The loveliness of Queen Alexandra

Queen Alexandra the Princess of Wales

I belong to that generation who in infancy heard a great deal about Alexandra of Denmark from people who still remembered her huge blue eyes, her bewitching smile and incomparable charm which miraculously project even today from cinema newsreels of 100 years ago. Some of us might go so far as to observe that Prince William’s looks are inherited as much from his paternal gt gt gt grandmother as from his mother. Alexandra rivals even the late Princess of Wales and Elizabeth the Queen Mother in the British royal popularity ratings on account of the conventions of her day setting her slightly apart from her subjects: there was no hugging, weeping, betting or gin and Dubonnet to encourage a woman-to-woman mateyness. Alexandra was ethereal, elusive, remote and revered; yet she projected such warmth, sympathy and grace coupled with flirtatious caprice and vibrant feminity as to make her adored though untouchable.

She dressed to please herself, pinning Orders and crown jewels on at random wherever they suited her best, regardless of protocol. Her fans and accessories were ordered from Carl Faberge; she was famously slim and diet-conscious in a very porky age. But how did the divine Alexandra smell? Alexandra Rose Day, founded in her old age commemorated her love of that flower and Floris supplied both her and her husband’s mistress, Mrs Keppel with their Red Rose. Long discontinued, this was a magnificently petally, velvety, deep soft rose which had as great an influence on rose scents in its time as Malle’s Une Rose in the 21st century. Ladies of Alexandra’s day were considered to be flower-like in their delicacy, their sensibility and fragility – they should be scented like blossoms, avoiding the coarse actressy voluptuousness of musk, civet and amber. A faint odour of flowers should emanate from their clothes, laid up in fresh lavender, rather from their bodies: colognes and toilet waters were still applied to handkerchiefs rather than to the skin or the hair, a practice still considered “fast” – a useful and telling word long since obsolete, alas.

Queen Alexandra would have been well aware of Grossmith’s best-selling perfumes, recently revived this century in their old splendour – Phul Nana, Shem El Nessim and Hasu no Hana. Her daughter-in-law (the future Queen Mary) wore Grossmith’s Bridal Bouquet to her own wedding – an occasion on which it was noted that Alexandra looked lovelier than the bride. Houbigant, Guerlain and Piver would have been familiar names to her. She lived long enough to smell Chanel No 5 and the baroque splendours of Caron even if she was too much of a Victorian to have worn them. But after the rose, the flower most traditionally associated with Alexandra is the violet – in the style of her day she pinned huge corsages of them to her clothes, carried bouquets of them in public and incorporated velvet and silk violets in her toques – the convention of royal ladies not obscuring their faces by wide brimmed head gear being already well established. Besides, as her mother-in-law Queen Victoria waspishly observed, “Darling Alix has the tiniest head I have ever seen” so that Alexandra was well aware of the flattering appearance of small, high turbans. She moved in a mist of Parma violet cologne, sheer silks and lace,the perfection of Edwardian womanhood.

Her rooms at Sandringham and Buckingham palace were crammed with roses, violets and azaleas. Faberge also recreated her favourite plants in crystal, gold and precious stones. Her favourite floral scents would have scented her gloves and rice powder for the face. I wonder whether this well-known fascination of the nation’s favourite old lady (she died at 80 in 1925) for these fragrances led to them for so long after her death to be considered old-fashioned and demode. And then quite suddenly, around ten years ago, the tide turned again and rose and violet perfumes came back, firstly via the niche perfumers and then amongst the commercial houses. One of the most opulent and most artful is Lipstick Rose, in the Malle collection – here Ralf Schwieger triumphantly updates the accord, introducing a violet-rose perfume with fruity aldehydic notes of immense vibrancy and panache, but still displaying a retro powderiness and floral poignancy that is the quintessence of Alexandra.

Image from Wikipedia

Happy The Bride

Bridal Bouquets, Perfumes for Brides

Consider the flowers you will be carrying and the bouquet: do you wish to team your scent with these or to complement them with your perfume?

If you are planning to marry this spring or summer it is by no means too soon to start thinking about what fragrance you intend to wear on the Day of Days: as we have observed before, one of the most important factors in choosing a new scent is to allow ample time. For your wedding the final choice to be absolutely spot on: your perfume will be as important as the dress and your hair, and so here are a few hints and tips to enable you to find the perfect scent.

1. However lovely the scent may be, remember that the bride is the star of the show, not her fragrance. Her scent must frame her, enhance her, empower her – not overwhelm or distract attention. Never choose a novelty scent or something “amusing” or garish for the wedding day.

2. Match the perfume to the style of the wedding: are you inviting 1000 guests to a cathedral or 6 intimate friends to your garden or registry office? Your dress: a satin crinoline and Chantilly lace veil or cotton frock?

3. Leading on from the above: will you be changing between ceremony and reception? or after the reception for another evening function? Do you therefore require more than one scent?

4. Are you searching for a special scent just to be worn for the wedding day and perhaps reserved thereafter for anniversaries and very special sentimental occasions? Or are you celebrating the beginning of a new life by inaugurating a new signature scent?

5. What season/climate are you marrying in? What are your expectations of the temperature and the weather? Remember that the scent of perfume will swell in warmer weather and diminish in cold.

6. Secure samples of all likely choices to try out for a day or two: this you be doing in any case with all perfume purchases but for your wedding day you must ensure that the perfume you wear will be absolutely right: you should feel completely comfortable in it. It must make you feel marvellous and with no reservations whatsoever.

7. Consider the flowers you will be carrying and the bouquet: do you wish to team your scent with these or to complement them with your perfume?

8. Make the perfume your own choice. Take advice from friends by all means – then ignore it. I honestly believe that everyone is better to shop for perfume ALONE, without those well meant recommendations and hints of your nearest and dearest. Take time out for yourself and shop in thoughtful peace and quiet, with the help of an expert.

9. Within reasonable limits, choose a perfume with good lasting power and tenacity – you need a scent that will last well without repeated applications. Failing this, select a scent which is available in small bottles so that you can secrete one about your person during the celebrations.

10. Avoid olfactory clashes with bridesmaids and groom! The bride has the starring role: everyone else in her retinue should “dress down”.

Image from Flowersbydesign.net

Dream Factories

We know scent and smell have legendary properties in stimulating our memories: I was amazed and greatly moved this weekend to inadvertently recreate a smell that I had lost touch with decades ago. A liberal polishing of the dining room furniture followed by a generous dousing of the room with cedar perfume was laid down to soak for an hour and on re-entering the room I was transported to my grandmother’s house of 55 years ago, the scent of which I had consciously long since forgotten: but it surged back, like an emotional tidal wave with all its associations – the wine velvet curtains; the bolts of wartime black out material (invaluable for dressing up as Anne Boleyn, vicars, the public executioner); the curious smell of an Edwardian can-opener and concomitant traces of tinned grapefruit juice; fifteen minutes of television twice weekly; the slightly sinister innards of the two grandfather clocks; and the faintest hint of horseradish.

And that last note led my memories on to the school library, ten years later, where the dessicated dusty leather book covers and dried ink seemed to emanate a century of Victorian roast beef dinners.

No wonder that perfume shops and fragrance departments in the big stores are such strange, exotic and other-worldly places: crystalline caverns where the emotions, memories, impulses and desires are in a constant state of arousal and stimulation, in a precarious state of control, as unruly, instinctive and feral as ill-trained dogs. Working in such an environment or visiting such magical environments are akin to intensive visits to an over-enthusiastic and prodigal aromatherapist: staff and clients alike need to plan and prepare if they are not to be overwhelmed. Open a window; and “take your heart in both hands”, as the old song says. This is why we have always advised patience and time as key tools for scent selection; as the late great Mona di Orio always said, since a beautiful perfume is created by instinct, so must it be chosen in the same way.

And instinct needs clear channels and confidence in oneself: a freeing of the mind, a delicate concentration, a sublimation of the mundane. Instinct is not impulse, it is recognition of what is right. Rigid self-control and for the beginner expert advice is essential to clear the decks and enable you to smell minimally: grabbing at every bottle in sight is fun but leads to disaster. Ponder on what you desire – whether is be reassurance, self-confidence, sexual allure, the reflection of a loved one or idol, the evocation of place, the finishing touch to a new outfit. Analyse yourself, not the perfume. Watch, wait and listen like the old road safety ads. Wait the perfume out, watch it go through all its phases and tricks, observe what it does to your heart and mind…then pounce!