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 . . . 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.