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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Perfume Review: Penhaligon’s Malabah

The name “Malabah” appears to be a variant of “Malabar,” which is the name of a region in India, the northern districts of Kerala state. It’s also the name of the horse in “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” D.H. Lawrence’s eerie little story about a fashionable family in debt, and a son that rides his rocking horse until he’s sure which horse to bet on in the big races. I have a manufacturer’s sample vial in packaging of hot-pink paisley and gold filigree, and I gather that the whole thing is meant to evoke India. Malabah was released in 2003, one of the few feminine-aimed Orientals in the floral-heavy Penhaligon’s line.

The scent opens with a big hit of citrus and tea, not quite the green-tea note I had expected but more a smoky black tea. This is followed by spices (cardamom, ginger) of the sprightlier sort, not the warmth of clove and cinnamon. A lovely rose note joins in quite quickly, and the ginger/tea/rose accord continues for some time before it’s buoyed up by a warm sandalwood and amber. The official notes list includes citruses, tea, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, rose, orris root, amber, musk, and sandalwood.

I can’t say whether Malabah really smells like India – probably not! – but it does fit my limited idea of India, with its tea and spices, rose and sandalwood. I had been classifying Malabah as a “lightweight Oriental,” of which there are fairly few, but I think perhaps the term “tea Oriental” might be more accurate. Continue reading Perfume Review: Penhaligon’s Malabah

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Dior Dune eau de toilette

Dune is clearly enjoying a revival of sorts among perfumistas, what with all the fresh reviews of this 1991 release popping up on perfume blogs all over the place. And deservedly so, I might add.

I had never worn Dune and had only the most loose memory of it, having smelled it only on other people, and then infrequently. My sister A wore it; at the time, she was in college and I didn’t see her often. I remember giving her a hug when she was home for a visit, noting that she smelled nice. I asked if she had a new perfume. “It’s called Dune,” she told me. “And don’t ask to borrow it. It’s mine. Don’t go buying it, because I chose it, and it’s mine.”

(You’d think that I’d stolen her sweaters when we were teenagers!  But no. She’s four years younger, and we have wildly differing taste in music, clothes, and fragrance. Why she was so adamant about not sharing, I still have no idea. She was similarly possessive about her Coco Mademoiselle a few years ago.)

My sister-in-law E – mother of Curiosity and Primrose, if you were wondering – had worn Dune as well, but had given it up due to fragrance sensitivities of a close friend. A few years ago I gave her a mini I’d picked up for her, but I didn’t open it to smell because the box was sealed. So I still didn’t remember what Dune smelled like. Continue reading Dior Dune eau de toilette

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Sexy Cake

Just the other day I baked a cake. Nothing special, nothing fancy, no occasion for celebration – just a plain yellow cake from a boxed mix, frosted with chocolate icing from a can that I kicked up a little with some cocoa powder, vanilla flavoring, and a little confectioner’s sugar, for the stiffer texture I prefer. In deference to Taz’ Homer Simpson-like obsession with sprinkles, I added some of those.

C’mon… give a girl a break, willya? My days of making cakes from scratch1 ended at about the time Bookworm was born. Too busy. My copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible, pages once stained with my efforts, languishes unused on the cookbook shelf, and every so often I give it a longing glance. Chocolate Domingo Cake… White Lilac Nostalgia… Chocolate Truffle Cake with Intense Raspberry Jewel Sauce (okay, fine, I admit to making the raspberry sauce every couple of years or so, but it’s very time-consuming to get all of those little seeds out of the sieve)… Perfect Pound Cake… dacquoise, Italian meringue icing, chocolate leaves, crème anglaise, spun sugar threads…

Maybe someday. Every one of those recipes is delicious and exquisite, and every one of them takes forever to make. Which is why I’m making cakes from mixes these days, and thus the plain cake from the box. Its humble origins notwithstanding, it filled the whole house with the gorgeous smell of vanilla, sugar, and baked goods.

Which made me think of my sister. This is the girl who used to wear Vanilla Fields and Brown Sugar & Fig, and still loves the Aromatherapy Lavender-Vanilla line of body products at Bath & Body Works. She told me once that she enjoys wearing vanilla scents because the smell inspires her husband to hug her, saying, “You smell like cake! Um, I mean… uh, sexy cake, honey!” She’d rather wear Coco Mademoiselle for herself, but her hubby likes the vanilla ones.

If gentlemen prefer blondes2, do they also prefer vanilla? There are probably hundreds of discussion threads on the fragrance forums (Perfume of Life, Basenotes, Makeup Alley, Fragrantica) nattering on about which perfumes men find attractive on women. Having read a fair number of these discussions, I can tell you that – at least among men of Generation X and younger – vanilla is, apparently, a huge draw for straight men. Women (and men) mention everything from Aquolina Pink Sugar to Angel to Shalimar, with side excursions into Jessica Simpson’s Fancy, B&BW Warm Brown Sugar, and a whole slew of Comptoir Sud Pacifique fragrances.

They might be wrong about vanilla’s man-pulling abilities. But it does make me give fervent thanks that I’m not actively looking for a may-yinn 3 at the moment (got one, thanks for asking, although I might sell him cheap4 if he doesn’t stop leaving the toilet seat up), because I’ve never been all that interested in smelling like cake. Even, um, I mean, sexy cake.

Mind you, I really like vanilla. Give me a choice between vanilla and chocolate ice cream, and I’ll take vanilla every time. Plain doughnut versus chocolate, or raspberry-filled? I’ll thumb-wrestle you for the plain!

It’s just that most of my “vanilla” fragrances are really “vanilla-and-something inedible” fragrances: Shalimar Light is vanilla, lemon, and a hint of asphalt. That Slut Tocade is vanilla, rose, and nightclub smoke. Vanille Tonka is vanilla, carnations, limes, Dr. Pepper, and frankincense, a giggly Cuba Libre party in a bottle. Organza Indecence is probably the closest to “sexy cake” that I own – but along with its vanilla, orange, and spice, it contains some woods and a dusty patchouli that takes it right out of the bakery case. Havana Vanille is tobacco, rum, spice, and vanilla liqueur so clear and sweet and boozy that you think of pirates in tropical waters, not of Mom’s coffee cake.

There’s no sexy cake in my fragrance wardrobe, and I’m okay with that. To each her own.

How about you? Do you:

A) believe that men are attracted to the smell of vanilla cupcakes on women, assuming that you care about such matters?

B) own any Sexy Cake or other vanilla scents? Which ones?

As always, please feel free to tell me I’m a nutcase.

Images from top to bottom are: Vanilla cake vanilla buttercream from ladybugluggage; 3 vanilla cupcakes with vanilla sea salt from chockylit; and Vanilla beans from kendiala, all at Flickr. Image of my sister and her glorious hair from my sister’s collection. My sister has a small child of her own, so for safety reasons I’m not naming her.

1 When The CEO was a kid, he misheard his mother saying she’d made a cake “from scratch” as “from scraps.” They fed the dog table scraps, so for at least a couple of years, he was unduly impressed by what he thought was his mother’s magical ability to turn refuse into dessert.

2 Clearly, my brother-in-law is indifferent to blondes. My sister is blessed with the most glorious wavy red hair – in fact, it’s not red, it’s more a coppery bronze. It’s stunning hair. But no one will ever mistake her for Marilyn Monroe.

3 If this doesn’t make sense to you, try saying it the way Ru-Paul would. You know, not just a man, but a manly man who has bedroom potential.

4 He does laundry, windows, and the occasional decent backrub. But he snores, and he’s obsessed with Republicans and geography. Make me an offer good enough to induce me to discount 18 pretty good years, and we’ll talk…

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Holy Cow, It’s December!

Wow, I can’t believe it’s the last month of the year.  Time does march on… (duh!)
I have so much to do.  I’m really glad I completed my National Novel Writing Month project a few days ago (yeah, okay, I’ll shut up about it now), but I’m very far behind on the whole Christmas thing.  It’s December 3:  three days before Bookworm marches in the local Christmas parade, ten days before my community chorus concert, twelve days before we’ll go get a Christmas tree, and three weeks before the Small People Living In My House will be pounding down the stairs, demanding to open their stockings and eat homemade cinnamon rolls.
I need a lot more time.  I haven’t bought any gifts; I haven’t baked anything; I haven’t decorated anything.
Next project: Make Christmas happen, simply.  I mean, I need simple and inexpensive and easy ways to make it feel like Christmas around here without doing a lot of the work myself – and I could pick up Better Homes and Gardens or Woman’s Day or some other magazine, but that would feel like wasting time.  (Blogging’s not a waste of time, is it?  Please tell me it ain’t!) Might have to go check out the emergency holiday missions at FlyLady.org, too.

As I’m formulating the Christmas plan, I think I’ll start by cleaning up the joint.  (Eek!)  Get all the fall stuff put away, help the kids pack up anything they won’t need over the winter months, ditch the “I haven’t used this in months” items lying around.  We’ll see how it goes.

As an aside, I smelled the Laura Mercier Minuit Enchante’ parfum that people are raving about on my favorite perfume blogs.  I don’t live anywhere near a Nordstrom’s, but managed to hit the one in Richmond a few days ago, in the course of  attending a farmers’ conference and, incidentally, visiting my brother in order to hold the new baby.  (He’s precious, of course. I got to snuggle him and kiss his little fuzzy head, but not for long enough.)  Anyway, I was expecting a big ol’ dusty resiny Opium-like thing, and instead what I got was a gorgeous spice overload.  It spends about twenty minutes in the too-sweet zone, but then it’s a pileup in the spice aisle, with freshly ground cinnamon tackling clove, and nutmeg jumping on top of vanilla bean.  I thought it was terrific.  Better, I got some on the inside wrist of my jacket sleeve, so my jacket still smells great too.

On the other hand, my brother, when invited to sniff my wrist, jerked his head back as if he’d been slapped and asked what I’d done to tick off the sales assistant.  As if you couldn’t guess, he doesn’t care for perfume. Minuit Enchante’ is a bit linear, and seems more like a Generally Good Smell than a serious perfume.  I’d rather have Teo Cabanel Alahine, otherwise known to me as Happiness In a Bottle, Winter Variation.  But ME is a nice thing to see in a mainstream release.  Bottle’s pretty, too, with that heavy magnetic cap.

Well.  I’d better get cracking on that cleaning-up thing.  I plan to be back tomorrow with a review of Penhaligon’s Amaranthine (better known to my swap buddies as Amaranthigh, or Amaranthingy).

Here are links to a few other reviews of Minuit Enchante’:
Abigail at I Smell Therefore I Am
March at Perfume Posse
Angela at Now Smell This

Image is Advent Calendar by laurasjoquist at flickr.com.

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At Home in Orientals

When I was young, Opium was the Hot Ticket in Fragrance. And not just Opium, but Cinnabar, Coco, LouLou, Poison, Obsession, Tabu, Youth Dew, and Shalimar. Seems like everyone was just drenched in resiny, spicy, heavy Orientals that, to my young nose, were related to Chemical Spills, Nuclear Power Plant Accidents (anyone remember Three Mile Island? Or worse, Chernobyl?), and Industrial Waste. Opium ruined more cultural gatherings than I could shake a stick at, and all I really knew about it was that it was, duh, an Oriental.

I had a friend at college who seemed to be going through the same things that I was – we suffered through first year together. We conferred, discussed, and giggled over all manner of issues. And we sighed, in tandem and at a distance, over Smoky Charles, who had stunning smoky gray eyes, and Gorgeous John from the Basement, who was as Cary Grant as a college freshman could be. We liked performing in musicals; we both played the piano (she far better than I); we both sang in the chorus; we loved novels and poetry and romantic English love stories. Suzanne and I dithered over whether or not to ditch our long-distance boyfriends, and rolled our eyes at our mothers’ ridiculous worries. We haunted the thrift store for elegant vintage night wear and cashmere shrug sweaters – which, at the time, were long out of style – and diamante’ brooches. Occasionally she let me borrow that thrift-store black velvet dressing gown with ivory crocheted lace. Together we counseled our friend Beth on how best to flirt with a fun, handsome boy we all knew: Mark ImpossibleLastName.

Three years later, Mark and Suzanne would marry, a few months before the end of college, telling her worried mother that they “just couldn’t wait to live together.” Gasp! How shocking! Getting married in order to have, you know, S-E-X!!

Suzanne had long wavy strawberry-blonde hair, loved Asian décor, and enjoyed making toast over the bulb in her desk lamp. She could make waiting for a bus fun. Her faults? 1) She simply could not manage to arrive anywhere on time. 2) She could be oblivious to other people’s moods. 3) And she wore Cinnabar.
She wore it discreetly, instead of bathing in it as so many Opium-lovers seemed to do, but it was the one most frustrating thing about her. I remember saying to her once, when I was having a supremely bad day (it involved a calculus test, among other things), “I could never wear those Oriental perfumes. They’re so heavy and dusty and strong.”

She serenely told me, “I know you couldn’t, but they’re very Suzanne.” She shook back her hair, releasing a wave of Cinnabar (ugh), and then smiled at me. “Let’s go find something for you.” The Something turned out to be a very, very small bottle of Coty Ex’clam-a’tion!, a straight-up sweet rose floral that I eventually ditched along with that boyfriend (um, yes, the one that SSS Tabac Aurea reminded me of). I don’t regret saying goodbye to either one.

I spent years afterward saying to people, “I like perfume, but no Orientals please. I don’t like them at all.” I had no idea what, exactly, an Oriental was, but I thought it meant, “nasty thing that smells like Dust of the Crypt.”

Fast forward fifteen to twenty years, and I’ve gotten interested in perfume again, now that the bombastic 80’s and the soap-and-clean laundry smells of the 90’s have fallen out of fashion. I rediscover an old love, Coty Emeraude… and am utterly stunned to find out that my Darling Emeraude is, yes, an Oriental.

Oh, yes, it is. And it turns out that many of the scents that I love, that I just adore and feel the most “me” when wearing, are Orientals too. Shalimar Light comes to mind, as does Natori, Tom Ford Black Orchid Voile de Fleur, Amouage Lyric Woman, Ormonde Jayne Ta’if, Bal a Versailles, Parfum Sacre’, Citizen Queen, L’Heure Bleue, Organza Indecence, Bvlgari Black, Rumba, Bois des Iles, Dolce Vita, La Myrrhe, and Tocade.  Whew. And I don’t even own all of those – but all of them feel comfortable and warm and lovely, and in some way like a second, beautifully-scented, skin. They’re weighty and smooth – ornate and lushly detailed – luxurious and beautiful.

Suzanne and Mark did finish college; they’ve been married now for nearly twenty years and have four lovely children. I haven’t seen her since 1999, when Gaze was a baby and Suz was pregnant with her third. We’ve only been corresponding through Christmas cards for years, but I have recently found Suzanne’s email address and will be contacting her soon. I’m hoping for more news than will fit on a Christmas card. I can’t wait to find out what perfume she’s wearing these days, and I can’t wait to tell her how wrong I was about Orientals!

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