When I was a boy there was no Father’s Day (at least in the UK) but now it’s a Big Thing which tries to bridge a great yawning gap in the shops between the window displays of Easter chicks and the ominous threats of “Back To School!”. Well now we’re stuck with this new festival and really, what’s not to like? Men need more celebration and spoiling. So why not make the most of it and treat your old dad to some scent? Though nowadays Dad is more likely to be a Colin Firth or David Beckham type than Wilfred Brambell or Mr Barrett of Wimpole Street. So much the better: the modern man is making up for lost time and enjoying the pleasure of fragrance that so many previous male generations have missed.
My last gift to my father on The Day was a biography of Rasputin (one of his hero-villains: he’d seen the Barrymores in “Rasputin and the Empress” as a child) which made him feel sick. I’d have done far better to have stuck with his regulation Grain de Plaisir, Gantier’s modern take on a eighteenth century rake’s love potion, full of reliable aphrodisiacs such as vanilla, celery and amber: woody, sexy with a dry spiciness and the sweetness of barley sugar. He adored this, preferring to splash it all over (in the phrase of the day) his bald head and face so that it clung to his hats and flannel scarves. He came late to the joys of scent, well into his sixties, but then developed a rapacious pleasure in it recalling the extravagant applications of much earlier generations.
For the whole culture of scent began with men: men as perpetuators of the life-cycle in their role as incarnators and placators of the gods. The latin phrase per fumus – through the smoke – gives us the clue. The smoke of burnt offerings opening a visible scented path to the skies, pleasing the nostrils of Heaven and linking men with the Divine.The odours of the pyres developed into the sacred oils worn by the King-Priests and thus into secular use by the privileged laity and aristocracy. A leading example of the old peacock theory – the male in full feather: gaudy, scented and resplendent to indicate readiness to mate and attract the healthiest and fairest of women to ensure the breeding and survival of the fittest. Perfume as an adjunct to divine procreation: the Pharoah fertilising the Nile sanitised in the Christian era into the ceremonies of the marriage of Venice with the sea, and the Russian Tsars blessing the waters of the Neva. An emblem too of the transfer of divine power – British monarchs right through to our present queen being anointed with holy chrism at their coronation.
It is only with modern history (beginning abruptly in 1714 according to the old text books) that the martial peacock alpha-male starts to fade, only to rise again, phoenix-like, some 150 years later. Brilliant colours and flamboyant dress go undercover as industrialisation, urbanisation, the first stirrings of female emancipation and the middle class work ethic transform Europe: perfume for men fades from fashion if not from use. Even Oliver Cromwell (“Lord protect us from Protectors”) had not disdained to anoint himself with unguents of rose and orange flower, but then a certain drabness creeps in as men are tamed and caged by a more sober society.
When Victorian males use scent it has to accentuate not fertile virility but a man’s prowess as earner, responsible worker and sober father. Male scents loose their heady and hedonistic floral and animal aspects and mirror what a man does with his respectably ordered life: he starts to smell of an idealised version of his environment,occupation and pastimes: leather, woods, herbs and citrus evoke agriculture, farming, gardening, travel and the outdoors. Hygiene is another factor: people start to wash their hair and bodies so that fragrance no longer needs to camouflage bad smells but au contraire emphasises freshness, health and a healthy mind in a healthy body. The Fata Morgana of the “natural” perfume is born.
Today, thanks to a succession of social scientific and sexual revolutions,perfume for men is more rich, varied, eccentric and eclectic than it has ever been. At Les Senteurs men account for a good third of our customers; and very eloquent, passionate and well-informed they are too. The taboos are broken, the barriers are down: modern men are realising there is only no such thing as a “correct” or appropriate male perfume. The only essential is that it should amplify, reflect and enhance the wearer, become part of his very essence and personality. Perfume does not make the man…but a man can certainly make the perfume, transmuting it through his own skin,hormonal balance and definition into a unique signature and statement.
Les Senteurs would like to dedicate this blog to the life and memory of a wonderful man and inspired perfumer, the late Guy Robert who died on 28 May. Guy was the grandson, nephew and son of perfumers and of course the father of our dear friend and colleague Francois Robert. One of the greatest creators of the second half of the 20th century, Guy leaves a legacy of superlative richness, elegance and variety. Caleche dominated the 1960’s, to be followed by L’Equipage, two great classic beauties for Hermes. Guy made the original and unsurpassed Amouage, the sublime Mme Rochas and a treasury of exquisite scents which place him among the Immortals of the art of perfumery. Irreplaceable as a great gentleman and individual, Guy Robert will live forever in his galaxy of classic and unforgettable creations.
Image from 1000fragrances.blogspot.co.uk