Quelques Fleurs: The Fountain of Youth

Do you remember that chapter in What Katy Did in which the Carr children spend the afternoon with a picnic in their secret retreat of “Paradise”, each explaining her ambitions for the future? Clover says she will have a pond of eau de cologne (changed to “scent’ in modern editions)in her backyard into which passers by may dip their handkerchiefs. The most enthusiastic proponent of Houbigant’s Quelques Fleurs that I ever knew was rather like this: she was tall, lovely and stately like a child’s best wax doll, with enormous blue eyes and cascades of ringleted hair. She had this alluring fantasy about her wedding: dressed in white and mauve (the colours of the packaging) in a cathedral filled with fountains of Quelques Fleurs, the aisle running with conduits of the perfume; all the guests to be sprayed with it on arrival and given bottles as wedding favours. Her child-size bouquet would be a plantation of every flower represented in the scent. Customers listened entranced and she shifted a lot of stock.

Houbigant had been in business for nearly two centuries before hitting the jackpot with this scent that has become their signature and trademark. They began trading in Paris in 1774, the year of the accession of Louis XVI and the nineteen year old Marie Antoinette who marked the start of her reign with an orgy of compulsive shopping and decoration of her person. Naturally, tradespeople generally came out to Versailles rather than the Queen go to the shops; but Marie Antoinette caused great offence to her courtiers by receiving her modistes, jewellers and perfumers in her private apartments, those dark and gilded little cupboards that can still be seen today, hidden behind the cavernous State Rooms, and to which even the greatest nobles  in France were not admitted.

In a way one might see this as an important milestone in the development of retail: the tradesman for the first time (and in this case with the ringing endorsement of royal patronage) not only seeing himself as a creative artist but also being treated as one. Marie Antoinette’s couturiere Rose Bertin bossed the Queen as she did all her clients, and the royal hairdresser,Leonard, was indulged in all his caprices. Indeed it was Marie Antoinette’s fatal trust in him that was to be one of the many factors which contributed to the failure of the royal family to escape France during the Revolution. This new reverence for the  creators of style (to be enhanced by the attitudes of Marie Antoinette’s Imperial successors, Josephine and Eugenie) was perhaps as important as the 19th century’s innovations of the department store and the decent public lavatory. The latter enabled elaborately and impractically dressed ladies to stay away from home all day if the fancy took them: a breakthrough in the art of shopping.

Quelques Fleurs first hit the shops in 1912, within a few months of another two legends, L’Heure Bleue and Narcisse Noir. After 198 years in the business, this creation by Robert Bienaime was Houbigant’s greatest coup, never since surpassed, and hailed by some authorities as the first multi-floral fragrance bouquet – the “Grand Hotel” of scent. A mixture of flowers, rather than a single floral note with or without woody and animalic accords. It coasted along over the years as long-lived perfumes do, undergoing various formulaic adjustment, attributes and price points: regarded in the 1940’s as the only respectable scent for débutantes, it had fallen to the lower end of the chemist’s range by the mid-70’s before making a triumphant come-back in the early 90’s – cleaned, varnished,restored and re-framed like a French old master.

How closely today’s version resembles that of the original it is hard to say but it certainly has the indefinable but authentic feel of Edwardiana: essentially BIG, like those padded pompadour hairstyles and vast hats which now look so poignant and incongruous in blurred photographs of the Titanic’s traumatised survivors. All the original notes are intact. Quelques Fleurs has a green appley freshness lacking in its contemporaries but it displays the same thick, dense quality of musky slightly dusty richness and gravitas: despite its inspired name it is not a playful scent – “this is not a toy”! Notes of lilac, lily of the valley, rose and jasmine pile up as on the shelves of a gorgeous conservatory topped with violets and orchid. A fascinating and magnificent centenary scent for 2012.

Image scanned from an advert supplied by Houbigant.

After the Ball is Over…

I have written before on this page of my experiences with Jean Desprez‘s Bal a Versailles: today I thought it might be instructive to consider the scents of the Chateau de Versailles in its heyday and see how they compare with the perfumer’s glorious fantasy. Built by the Sun King in the mid-17th century and added to by his successors the vast palace was once the envy of monarchs the world over: thousands of courtiers, guards and servants surrounded the Kings and Queens of France as they lived a life of almost entirely public magnificence; dressing, eating, sleeping, even giving birth in front of a gawping and by no means uncritical audience. Versailles with its huge park and gardens was the seat of government, a hunting ground, a theatre, housing complex, shopping centre, canteen and to some extent a bordello. Filles de joie were hustled off the premises if found touting for trade in the Grande Galerie, but Louis XV maintained his own discreet private establishment, the Parc aux Cerfs, in the town.
So there pervaded overall a very rich miasma. Not least from the kitchens which catered for the needs of all these people, and the fires which not very successfully heated the hundreds of rooms: in the winter of 1709 ink froze in the ink wells and wine on the dining tables. The Royal Family lit their rooms with beeswax candles but others would have made do with tallow, which smoked dreadfully and stank. From the stables came the pungent odour of innumerable horses kept for the hunt, travel, transportation and work in the park. The manure was ploughed back into the vegetable gardens and the flower parterres. Louis XIV was not a patient man (‘I almost had to wait’) and insisted on a system of instant gardening: rather than waiting for flowers and trees to grow they would be transplanted in pots in full bloom and shoved into beds. Some lived, some not: there were always plenty more to take their place. We hear of one occasion when the scent of thousands of hyacinths and tuberoses proved so strong in the heat that visitors retreated, faint and sickened. Inside the palace blossoming orange trees stood in silver tubs, and as can be seen in the Wallace Collection today, exquisite Sevres porcelain containers were used as incense-burners and to store pot pourri.
Bad smells were a constant misery: it is debatable how often people washed then. Presumably as today, some more than others. (Did you read that grim survey that revealed that some 20% of modern Britons change their sheets only quarterly?). Visitors to modern Versailles can inspect Louis XV’s bathroom (tastefully painted with bullrushes) and that of Marie Antoinette, who for modesty’s sake bathed in a robe which covered her from neck to ankle. But of course there were no deodorants and only primitive soap (often made of animal fats) to deal with the dreadful problem of sweat: the summer heat must have been an ordeal. No wonder exercise was usually taken after dusk, in the cool of the evening. Women’s chemises were cut very voluminously to absorb the abundant perspiration that accumulated under their steel or whalebone stays: men tended to use their long shirt tails as – what shall we say?- protection for the inside of their breeches. No knickers. And these were the super-rich and fashionable. Of course, until the 1780’s when washable cottons and muslins started to become fashionable, there was no way of laundering one’s outer garments. Velvet, brocade, taffeta and satin had to make do with a good brushing and a kind of primitive dry cleaning with rice powder and spices. There would also have been the stench of dirty hair (and false hair, too): washing was rare because considered injurious to health, and the elaborate coiffures of the period relied heavily on applications of bear grease to hold things in place.
Bear in mind, too, animal life other than the horses: indoors there would have been a great many pets – dogs, cats, parrots, and of course monkeys, not all of them house-trained. Royalty also relied on goats, cows and ewes being brought to their apartments to supply fresh milk at source. The dreadful diseases prevalent then emitted their own odours – the terrible smells tormenting the last days of both Louis X1V and Louis XV are notorious. Vile medical procedures of the day called for reeking animal ingredients (fresh blood, skins); and probably, as is recorded of Charles 2’s palace at Whitehall, there would be the odd whelping bitch producing a litter of puppies here and there in unlikely places. Lavatories were still in their infancy, with much reliance on the chamber-pot and relieving oneself in a corner, even on occasion the Chapel. No wonder that the Court relied so heavily on perfumes, not only to sweeten the air but also the person. However, as in medicine, the cure was often worse than the complaint. Think of the fashionable oils of the day – narcissus, jasmine, jonquil, tuberose, rose, civet, musk and ambergris – thickly layered on sweaty skin already covered in primitive make-up; on grubby clothes and powdered hair. Not attractive; so much so that the folk-memory lingers even today. There is still a feeling at the back of many people’s minds that the use of too much perfume is suspect: a camouflage for something unclean or alien. And cleanliness to the Protestant Anglo-Saxon is next to godliness  Jean Desprez has turned all this glamorous dross to gold: “Bal a Versailles” rises like a lotus from the primeval slime of its inspiration.

Gardenias! Joan Crawford’s Favourite!

Gardenia Jasminoides Illustration

“She’s got a fabulous figure she no longer puts to any use and skin like a gardenia that’s been one day too long in the ice-box”. Here’s the inimitable Sue Kaufman describing one of her party guests in Diary Of A Mad Houswife, a book I loved so much I literally read my copy to pieces. The horrible guest is “a minor movie queen from the 1940’s” and if ever a flower symbolised the great years of Hollywood it is the gorgeous gardenia: exotic, unreal, like flowers cut from ivory velvet or white satin. They gleam and glow in their waxen creamy purity like Von Sternberg’s mad beautiful sets for The Devil Is A Woman: painted white and sprayed, like the costumes, with aluminium paint. Gardenias are like artificial flowers come to life, with their impossibly shiny dark emerald leaves that rustle like Garbo’s paper camellias in Camille: and then that glorious unearthly scent. I’m quite happy to kneel in the muck on any London street to inhale gardenias outside a florists.

“These Foolish Things” … remember how the line “Gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow” once got this song banned on radio? The young Bette Davis was seduced on a bed of gardenias by Howard Hughes; Jean Harlow was buried under a carpet of them; Orson Welles’s muse, the Mexican beauty Dolores del Rio, ate salads of gardenia and rose petals to intensify the velvety pallor of her skin. Joan Crawford went through her famous “gardenia phase” when the fan magazines featured her swimming through drifts of them in her pool. She wore them in movies and publicity shots, and pinned them to furs and shoulder straps for premieres: but as she tells us, they so quickly turned brown, “just too much body heat”. Joan had perforce to substitute Tuvache’s heady “Jungle Gardenia” for the real thing.

Gardenias are real Art Deco blooms: their geometric Rene Mackintosh look, their snowy whiteness, perfect for a Syrie Maugham interior and an era when white and platinum was de rigueur. This was also the era when Chanel made sun bathing fashionable: nothing looked sexier and more stylish than a gardenia against a honey-gold tan. Mlle liked it so well she brought out her own gardenia scent in 1925. Men loved them too,as boutonnieres on dinner jackets and black cashmere evening coats. But these iconic flowers of the late 1920’s and early 30’s were first categorised in the 18th century: and their wonderful name is merely an eponym, deriving from the botanist Alexander Garden of Charleston, Carolina. For me that’s the only faintly disappointing thing about them: it equates with tuberose meaning “propagated by a tuber”, when you long for both names to have some fantastic and extravagant Latin derivation to complete their fantasy.

The first gardenia perfume I fell under the spell of was by Goya. It was only the talcum powder, hidden in a bathroom cabinet, but it came in a wonderful white and green can with a gardenia worthy of Redoute on the label; the smell was sweet and dry and powdery/spicy. Really nothing like a living gardenia but entirely bewitching: a highly stylised interpretation of the fragrance, like the versions by Crabtree & Evelyn, Floris and Penhaligon’s in years to come. Annick Goutal created Gardenia Passion – closer to the real thing, even to the faint hint of brown bruising. Ma Griffe worked a miracle with an entirely chemical rendition. The thing is, the oil can be extracted from the plant but the yield is infintesimal, thus making it very very pricey. Most perfumers prefer to synthesise, using natural oils such as neroli and tuberose to create a wholly convincing ersatz gardenia. Kind of suitable for such a fabulousy unreal bloom.

Isabey have recreated another great 1920’s perfume: their Gardenia claims to use precious vital extract from the plant and appropriately comes in a glamorous flacon like a cube of gold. It’s heavenly: soft, whispery smooth – like cream silk velvet – with sandalwood and iris to add even more depth. Goutal’s recent Matin d’Orage blossoms in a Japanese Zen garden; gardenias drenched with summer rains opening under a stormy sky of purple and violet. And I love the diaphanous transparency of Pierre Guillaume’s Gardenia Grand Soir, a delicate breath of a corsage from a beautiful woman’s shoulder.

Heartbreaking fragile beauty; powerful emotional perfume. No wonder Billie Holliday made gardenias her trademark.

Image from guide-to-houseplants.com

Black Narcissus

Narcisse Noir

The lure of Caron‘s Narcisse Noir is all about obvious though artful artifice, appreciated by those who enjoy suspending disbelief and immersing themselves in the flamboyance and exuberance of a unique perfumer’s imagination. Narcisse Noir is not for those looking for an organically well-bred, neat and tidy scent: it is farouche, mysterious, disturbing and ever so slightly off its head, like some of its past admirers. My old Harrods chum David (mildy crazy himself) who claimed to know the back-story of every perfume in the repertoire, used to say it was a perfume for broken down ballerinas – his inimitable gloss on Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.

From the beginning, its conception was bizarre: Caron’s founder, owner and nose Ernest Daltroff claimed to be the first to base a perfume on a myth, a lie; rather than translate the scent of living material (flowers, leather, woods) he would first characterise an imaginary flower and then spin a web from its supposed scent. With his other half, Felicie Vanpouille – and I think she was truly his other half in every way – mistress, publicist, artist, maybe nose – they came up with the perversely brilliant idea of taking the narcissus, so purely virginally spotlessly white and, as it were, dyeing it black. Why the narcissus and not, say, the lily? I think they had the old classic myth in mind – the beautiful, heartless Narcissus, madly in love with his own reflection; dying of desire for himself. And the name ultimately derives from the Greek “narce”: to benumb or the state of being numb, referring to the flower’s narcotic properties. So, “nicht genugens pervers?” as 20’s nude dancer and coke-fiend Anita Berger used to shout at her audiences.

All this, mind you, in 1911, before L’Heure Bleue, Quelques Fleurs, Tabac Blond, Habanita, Shalimar and Knize Ten had shocked and rocked the perfume world. Narcisse Noir became a cult scent, a password to a world of black, gold,orange and crimson Bakst decadence. Noel Coward references it repeatedly in his druggie play The Vortex which outraged the nation and packed the theatres in 1924  – his ambisexual characters wear it, smell it and before lighting up, dip their cigarettes in it. Gloria Swanson (“Arriving with the Marquis, Friday. Please arrange ovation!”) introduced it to Hollywood. And then, first with Rumer Godden’s novel in the 30’s, then with the Powell-Pressburger film version (1947), the perfume took on a whole new dimension as the star of “Black Narcissus”.

As Deborah Kerr takes her tiny community of nuns up onto the Roof of the World they find the rarified air of the high Himalayas  distracting, ennervating and psychotropic; then comes the beautiful Young General (Sabu) wearing a satin coat the colour of ripe corn, and dripping with amethysts and Black Narcissus – “don’t you think it rather common, Sister, to smell of ourselves?” The scent of sex dormant in the painted walls of the convent (once a palace for seraglio women) is animated once more by the drifts of perfume from Sabu’s silk handkerchief; he elopes with the disreputable Kanshi, whom we have seen inhaling his body with sensual bliss. Much worse, both Sisters Clodagh and Ruth fall under the spell of the saturnine British agent down in the lushly jungly valley. Sister Ruth, at first so neurotically mistrustful of the fumes of Black Narcissus (a close-up shows her nose twitching like that of a wary fox), is ultimately tipped over into into paranoid nymphomaniacal murderous mania.
Not bad for post-war Austerity.

And like Narcisse Noir, the film is an exotic illusion – shot in the most beautiful colour you will ever see on screen, it is entirely studio-bound; the Himalayas and sunrises and verdant valleys all painted on glass and card.There is also a wonderful perfume metaphor in the misfortunes of poor Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), the gardening Sister; told off to plant onions, potatoes and beans on terraces stretching out to the sky, she sets instead sweet peas, hollyhocks, lupins and delphiniums. The needs of the senses, unleashed by the esoteric air and an atmosphere where practicalities have no relevance, have once again prevailed. You will find your own needs amply and admirably catered for by Narcisse Noir which takes a modest white flower as its germination and mutates madly and wilfully into a mysterious, hypnotic even carnivorous bloom.

Bal a Versailles

Bal a Versailles

August 1981: miles high in the sky on a night flight from Ottawa to London. Some turbulence so a certain amount of noisy nausea along the aisles, possibly exacerbated by complimentary glasses of Kahlua being handed out: delicious if risky compensation for inconvenience caused by minor industrial action. And of course we were still smoking in planes, then. A faintly sordid atmosphere. They finally dimmed the lights (which always makes me feel much hotter, for some nutty reason) and, like small children, urged us to sleep. I can never sleep on a plane and on this occasion simply became rigid with tension and discomfort and the apprehension that comes with exhaustion.

Came the dawn and the Duty Free trolley and the gleam of gold…an exquisite package of Bal a Versailles, a 3.5 ml parfum with that ravishing pink and blue Fragonard-inspired label. “I’m having that” I thought on a whim and bought it, opened it and o! the scent..up in the brightening sky and it really was like smelling the rustle of angels’ wings. Sweet, incense-smoky, oriental, faintly animalic, intensely aromatic…over 300 oils involved in its composition, from roses and orange blossom to civet, patchouli and amber. This wonderful rich other-worldly scent wafting from a tiny bottle no larger than a watch face: absolutely magical. I recall nothing of the descent into Gatwick; sat there in a happy haze, hypnotised.

If you visualise perfumes as having a colour and texture, Bal a Versailles is liquid old gold with highlights of topaz and gleaming copper. It’s both luxuriously creamy and gauzily ethereal. When it came out in 1962 it was famously said to have won great favour with Elizabeth Taylor, then making the notorious “Cleopatra”, and it certainly matched her persona perfectly – that blend of the exotic, the seductive, the naïve, the earthily impulsive and voluptuous. It was great for her peachy skin, too, the violet eyes and night-black hair. If you remember seeing Cleopatra in the Odeons, marvelling as we did at Liz’s liquid-jewelled eye make-up, her palpitating cleavage and the golden-winged Isis costume you can almost smell billows of Bal a Versailles coming off the screen, mixed with clouds of kyphi burned by Pamela Brown in the hallucinatory assassination of Caesar sequence. It really sends you, this perfume, as we said back then. No doubt it sent Richard Burton, too.

Bal a Versailles is 50 years old this year. It has grown only more glamorous with age. It reveals secrets of a more sophisticated world; it’s mesmeric, psychtropic. Try it.

Wake and call me early mother dear….

“I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May”

May day and the choirs at Oxford greeting the dawn from the towers of Magdalene; the milk maids seen dancing in the Strand by Pepys, their pails wreathed in flowers; and girls rushing out to bathe their faces in the morning dew to be beautiful for ever. In England it’s usually pouring and frequently chilly, but May Day still has a vestigial magic to it after so many centuries of pagan ritual that was banned only by Cromwell’s Commonwealth and otherwise absorbed and tolerated by the Church. There is after all a great religious symbolism too in this ancient unbridled celebration of growth and greenery and nature’s renewal. Despite the phallic fertility of the maypole and the 1st of May being celebrated as the anniversary of the death of Robin Hood, May came also to be the month dedicated by the medieval church to the Blessed Virgin.

And this in itself absorbed the old Roman dedication of the month to the virgin goddess, the Bona Dea, which led in turn to the month being considered unlucky for weddings. Even forty years ago in Italy no pious Catholic girl would wed in May. A curious paradox of fertility and chastity which was perpetuated in medieval English lore – “wantons marry in the month of May” – and given an extra fillip in Tudor times by the arrest, trial + beheading of Queen Anne Boleyn (“the great whore she is called by the people + the great whore she is”) within 3 weeks during May 1536.

The name May derives from the Latin and denotes the growing month, the shooting month, the month of budding green. The two Roman festivals in honour of the goddess of flowers took place at this time: the week-long Floralia in which all manner of licence was permitted, followed by the Rosalia on May 23rd. This was the day which honoured the rose: one of the first six Latin words I learned, aged 4. Our translation exercises were endless permutations on the theme “the girls decorate the farmers with roses/ the sailors decorate the table with roses”. May is old Dutch is called “the blossoming month” and the French Revolutionary Calendar named it Floreal, the flowery one.

In England, the name of the month has become transferred to the colloquial name for hawthorne which froths, foams and fills the lanes, fields, ditches and hedges at this time of year. Now this is a real old pagan smell! Rich + manurey; creamy, spicy, dusty – full of peppery sneezey pollen; the scent of fields and dung and exploding fertile vegetation and blossom. You can see that I like it. Tiny white flowers on prickly stems, cupped in tender brilliant green leaves, “the poor man’s bread and cheese” as it staves off the worst hunger pangs if you’re really down and out. In the language of flowers it means hope: the hope of rebirth amid the new beginnings of spring, the foliage once used to decorate the cradles of babies and the crowns of brides.

It makes the occasional appearance in modern perfumery, not usually as a dominant note on account of its farouche quality but woven in as an accord of flowery freshness or spice. It is radiantly lit up in the Manuel Canovas candle Fleur de Coton, one of the best scented candles for spring and summer evenings: a beautiful clear smell of hay fields and hawthorne hedges, sweet and golden and rather dry. Hawthorne is also an integral part of the enchanting Ellena fragrance L’Eau d’Hiver, that paradoxical warm cologne which uses a medley of unusual oils to produce a graceful and ambiguous airiness. But its finest curtain call is taken by Pierre Guillaume’s veiled masterpiece Louanges: a beautiful secretive perfume which surrounds the wearer in a cloud of technically floral notes, but which manifests more as a faintly earthy oriental or transparent chypre. Its full name is Louanges Profanes – “profane hymns” or “worldly praises” – perfect for this perfume which mixes the old heathen may with the the earthy odour of lily bulbs (charged with growing life and vigour), neroli and incense. A perfume for a highly sophisticated and knowing May Queen.

Image from Humanbodydetectives.com

Crinoline + Creed

The very nature of fashion dictates that what is ravishing to one generation seems hideous to another. Women’s styles of 100 years ago look exquisitely elegant in contemporary fashion plates and when cunningly recreated with the subtlest of 21st century slants for Downton Abbey. But informal photographs of 1912 are often horribly disillusioning, showing women as dishevelled bundles of clothing, topped by frizzled hair scorched + dried by curling tongs. Note too, the popularity of the sexy double chin and jowls for 18th century men and Edwardian ladies; and the egg-like facial look – no eyebrows or lashes – beneath those romantic fifteenth century wired butterfly veils. Anne of Cleves has been the butt of history’s clumsy wit for nearly 500 years as Henry VIII’s ugly wife, “the Flanders mare”; but if you bother to look at her portraits you will agree with novelist Margaret Campbell Barnes that to the modern eye she was by far and away the most attractive of the six queens with her heavy-lidded Dietrich eyes; and unlike the others she even manages a faint smile (unusual and risque in portraiture of her time).

Consider that sartorial turn-on of the 1850’s and 60’s, the cage or crinoline – a vast bell-like construction of hoops of whalebone and steel which stretched out the skirts to outlandish dimensions thus incidentally keeping ‘Punch’ and all the satirical magazines in material for a decade. The crinoline had its origins in the Elizabethan farthingale, the intention of which in its native prudish Spain was to conceal pregnancy, and keep men at a distance simply by the egregious width of one’s dress. In its Victorian version it became more explicitly erotic: it drew attention to the tiny tight-laced waist (this was the time before the triumph of the bosom as erogenous zone); it made the arms look slenderer and the hands more fragile in comparison; and the hoops swayed and dipped in an alluring way as the wearer walked or danced, revealing (ideally) dainty neat feet + ankles. Everything then but the breadth of your skirt and the width of your eyes must needs be in miniature. A tiny fragile woman, gasping for air due to the restrictions of her stays, and imprisoned in her clothes: this was the erotic ideal of our great great grandfathers. Weird, you might think…but not so far in concept from today’s highest heels and the latest trends in Spandex.

But what made the crinoline so controversial, and led Queen Victoria to initially ban its wearing at Court, was that wearing it did away for the need to wear the old-fashioned plethora of petticoats and this was thought highly indecent. And what’s more it could be dangerously unstable: crinolines blew up in the wind, got caught on carriage wheels and stuck in doorways; and tipped up at an alarmingly revealing angle if you sat down without due manipulation. This led to the sudden popularity in the wearing of knickers, previously used only by actresses and harlots, the reasoning being that no decent woman would ever come near to revealing her nether regions in public and so had no need of panties: the risky crinoline changed this. Though not apparently in France where one of the Empress Eugenie’s dames d’honneur tripped on her hoops, fell and gave the visiting King of Savoy an unexpected eyeful.

Of course the crinoline predates the first milestones of modern perfumery by a good twenty years, but we can still catch a whiff of the scents of the period in three surviving Creed fragrances. Fabric patterns were exceedingly dramatic to emphasise the dimensions of the skirts: broad bold stripes, flouncing and heavy trimmings were de rigueur. Colours of the period were loud, thanks to the gaudy new aniline dyes: part of the huge chemical advances that would soon transform perfumes. So emerald, canary yellow, electric blue and magenta were well balanced by the heavy heady scent of Bulgarian rose, jasmine, musk and ambergris that are redolent in what we now know as Creed‘s Fantasia des Fleurs, Fleurs de Bulgarie and Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie. Obviously all three have been trimmed, tailored and refined over 150 years, but what we smell today gives some idea of those heady blends of flower and animal oils that would have been dabbed on the handkerchiefs only of modest women; while the more daring of the new knicker-wearers may have touched their hair and wrists with a perfume-stopper. Eugenie, incidentally, was the patroness not only of Creed but also of Charles Worth, the boy from Lincoln who went to Paris and as Collins Dictionary says, “founded Parisian haute couture”.
Together, he and the Empress were responsible for the launching the crinoline craze.

These are big scents for big clothes: to be worn with velvet, bombazine, satin, furs, veils and never without gloves and hats outside the home. Fans, muffs and bouquets were all essential accessories. Smelling these perfumes in context helps to make much more sense of these extravagant, delicious but strange creations. It brings them to life on their own terms. Not so good maybe worn with t-shirts and jeans; and not at all, as the ignorant have it, “old ladies’ smells”, but once paraded by Queens, Empresses and courtesans at the apogee of their beauty and style: Eugenie, Elisabeth, Cora Pearl, La Paiva – the female fashion leaders of Europe.
Perfumes to dress up for and live up to.
Now there’s a challenge for a Diamond Jubilee year!

Image from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve always been a great one for my shoes…

Who can forget poor old Barbie Batchelor in The Jewel in the Crown dumping a huge suitcaseful of shoes on Clarissa Peplow’s bed after having had to leave home in a hurry. An early example of shoe addiction which is now Topic A in the popular fashion world. The once notorious collections of Imelda Marcos and Eva Peron (armadillo ankle-straps with jewelled heels) seem old hat as every girl worth her salt now accumulates her hoard of peep-toes, pumps, flats, ballets, platforms and torturing Louboutin stilettoes: “High heels are pleasure with pain” says Msr L.

So if we follow his hint, which is more of a turn-on, the shoe or the unconfined foot ? I think the average bunion’d fashionista would come down on the side of the Manolos. Both foot and covering can be highly sexualised and are perhaps the best-known of fetishistic objects: we all have access to them. Much etymic energy has been devoted to the question of whether Cinderella wore slippers of glass (verre) or fur (vair), and appropriate psychological and pathological conclusions drawn thereby. Not to mention the detail of her sisters slicing off portions of their own feet to fit the delicate slipper so admired by the Prince. But from my own observation, correct fittings do not seem to be an important aspect of the current shoe frenzy: Mrs Beckham appears to have set a trend for wearing a size or two overlarge, the old Minnie Mouse look. A recherche fetish of its own, something akin to the painful hobble and totter of the bound feet of Imperial China.

The varied symbolism of the foot is as old as man. The Mexican god Tezcatlipoca had the foot eaten by a jaguar replaced by a smoking obsidian mirror through which he dimly observes the world. Jason loses a sandal carrying the goddess Hera across a stream and, half-barefoot, fulfils King Pelias’s foretold doom. Oedipus is exposed with pierced ankles. Norse mythology tells of the Frost Giant’s daughter Skadi allowed to choose a husband from the gods but only on the evidence of their feet. Luck was not with her: the fragrant white feet she picked belonged not to Baldur the Beautiful but to the hoary and disagreeable old sea god Njord. Greek courtesans, who paid especial attention to the perfuming of their feet, stalked in studded sandals which left erotic suggestions, somewhat blurred I should think, in the Athenian dust. An idea illustrated by that long gone 20’s scent, Suivez-Moi Jeune Homme.

The removal of the shoes is the first steps towards intimacy write Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant in their classic Dictionary of Symbols. But besides denoting possession, it is paradoxically a sign of humility, subservience to man or the divine: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground”. The first rule of etiquette in the East is never to cross your legs lest you insult your companions by displaying your sole.

“And whosoever shall not receive you…when ye depart out of that house or city shake off the dust of your feet…” Matt 10:14.

The quintessence of sexy shoes,the nude shoe, the flesh-coloured shoe is back in style: first recommended by Marlene Dietrich in her ABC as flattering the length and line of the leg. She was clever with her shoe tactics. People who knew her back-stage told me two stories which I hope are true. She lined up identical shoes in the wings, a pair for each song: if she saw a smut on her beaded champagne slippers as she bowed, she could slip into the next pair under cover of the applause. And a dressing-room habitue remembered that if Marlene became aware of a prying scrutiny of her face she would advise her guest “look out for the shoes! Mind where you’re walking, the floor is covered with my shoes…”

Like a glove the shoe sexualises and transforms a socially acceptable part of the body by veiling and concealing and thus simultaneously calling attention to it. Think of Rita Hayworth’s single glove striptease in Gilda and those Toulouse Lautrec posters of Yvette Guilbert who made long black gloves an integral part of her diseuse act. David Lean uses continual and remarkable shoe (and clothing) imagery throughout his film Madeleine to demonstrate his heroine’s ambiguous morality as a seductress and probable poisoner in 1850’s Glasgow. Awaiting the jury’s decision in her cell, Madeleine slips on a pair of new black shoes, and the camera lingers on her feet as it has at key moments of the movie. Her concealment (maybe even from herself) is complete + the verdict naturally is “Not Proven”.

So what of the scent of the shoe? Apparently the foetid smell of those grotesque trotter-like slippers which encased the Chinese lily-foot was part of their peculiar appeal. But we’re not going down that particular trail – for now. I’m thinking more in terms of a shoe of kid suede so fine it would double for a glove; new and exciting from the boutique in a great rustle of tissue papers and varnished card box, all with stimulating electric scents of their own. A shoe just gently warmed by an exquisitely painted, moistured, powdered and pedicured foot: the warm muskiness of skin and flesh mixing with the peardrop bittersweet of nail polish, animalic soft leather, brushed black suede,a metallic tang of tiny gilt buckle and the dark smooth night of the sole. If this appeals, go smell Gantier’s Cuir Fetiche: it has it all, and more…