“When I was a girl,” my dear grandmother used to say, lighting a cigarette and plying her lipstick, “no decent woman could be seen to do this”. She was a late Victorian though hated to admit it, and so already in her twenties and a nurse when the universal smoking vogue swept the West. It was the First World War that gave the cigarette trade such an impetus: civilians felt an empathetic bonding with the men at the Front by adopting an essentially military habit. This cheap palliative for the nerves now leapt the class barriers; widely recommended by doctors as a nerve tonic and bracer, it opened the lungs and gave the shy something to do with their hands. An aspirin and a cigarette: the green tea and Yakult of their day.
George V and Queen Mary and all their children were enthusiastic smokers; the hero-padre Woodbine Willie handed out fags to the troops; one of the most widely reproduced portraits of the then Prince of Wales shows him with a gasper glued to his grinning lower lip. Strange now to imagine Prince William thus. The entertainments in the music halls and cinemas were seen through a thick blue haze of cigarette smoke; it was said to deter the moth, discourage germs and the ash good for the carpet.
Superstitions were invented and fostered by the match and cigarette industry to boost sales: if you lit a cigarette from a candle, a sailor would drown; the 3rd person to light a cigarette from the same match would die. Warner Bros even made a talkie about that one – Three On A Match.
For on the films smoking was presented as the acme of sophistication: in the days before cork tips, many an actress made a very sexy trick of picking loose threads of tobacco from her tongue as she vamped the hero: Garbo in Mata Hari does it with blush-making eroticism. The idea of Bette Davis, Bogart or Dietrich “sans cigarette” is almost impossible; Gloria Swanson’s bizarre holder is woven into the script of Sunset Boulevard, a motif of sexual entrapment, and the addiction of fame. A husky smoky voice – Dietrich, Bacall, Bankhead – could also be yours if you kept puffing. What girl could resist? Or what man fail to pick up on the virile and phallic connotations exhaled by Gable, Flynn and Gary Cooper, smoking their heads off as they took the world and women by storm?
So it was only a matter of time before smoking hit the perfume industry – and how – starting with Caron’s revolutionary Tabac Blond in 1919, an ambisexual dark golden “sit up and see me” scent based the fragrance on raw tobacco, and never off the market since. A considerable part of its appeal is the artfulness with which (if you are a smoker, or keeping company with one) it transmutes the smell of smoke into a perfume of its own, adding a third fragrant odour to your aura. Then in 1924 Molinard came up with Habanita, a blend of sweaty vetiver, fleshy white jasmine …and the scent of the hot dusty cigar factories of Havana. Black as the tropical night, almost embarrassingly seductive. Tabu played with the tobacco note; so did Knize Ten incorporating it with leather, thereby pioneering another perfume family, besides iconographing images of contemporary militarism and celebrating the new social and political emancipation of women. But how apt that true to the illusions of perfumery and the movies, tobacco itself is not actually used in these scents: they depend on an accord of patchouli, hay, honey, beeswax, amber and woods
And the trend continues today; but with the difference that smoking is now officially perceived as something low-down, unhealthy, wicked and dangerously anti-social. A wittily subversive perfume like Jasmin + Cigarettes references this with tongue in cheek brio. A saucy combination of smoke and jasmine, that most ambiguous of floral oils with a built-in grubby sexuality; a suggestion of (horrors) smoking in bed…and not alone, at that; the hay note comes through, complemented by an unexpected odour of apricots – connotations of warm, nude skin. So a kaleidoscope of images, including once more the cinematic, is rounded off by a suggestion of that most delicious ciggie of all: on a hot beach, enhanced by salt sea air.
As a veteran said on film, remembering Woodbine Willie: “I wish he were here now!”
Image from cfrankdavis.wordpress.com