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