Ghost Stories

I remember years ago hearing about a candle maker, an artist one should say, who was able to conjure up the spirit of a loved one in scented wax: he had recreated the perfume aura of Rita Hayworth so that her daughter should feel her presence about the house upon the striking of a match. There is something essentially ghostly and ethereal about all perfume with its electric stimulation of memory: maybe this is why many people find it hard to throw away empty bottles, why they cherish old flacons as they would clothes and accessories of loved ones, still faintly and intimately scented after long years, the occupants having long since departed and fled.

Perhaps all perfume is the alluring ghost of plants, woods, blossoms – like Hiawatha’s rainbow of all the flowers of the prairie: “When on earth they bloom and perish / Blossom in the sky above us”. Distilled in elixir and more powerful than they were in their first life they flower again, a marvellous parallel of rebirth and regeneration. Like a ghost, the magic of a perfume does not always reveal itself to everyone; it appears in a different manifestation to each. It mysteriously changes smell and personality according to your moods and health. In her wonderful story “Poor Girl” Elizabeth Taylor writes of a malevolent lubricious haunting by a perfume, a dry musky scent, which fills a house with disturbing seductive fumes, a ghost from the future rather than the past.

This is a brilliant inversion of the traditional association of the reek of cold decay with phantom manifestations. (Think of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s monstrous-smelling car in “Mr Wrong”). “Pink May” is Elizabeth Bowen’s sinister/comic tale of a poltergeist wrecking a war time love affair (and marriage) by mercilessly disrupting a woman’s early evening beauty routine at her dressing table as she makes herself lovely for sin. J Clayton’s 1961 movie The Innocents (based on Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw”) refutes the cliche that film cannot translate a sense of smell: in the midsummer gardens of Bly luxurious white roses grow in profusion and fill the vases of the house. Never have sun-drenched perfect flowers seemed so sinister nor adorned such horrors

I think of all our stock at Les Senteurs Pierre Guillaume’s Louanges Profanes (untranslatable really: but “evil praises” comes close) is the most other-worldly, both in name and substance: a shimmering summoning of the supernatural; a glamorous ambiguous translation into the jener Velt.

Image from user tony’s pics on flickr.

Gorgeous Giorgio

‘HOW many girls, playing HOW many pianos?’ Oh! those wonderful lost perfume launches of thirty years ago, when money was free and easy and the great department stores doubled as theatre, pantomime, Busby Berkeley fantasy and fashion parade. Gilded youth picked for their personal beauty, tigerish selling skills and effervescent personalities (“kids, you gotta be bubbly”). Tacky but flashy costumes rushed from store to store as the launch swept on, all plastic-wrapped-fresh with the reek of the dry cleaners, for the sales team to be stuffed into approximate sizes. I remember a circus theme which, after the first day management decided was potentially risque: those sequinned bustiers, suits of lights and ringmaster’s breeches seemed to cling just a little too provocatively. As it was far too late to change the entire look, decencies were preserved by simply swapping sizes so that everyone flopped around in an Evans Outsize body-concealing tent of spangles. Then there was a Gibson Girl promotion with 20 girls in huge black picture hats: one poor soul being sent home on day one for forgetting her hat: “It’s the hat that sells the fragrance” By day two it had been decided that the hats frightened the punters, and discreet low chignons replaced the headgear. And so forth, hats on and off for the duration, as always during these pragmatically staged pageants. Like stage costumes, little of this finery could be washed : participants soldiered on for two weeks, sponging, pressing and steaming. Their hair and clothes rapidly acquired a fine scented lacquering, frowstily fragrant like Restoration courtesans, scent oozing from their skins like sweat.

American perfume houses laid on promotions with the greatest elan, extravagance and exuberance. And efficiency: Estee Lauder advised her girls not to chatter with their colleagues -“You need all your energy for your customers.” Nothing lingers in the mind like those wonderful Coney Island/ Popcorn Venus Giorgio Beverley Hills counters of the 1980’s. Squadrons of gorgeous six foot blondes picked for their height and golden wholesome sunniness, like bosomy buttercups in yellow and white striped blazers, all radiating cheerful humorous sex and a haze of warm heady sweet scent: as American as Mae West, Madonna and Betty Grable. Their hair was streaked and gilded and piled up in glossy waves, whorls and victory rolls like creamy knickerbocker glories above glacé cherry lips. Giorgio was something gloriously different in the intense and predatory shoulder-pad perfume world of the ’80’s. It was fun, light hearted, power without responsibility; it was sex with laughs.

Only a confident free-wheeling American house could have pulled this off, ignoring the classic French conventions and heaping inspired exaggeration upon excess as in some 20th Fox garish Technicolor movie. The scent was formulated for maximum strength and immediate between- the- eyes impact. Giorgio worked if you had confidence, a sense of humour and were prepared to go with the flow; it ended up as one of the best-selling star performers of the era. It also made a lot of people very angry. All those tales did the rounds about restaurants banning it, women fainting and men throwing up- no doubt placed by the company’s own PR; these supposed outrages certainly got people talking and it was all excellent advertisement. Everyone wanted to smell Giorgio for themselves: and when they did, most found they actually liked it rather a lot. Intensely floral, slightly fruity (I always think I can detect a little crystallised pineapple in there beneath the jasmine and gardenia); and of course – the Holy Grail of perfume to so many – it lasted forever on the skin. Everyone could smell you and, as Scarlett O’Hara said with relish, be pea green with envy.

The Duke of Edinburgh is supposed to have once emptied an entire jug of cream over his pudding and when his table companion looked askance, said “you’re simply put out that you didn’t have the nerve to do it yourself”. There’s something of that in the sniping criticism of this generous show-off jolly perfume. It aroused the most ancient of Anglo Saxon prejudices and hypocrisies, blatantly disregarding the unspoken rule that one may wear perfume only if no one else can smell it. Unthinkable to call attention to oneself so shamelessly. But that is all part of Giorgio’s artful appeal: there’s no need to think, puzzle, reflect or reason with it. You don’t have to kick your heels, waiting for the party to begin. Giorgio is spontaneous, and most emphatically perfume: smells,looks and feels like it. It is an inversion of the intricate and cerebral niche perfume,standing out in a world of intellectual fragrances, like a fragrant creme caramel amongst steamed rice and sushi. The polar opposite of the melancholic, beautiful but claustrophobic L’Heure Bleue: the old country in decadent decline versus the endless adventure of the Americas.

The USA has always loved avant-garde fragrances which is why the great European perfumers of the 1920’s beat a hasty path over there to proselytise such innovative exaggerations as Joy, Shalimar and Tabac Blond – every bit as disturbing in their day as Giorgio, but now sanctified and tamed somewhat by time. America was a natural second home for Ernest Daltroff’s bizarre Caron fantasies, revelling in the musky carnations of Bellodgia and the farmyard flowers of Fleurs de Rocaille. These exotics were welcomed in as warmly as European immigrants, enriching an indigenous culture which saw wonderful home-grown perfumes blossoming on the prairie and the sidewalks of Los Angeles and New York – Elizabeth Arden’s Old Kentucky Home recreated in the lavender and hay of Blue Grass; the spicy fiery florality of Mrs Lauder’s immortal Youth Dew; and of course the Elizabeth Taylor empire of scent, which netted La Liz more than the accumulated earnings of her movie career. Americans have often used the word ‘cologne’ to denote perfume: a very healthy sign, meaning they throw it on with abandon – as it should be worn, in the French manner. Margo Channing in the shooting script for All About Eve is described by her creator Joseph Mankiewicz as “the kind of woman who treats her mink like a poncho”. Try a little of this All American abandon with your scent.

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The Obsidian Butterfly

On a clear evening you nip out to the dustbin or call the cat and gaze up into the night sky at the glittering infinities of space. Worlds within worlds; burned out stars from millions of years ago shining out with a phantom light. The great constellations, abstract memorials of mortals abducted or rescued from Earth, are displayed in the heavens like skeletons of giant insects pinned to the cork board of the firmament. Or as the Egyptians saw it, the arched body of the goddess Nut roofing the world like a gigantic croquet hoop. The Evening Star, the radiant personification of Isis goddess of magic,still looms low in the sky and suddenly the unending vastness of the universe, the oppression and menace of it all (what IS out there? WHO is out there?) is overwhelming and you leg it for the sanctuary of a fugged-up kitchen. Five minutes contemplation of the stars puts everyday cares and worries into a very meagre perspective

I love the kind of stories where science fiction meets fantasy and mythology. Something along the lines of Rider Haggard’s She, with its themes of suspended time and eternal youth. Or Rudyard Kipling’s terrifying little black comedy which begins with the author’s teasing information that this is only one of 355 stories about King Solomon, “ is not the story of the Glass Pavement, or the Ruby with the Crooked Hole, or the Gold Bars of Balkis. It is the story of the Butterfly that Stamped”. It’s probably banned now, being somewhat misogynistic: Solomon’s 999 nagging wives (and the Butterfly’s shrewish mate) are taught a severe lesson when at a turn of the King’s ring, the whole golden palace and its seraglio are lifted into the outer darkness of space by Djinns and Afrits. Screams and shrieks fill the black void as the world temporarily whirls into nothingness until the ladies, Royal and Insect, learn to behave.

Pierre Guillaume’s bizarre and beautiful Naiviris is an uncanny but unconscious echo of this tale: Kipling lists the plants in Solomon’s gardens with incantatory relish – the tall iris, pink Egyptian lilies, hyssop, camphor trees, spotted bamboos, orange tree and ginger plants. Naiviris picks up this theme of oriental heat revolving around scarlet African iris (“so spikey and unfriendly” remarks Ann Todd in another context) and scented woods; a swoon of glowing red earth, dust and pollen. It is hypnotic and erotic, but at the same time weirdly metallic and withdrawn – a hot garden without earthly heat, torrid yet somehow inhuman with no animal sexuality, all sense of flesh or skin witheld: an alien interplanetary garden of the upper air. Fabulous and fantastic in every sense.

Plunge deeper among the stars, try Guerlain’s superbly named but appropriately hard to track down Vega; or Goutal’s Nuit Etoilee. L’Eau Guerriere evokes the sense of a pressurised cabin, the glittering clear air of the stratosphere, the purity of upper air and the blinding light of the sun. Cold metal, fitments, restricted oxygen levels, the exhilaration of soaring into space. Escape from this world: the smell of a perilous alien liberty

Image from user ADiamondFellFromTheSky on Flickr.

Are You Wearing Lipstick, Rose?

There was a remarkable interview with the great novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard (once daughter-in-law to Scott of the Antarctic and formerly Mrs Kingsley Amis) in the Times recently. Among other interesting observations she talked of her friendship with Charlie Chaplin’s widow, Oona, who apparently possessed the largest collection of lipsticks in the world. How extraordinary and wonderful is that! And how did Oona know hers was the most extensive? I feel men are missing out on something unique here: for the price of a bottle of spirits a girl can buy an item that is considerably more than a mere cosmetic.

I used to sell alongside a woman who sported printed silk cocktail gowns to work and who in youth had doubled for Loretta Young. She always said as she painted a wide generous mouth, “you can make up your face as you please but without lipstick, it’s nothing; lipstick is the signature that completes the picture.” If you’ll notice, most “candid” photos of celebrities “without makeup” rarely show the sitter reluctant to pose with a naked mouth. Karen McLeod, former doyenne of Arden and Guerlain, and a treasury of information on this subject, tells me “Lipstick is the most versatile and most womanly of all cosmetics: mood-enhancing, life-changing, it lifts the spirits, boosts confidence and morale. Thoughtfully chosen and expertly applied it flatters your eyes as well as your mouth, gives spirit and life to your whole face…”

Something of the transmutation of this power seems inherent in the well-known sign-off of leaving a triumphant, dismissive or abusive message scrawled in lipstick on a mirror. As it may be, Dietrich’s dismissal of Cary Grant’s attentions in Blonde Venus; or journalist Evadne Price’s scornful autograph across Hitler’s bathroom glass – beneath which another war reporter, Lee Miller, had so recently bathed in the Fuehrer’s tub. Writing with lipstick is almost as powerful as writing in your own life-blood but conveying authority and confidence rather than despair.

And the colours! the rainbow of colours from nude transparent pink and 1960’s white, through taupe, pillar box red, plum, chocolate and black via that tarty 1930’s favourite tangerine which looks so irresistible with a dark honey tan and matching painted toe nails. Which brings us to Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice and her lipstick rolling across the floor to John Garfield’s feet in a challenging gambit and a wildly mixed metaphor of sex. And here’s another thing: lipstick lost none of its impact in black and white movies . Think of what Vogue called Joan Crawford’s “bow-tie mouth”, Bette Davis’s thickly smudged omission of the cupid’s bow, Mae Murray’s bee-stings and Katharine Hepburn’s oblong quivering inverted grimace. The drama, the gloss, the gleam and the punctuation of lipstick worked long before Nathalie Kalmus and the Technicolour consultants arrived on the scene. For along with eyeshadow and mascara, cinema had birthed lipstick, even before Theda Bara stickily mouthed “Kiss me, my fool”. Women had coloured their mouths for millenia but the lipstick is a favourite child of twentieth century Hollywood.

So now I’m sitting in the garden smelling a rose which is the exact shade of strawberries mashed up with cream; and which smells of sugar, raspberries, tonka, vanilla and just, ever so faintly, of a very expensive lipstick warmed on the mouth – some olfactory reference whether real or imagined to pollen, honey and beeswax. And I’m amazed, yet again, at the cunning and chutzpah and beauty of Ralph Schwieger’s Lipstick Rose perfume which breathes out all these scents, and maybe more. Schwieger’s fragrance also succeeds eminently in evoking a very precise sense of colour: impossible that it be crimson, cream or scarlet – it is inescapably a brilliant, shiny satin pink – close to Schiaparelli. Pink, that most uplifting,relaxing and calming of colours. A Gertrude Jekyll or Queen Elizabeth rose, exuding the vibrant powerful perfume of a glorious summer morning when the dew has gone but the sun not yet too high: fresh, fruity, intoxicating and overwhelmingly feminine.

Lipstick Rose is young, like the morning: upbeat, happy, vivacious. In the best sense it’s naïve and innocently sexy, without being coy or shy. Frank is maybe the best description – and with a great sense of humour. There is a hint of a lipstick print about it too: that most intimate souvenir traced on a Kleenex, a cocktail glass, a cigarette, a picture. In 1972 we came up from school (despite the headmaster’s grave misgivings) to see Dietrich on the London stage: she shimmered at the Stage Door in shocking pink and gold Balenciaga with lips to match – my best friend had the wit to ask her to wipe her mouth on a photograph and I was pea green with envy for lightning did not strike twice…

And there’s more. The shine and sheen and aldehydic glitter of the fragrance makes one think not only of the gloss on the mouth, but the elaborate metal casing of the lipstick, the lacquered black, gold or silver which gives out such a satisfying click, like the snap of a handbag clasp – a click like an amen: the contents safe, a mind made up, a life put temporarily back in order,a face painted, composed and ready. With this thread Mr Schwieger cunningly leads us into thinking of an expensive and beautiful purse redolent of suede, make-up, powder, perfume and perhaps a fresh linen handkerchief. Like a conjurer with a silken cloth, he makes a pass in the air and seemingly without effort offers his perfect Lipstick Rose.