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.


Perfume Review: Lanvin Arpège, in two formulations

Arpege bottle on chain, image from toutenparfum

As regular readers might remember, I usually love classic perfumes, and I especially love aldehydic florals.  There’s something so enjoyable to me about smelling “perfumey,” which is one of the things that aldehydes do to a scent as well as giving it a burst of light and fizz, that I try all the aldehydic florals I can get my hands on.

Arpège is pretty famous.  It was one of the classic fragrances that was widely available to American women in drugstores and department stores from the 1940’s through the 1970s, and it was also heavily advertised in magazines.  It was expensive, but not madly so, and many of the ads seemed to encourage men to buy it for their lady friends: “Promise her anything, but give her Arpège!”  I imagine that a fair number of women received it as a gift, and either wore it with pleasure, or wished it had been another fragrance and tucked it away under their girdles for several decades. 

During my “vintage spree” on ebay a couple of summers ago, I bought a boxed bottle of vintage Arpège extrait; judging by the packaging, it’s perhaps 1970s or late 1960s. It was pretty cheap – 7.5ml for $12, including shipping.  (I frequently buy “used,” especially if the fragrance is still in its box.  I’ve had good luck with that.)  

Arpege ad from ebay (sorry, no seller listed)

Perfumer Andre Fraysse created Arpège in 1927 for designer Jeanne Lanvin.  As a birthday tribute to Lanvin’s daughter Margaret (later called Marie-Blanche), a violinist, the fragrance was given a musical term meaning “arpeggio,” a graceful broken chord.  A sketch of Mme. Lanvin’s, depicting herself and her young daughter dressed for a dance, was adapted into the silhouette that became the emblem of Lanvin perfumes.  I love the tender, joyous bond between mother and daughter in this emblem, and the design in gold on a black boule bottle is just beautiful.

A reorchestration of Arpège took place in 1993, streamlining the rich, dense original formula but keeping its structure intact.  I received a mini bottle of reformulated eau de parfum in a swap, and it was interesting to compare it to the vintage extrait.  My little mini is clear glass with the gold emblem printed on the front, and a tiny ribbed gold cap.  I often see this bottle advertised on ebay with the description “vintage,” and the look is indeed retro, but this is the new.

Notes for Arpège, from Fragrantica (and these seem to be appropriate for the reorchestration, not the vintage):  Topnotes are aldehydes, bergamot, peach, orange blossom, honeysuckle.  Heart notes are rose, jasmine, ylang-ylang, lily of the valley, coriander, tuberose, violet, geranium, orris.  Basenotes are sandalwood, vetiver, patchouli, vanilla, styrax, and musk.

Based on my experience of the two formulations, I suspect that the original may have contained a base or two (or more!) that is no longer available, as well as some florals not listed.  I also suspect that the original did not contain vanilla, and did contain a hint of oakmoss.  But like many classic perfumes, Arpège has been reformulated many times over the years, and at this stage, it’s difficult to say just how much has been changed. 

The refo EdP is quite wearable really, even given its old-fashioned aldehydic top.  It carries a golden sort of glow with it, beautiful rich saturated florals seen through the sparkle of aldehydes.  There is a bit of lightness and sweetness to this scent, compared to the vintage – the violet and lily of the valley are quite apparent, and the squeakiness of geranium too.  Rose, jasmine, and ylang-ylang are prominent in the heart, and only lightly touched with the herbal-spice of the coriander.

The aldehydes are pretty heavy in the vintage extrait, and the floral heart notes thick and almost sticky, heavy with that French jasmine that often shocks me with its indolic languidness.  The jasmine-rose-ylang combination so common to classic perfumery is perfectly distinguishable here, even with the enormous list of other florals.  The coriander is quite strong in my vintage bottle, adding an herbal twang to the mix.  I sometimes find the heart of the vintage parfum too loud and buzzy, nearly overwhelming.

As the refo EdP moves into its basenotes, it settles a bit and the flowers stop humming.  Sandalwood (Australian or New Caledonian, I think, judging by the brightness), vetiver and musk are prominent, and Arpège EdP becomes a dry, floral-woody fragrance with stature.  It seems like the scent of a young woman who is described as “twenty, going on forty,” a sensible, reliable person.

Image from toutenparfum. My vintage extrait bottle looks much like this.

In the vintage extrait, the richness continues into the drydown.  The prominent notes here are sandalwood (gorgeous creamy Indian), vetiver, oakmoss, and a very sensual musk, and the entire thing is absolutely beautiful, a scent of grace and generosity and gravitas.

I have sometimes commented that I wished I could merge the top and heart notes of the reformulation with the incredibly rich and poignant basenotes of the vintage.  There is something close to overripe in the florals of the vintage parfum, and at times it is almost too, too much for me to wear.  Usually I just soldier on through the first couple of hours, because I know what’s awaiting on the other side: the most amazingly beautiful sandalwood-heavy drydown I have ever smelled.  Ever.  That includes the drydown of Bois des Iles, mind you, which may be an icon as far as sandalwood scents go.  I do love BdI, but Arpège is just stunning at this stage, where BdI merely whispers.

I love wearing Arpège in the autumn; its tremendous richness complements the richness of the colors on the trees and the golden slant of sunlight across grass in late afternoons. 

Other blog reviews: Angela at Now Smell This; Bois de Jasmin, Fragrance Bouquet, For the Love of Perfume, The Non-Blonde, Donna at Perfume-Smellin’ Things, Yesterday’s Perfume.   Forum reviews: Makeup Alley (I especially enjoyed the review by FlameDancer), Fragrantica, Basenotes.