculine note, and this leather-for-ladies boasts the enormous and expensive Chanel powdery iris as well as florals and aldehydes. Fans speak of its “good purse” leather, or its “expensive car” leather, both things that flappers seemed to enjoy.

Weil Zibeline (1928, aldehydic floral chypre-oriental) “Zibeline” means “sable” in French, and this fragrance was intended for scenting furs. As you might guess, Zibeline is heavy and rich, and yet dry and aromatic. It smells very much not of this century, but it is a luxurious scent in the best sort of way. One imagines fancy cars and diamonds and satin gowns, and that ne plus ultra sable, for a fancy party.

By 1929, with the stock market crash around the corner, the general prosperity which had allowed so many young women to taste freedom and decadence was about to disappear, and the day of the flapper was drawing toward a sudden twilight.

What the flappers left behind were some glorious abstract perfumes. Like much of the Art Deco of the period, the fragrances are bold yet graceful, natural yet influenced by humans. Chanel No. 5’s beautiful florals are buttressed on either side by the highly-artificial aldehydes and the pillowy strength of (nitro) musks. Shalimar’s combination of lively bergamot and smoky-sexy vanillin makes it round and memorable, unlike anything smelled in nature — but if you smell it on a person, even now, fifty-‘leven reformulations after its release, it has affinity for skin and does not scream I AM SYNTHETIC! the way many modern fragrances do.

There were, of course, several other classic fragrances released during the 1920s which are still favorites today, but I have not included everything here. Caron’s Nuit de Noel (1924), Bellodgia (1925), and Narcisse Noir (1925), for example, were hugely popular and remain extant, but they are not what I think of as bold and daring “flapper perfumes.” Nor are Chanel’s lovely woody Bois des Îles (1925) and satin-smooth Lanvin Arpège (1926). Coty L’Aimant (1927) is likewise a bit too prim, Emeraude (1920) too soft.  Jean Patou’s Chaldée (1927), as a perfume recreation of French suntan oil (we can blame Coco Chanel for popularizing the tan!), seems to go with the flapper propensity for displaying bare skin, but it was not as widely worn as the others. Bourjois Evening in Paris (1928) is a gentle floral composition. Patou Joy, released in 1929, in my mind belongs to the Depression era.

Mia on the left, Carey on the right.

Do you have a favorite flapper perfume? Do you love Art Deco and low waistlines? Does Daisy Buchanan make your heart sing? (And did you prefer Mia Farrow or Carey Mulligan?) Do share!

If you’d like to read more about how the social phenomenon of the flapper arose, check out this post at We Heart Vintage.

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“Winter gave Spring a miss and went right on into Summer…”: the invisible springtime of 2013

… and in our case, Winter gave Spring a miss and went right on through to Summer.

Which, as a fan of Spring and a general disliker of Summer’s heat, humidity, and general torpor intercut with periods of frenetic activity, really really stinks.

I mean, we had what a lot of people would call an “English spring,” which has been described to me as cold, wet, gray, and windy with dashes of hyacinth and bluebell. We don’t have bluebells around here, and we did get a lot of flowering trees and bushes, but we had the cold and wet and gray. Bleargh. We hardly had any weather which would typify my ideal spring weather, i.e., cool and sunny.

I know, I know, I’m pretty whiny about it. But spring is beautiful, and summer around here is hot and muggy and full of stupid mosquitoes. Gah.

So. All of that complaining to get to my point, which is, I hardly got any wear at all out of my usual suspects for spring.  (Waaah.  Okay, got that out of my system.)

I was going to write about my usual spring things like Chanel No. 19, Crown Perfumery Crown Bouquet, and Chamade, as well as Penhaligon’s Violetta and Parfums de Nicolai Le Temps d’une Fete (though to be fair, that one is really more of a four-seasons love for me).  However, I think I only wore No. 19 maybe four times between March and the end of May, Crown Bouquet once, Chamade perhaps twice, Violetta not at all – though I did anoint Bookworm with it – and Le Temps d’une Fete far less often than I normally do.

So what was I wearing, in the cold/wet/gray/windy? Floral leathers.  They just hit the spot in the gloom and chill.  I wrote about those already, but of noteworthy usefulness were Jolie Madame, Memoir Woman, and Cuir de Lancome.  I wore a few of my white-flowers-and-candy fragrances, such as Vamp a NY and Sweet Redemption. I wore my DSH White Lilac and my teeny sample of the late and much-lamented Jean Patou Vacances.

Nothing new at all, and I think I’d already reviewed every one of those except Vacances, which I’ve given a brief description of, but really shouldn’t have, given that the very few bottles still extant go for upwards of $500 per 75ml bottle on ebay.  (I know. I KNOOOW.  And speaking of which, Patou has given at least lip service to revitalizing a few of their classic fragrances, but Vacances was not among those. Grrrr. I mean, glad they’re doing a quality revamp on some of them, but I SO wanted them to bring Vacances back.)

Whatcha been wearing? And has your spring weather been seasonable, or not?  (It hit 86F today. That, to me, is definitely not spring weather.  Nope.)

 

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It’s raining and I want leather.

Yeah, I don’t really get it either.

It’s rained every day since Sunday evening and is likely to keep raining through Friday.

And I’m craving Cuir de Lancome and Amouage Memoir Woman and Pierre Balmain Jolie Madame parfum (vintage, of course, because they don’t even make the parfum anymore).

Weird, huh? I’m not sure what the two things have to do with each other, if anything at all, but there you have it: I have rain, and I want floral leathers.

Jolie Madame is exactly like this:

leather bootsPlusviolets

 

 

 

 

Leather and violets. That’s it. Well, maybe a bit of gardenia in there too, but that is it – beautifully simple in its duality, but complex in that you get the boots and the blooms all together. Just that butch, just that girly.  There’s nothing else like it.  And be prepared to duke it out with me on eBay over the little parfum bottles – they come up fairly often, but I have a hard time not rescuing all of them, because I would be happy to live in Jolie Madame for the rest of my life. The first time I smelled the vintage parfum, I nearly fell over in a teary-eyed swoon.

Memoir Woman is weirder, of course, but I honestly find it one of the most compelling fragrances I’ve ever worn.  Difficult to describe – herbal, medicinal, packed full of sweet big white flowers, honeyed, smoky, leathery, furry and sexy.

Cuir de Lancome, when I first started to wear it, was an olfactory trip back  in time, to when my mother’s best purse was black leather outside and soft pale calfskin inside, and she’d sometimes let me rummage through it in church. It held her handkerchief, which smelled faintly of her Chanel No. 5, and her red lipstick (Maybelline, in a green case, but I don’t recall the name of the shade), a pressed-powder compact, and sometimes a wrapped hard butterscotch candy or two.   That was back before they started offering a “children’s church” option, where kids could go watch Bible story videos and have a snack and make a craft and bother people other than their parents, and my 10-years-younger brother was able to take advantage of that, but I spent a lot of Sunday morning sermon hours as a kid drawing on the bulletin and flipping through my kid’s Bible and daydreaming.  Now that I’ve been wearing Cuir de Lancome for several years, it smells like itself to me unless I concentrate on the leather.  Sadly, it’s discontinued, and the 50ml bottles that used to be found for $35 a pop at the online discounters are now less numerous and more expensive. Curses. (I’m getting a backup bottle for Mother’s Day, though.)

cattlemanagement
(Nope, this isn’t our working pen – it just looks like it. Image from cattlemanagement.com.)

I’ve never gotten on well with the classic Chanel Cuir de Russie, regarded as many to be the ne plus ultra of floral leathers. It’s got notes of jasmine and iris as well as leather, but I simply cannot wear it. It’s too dry and powdery, and smells not like tanned leather to me but raw cowhide, plus something animalic that could be dry manure, as well as dust and iodine. Essentially, to me it smells like our cattle working pens. And I know I’m unusual in disliking it – I have one friend who describes it as “pale pink kidskin gloves” and another who says  it smells like the leather seat in the most luxurious of luxury automobiles.

Is there a floral leather – emphasis on the FLORAL, please, and please nobody suggest Bandit to me, because the last time I pulled that sample out it went straight for my jugular with a stiletto, and I barely got it recapped in time to save my life – that you love?  (Really looking for something that is equal parts flowers and hide, here, and not sueded, and not ambery, and not mostly-floral-with-a-leather-note. Which is, I admit, difficult to come by.)

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