“Kann denn Parfum Sunde Sein?” Perfume Prohibited!

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We may think that our present Royal Family has a hard time of it with the Press, but it is nothing to that which the Queen’s ancestors had to endure. When poor Victoria went over to Paris in the 1850’s the hacks had a high old time sneering at her bag embroidered with poodles and at the sprays of geraniums (as bonny a scarlet as her cheeks) that trimmed her dress. Above all they carped at the “regrettable trace of musk” evident in Victoria’s perfume. Our Royal Duchesses & Princesses must be mightily relieved that this sort of sniping is in abeyance; though admittedly it is a loss to cultural observers as well as to the common or garden nosey parker.¤

CAN the use of perfume ever be wrong? Apparently so. This autumn’s UKIP¤¤ Conference banned fragrance to all comers. “No liquids no perfumes no powders…ladies and gentlemen, please discard your perfumes” read the notice at the entrance. (Which reminded me of those old cards at the cinema – “Ladies! Please remove your hats. Gentlemen! Please adjust your dress.”). I don’t know why the delegates were obliged to attend in an olfactory state of nature: presumably it was part of this “nice” (in the Jane Austen sense) new sensibility regarding the “space” – and potential allergies – of others.

I had always suspected that the notorious ban on the use of Giorgio¤¤¤ in certain New York restaurants – establishments which were never actually named – was an urban myth or an artful advertising ploy. But then a few years ago, our colleague Laura at Les Senteurs told us about the prohibition on wearing perfume in any public place in her home town of Halifax, Nova Scotia. She had therefore to have an unscented wedding. Strange! When you think of the millennia of perfume use by humankind, this is an unprecedented idea indeed. For anthropologists now think that even cavemen probably rolled themselves about in sweet-smelling resinous goo or stuck flowers in their fur.

Council reports are still being compiled on the case of a man in the West Midlands who bludgeoned his wife to death with a bottle of perfume. And only last week an attacker was identified by his victim’s having noted his characteristic reek of toluene. Meanwhile, back in the New World, doctors in the Canadian Medical Association Journal have recommended that all fragrance be banned from hospital wards because it can affect asthma sufferers, promote allergies (again) or arouse “sensitivity”. This reminded me of the old tale of the death of Marie Antoinette’s son in 1789: he begged the duchesse de Polignac, then in attendance, not to torment him with the intrusion of her heavy scents. But she was wearing no perfume: it was the effects of the disease on his poor exhausted nervous system.

In many department stores nowadays a worker’s having a quick spray from a tester of perfume to cheer herself up is counted as theft. You can just about get away with using the bottles on your own counter but from no one else’s. Spoilsports. Which brings me to the following bizarrie. I quote the following verbatim from The Times of a fortnight ago:

” A teenage girl was reported … after a domestic argument in which she used her mother’s perfume before running out of the house. Although the bottle remained intact, her puff (sic) was recorded as theft because officers are told to enforce Home Office rules which require criminal complaints to be recorded … Simon Hayes, the area’s elected crime chief, said: ‘The officers were never going to be able to prove whether or not the daughter did help herself to the perfume. So the crime also remains unsolved.'”

There is a particularly unsettling Sherlock Holmes story – The Adventure of the Retired Colourman – in which a vile crime and its detection revolves around smell. The eponymous villain gasses his wife and her lover in his strongroom and then gets out “a great pot of green paint” to touch up the woodwork.

” ‘That was our first clue,’ said Holmes. ‘Why should this man at such a time be filling his house with strong odours?
Obviously, to cover some other smell which he wished to conceal – some guilty smell which would suggest suspicions…’ ”

Ending – as we began – with the Queen, we are given to understand that she never wears scent when visiting the royal stables: it frightens the horses. There’s been much discussion about this in the equine world. Many owners agree with her: other equestrians find their animals quite unmoved by perfume. And a third party claim that stallions are often sexually aroused by deliciously (artificially) scented humans. Time to change the subject. As we often note in this column, perfume brings out the brute beast in us all.

¤ Queen Alexandra seems to be the only other recent monarch known for her sillage – a signature blend of roses and violet powder. No doubt her dreadful deafness accentuated the sensibility of her other senses: she adored the silent cinema. Her two favourite stars, before you ask, were Lillian Gish and Eddie Polo.

¤¤ “You kip if you want to. The lady’s not for kipping.”

¤¤¤ recently seen, greatly diminished, at a provincial branch of Wilkinsons priced at under £15. Tempi passati: a far cry from the glory days of a sales team of twelve Valkyries in canary-striped blazers; twenty girls playing twenty pianos with the glamorous participation of Miss Scotland.

“The Romance Of Certain Old Clothes”*: a second rummage through the wardrobe…

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There’s something faintly sinister about a wardrobe, I’ve always thought. Especially those old free-standing ones with mirrored doors that swing silently open in the night or, caught by a faint draught, greet you with a blank glassy smile as you enter a bedroom. Wardrobes are like creepy little houses or sarcophagi, quite large enough to contain a child or small adult. Think of Lillian Gish whirling around in the closet, besieged by her abusive father in the silent classic BROKEN BLOSSOMS. The crack in the cupboard door that triggered the peculiar goings-on of VENUS IN FURS. Consider Jane Eyre falling into a “species of fit” in Mrs Reed’s terrible Red Room with its huge mahogany wardrobe of secret drawers. And of course, the wardrobe portals into the Kingdom of Narnia. My grandmother used to tell me hair-raising stories of her childhood in the late 1890’s – of her brothers concealing themselves in the wardrobe before nightfall, then scratching and groaning within once the gas was extinguished. Especially terrifying as the little Eileen was then reading aloud the new best-seller, DRACULA, to her baby sister before lights out.

The dark enclosed space of a wardrobe is a great incubator of smells. When I was a tot, clothes cupboards were hung with those now illegal white crystalline moth balls¤, strung with violet silk thread. They could have passed for iced peppermint creams and the stinging luscious odour of napthalene made my mouth water. There was the redolence of soft worn suede and leather from shoes; a touch of fur from hats and tippets; and the tantalising papery forbidden whiff of hidden Christmas presents, supposedly out of reach but accessed by climbing the shelves or lunging with a coat hanger.

I remember scouring out the entire interior of a deal wardrobe – acquired second hand – and then soaking the wood with perfume, but within a couple of days the smells of dust, fust and must were back. Wardrobes infallibly absorb the odour of old clothes; and of unaired garments put back on the rail directly after use, still damp with the owner’s oils and fluids and scents. The sort of conditions the moth adore¤. Do you remember that scene in DANCE WITH A STRANGER when Miranda Richardson slips off her cocktail frock, impregnated with all the odours of a 1950’s night club, and hangs it straight back in the cupboard all hot and reeking? Was this shtik cunningly thought out, a clue to a slovenly character? I could think of nothing else for the rest of the movie.

As clothes and the obligation to wear them came into being as the direct consequence of Sin and the Fall of Man, it is no wonder that they have spawned an extensive occult lore of their own. I hope you never put a new pair of shoes on the table? You might easily do so, just in from a shopping spree and, like Thora Hird, eager for a Cup-a-Soup: but you are courting disaster. Never throw your hat onto the bed. If you should happen to retrieve someone’s dropped glove, discourage the wearer from thanking you: that’s as good as a curse. A stray thread on your jacket? Expect a letter. Put on a garment inside out? You must wear it so for the rest of the day or risk the worst. And that aggravating spiky itch that’s driving you mad – that’s a monkey’s eyebrow caught in your jumper. Contrariwise, you have your lucky pink shirt, that special interview suit, the right shoe always put on before the left, the holy medal sewn in your garter.

Now, we all have our favourite auspicious and “effective” fragrances to be sure but no true superstitions have yet – I think – become attached to scent: which is odd when you think of how ancient a phenomenon perfume is. But then fragrance, being intrinsically and inherently magical & be-glamoured, is already pregnant with ideas of enchantment and occult power. Explaining the power of scent is attempting the impossible: all we can do is attempt to harness it, whether in this world or the next.

Ghost stories and tales of the supernatural draw heavily on the odour of clothes, as well as referencing the way in which garments are like cast off shells, shaped by the wearer’s limbs to revive as (usually malevolent) simulacra of the late owner.  Gloves and shoes in particular are stretched and moulded to recreate an image of body parts almost as evocative as the plaster casts of the victims at Pompeii. Shady hats, veils and deep hoods hide the horror of a spectral face not to be imagined. Stories trade on the weirdness of smell, the way perfume so instantly and uncannily at once evokes a time, a place, a human signature. A fragrance or an odour lives on, when everything else of a person is dead. Barbara Cartland used to talk of the scent of carnations inexplicably filling a room to announce the presence of her late brother. Whether or not you believe in phantoms there can be no doubt that a perfume is in itself a ghost, a shadow of associations and people long gone, bringing the past with startling immediacy into the present.

As the ghost story is intended to disconcert, writers evoke the smells that inflame our animal instincts: those baser reactions that many of us would prefer to airbrush out of the picture. So over and again we read of the smell of rot and decay, or the odour of demonic seduction. Sometimes the latter originates in the commercial world of the living, thus exacerbating horror with the contrast of the banal. A bottle of perfume becomes an accessory to evil. So, “Madam’s funny scent” plays a key role in THE HAUNTED SAUCEPAN¤¤, the record of an undead poisoner:

“There grew a heavy scent in the air, like patchouli, I think…at any rate a definite perfume that seemed to herald Whatever approached…The dog…moaned and whimpered…”

Piver’s disreputable and tarty Trefle Incarnat – of which Lizzie Ostrom writes so brilliantly in her new book¤¤¤ – is smelled disapprovingly in Elizabeth Bowen’s THE CAT JUMPS. Elizabeth Taylor’s inverted, inventive POOR GIRL is full of smells, especially a “heavy scent, dry and musky” – perhaps Mitsouko – which snakes back in time from the 1920’s to ruin the character of a Victorian governess:

“The schoolroom this evening seemed to have been wreathed about with a strange miasma; the innocent nature of the place polluted in a way which she could not understand…the scent had clung about her clothes…”

Even the perfume itself may be diabolically corrupted:

“My sister ran in, a scent-spray in her hand, crying:

‘It’s not scent any more. I tried it. It smells like the attic – ‘

She was squeezing the bulb and spraying us violently; and I could not smell the dead smell of the loft, but the sweetness, like a ladylike animal, of old kid gloves…”¤¤¤¤

Then there’s “the breath of benzine” impregnating the murderous white kid  in HAND IN GLOVE (the inimitable Bowen again):

“She began to choke among the sachets and tissue – then the glove let go, hurled her back, and made its leap at her throat. It was a marvel that anything so dainty should be so strong…”

(It wasn’t the rats Aunt Elysia had heard scuttering in the attic, you see; it was those gloves).

No doubt about it, gloves take the palm as the most frequent agents of evil, those horrors animated by the energies of vanished vengeful hands:

“Yes, and the gloves: the dark green gloves…the air was very close and…I smelt that curious perfume…I can most nearly describe it as resembling decaying roses…rank and overwhelming…”¤¤¤¤¤

I should recommend that you keep your wardrobe locked at all times, and the key about your person.

* with great respect to M.R. James.

¤ anyone who has been unfortunate
enough to have experienced a moth infestation will know the sense of an uncontrolled, destructive & almost demonic force taking possession of their belongings.

¤¤ by Margery Lawrence

¤¤¤ Lizzie Ostrom – PERFUME: A CENTURY OF SCENTS. Hutchinson £16.99.

¤¤¤¤ Mary Butts – WITH & WITHOUT BUTTONS.

¤¤¤¤¤ Elizabeth Jane Howard – LEFT LUGGAGE.

PS: You might also enjoy…THE MOST BEAUTIFUL DRESS IN THE WORLD by the inimitable Shena Mackay:

” Harriet laid the dress in the washing-up bowl and turned on the taps gently like someone dropping earth on a coffin…”

Wait For The Moment When DIANA DORS…

The movie retitled: for more immediately salacious impact...

The movie retitled: for more immediately salacious impact…

…proves herself a compelling actress in YIELD TO THE NIGHT (1956). An influential film in the campaign for the abolishment of capital punishment in Britain this is not, however, the story of Ruth Ellis. The Joan Henry¤ novel upon which the script (also by Henry) was based had been published in 1954, the year before the Ellis case. But no doubt director J. Lee Thompson readily enhanced the curious “coincidences” of plot and character: the rackety and unhappily married platinum blonde, the fatal public shooting of the faithless lover; the background culture of night clubs and pre-drinking; unhinged sexual obsession and jealousy. And of course – the frame and core of the film – a vital young woman’s last three weeks in the condemned cell at Holloway prison, told unsensationally¤¤ but in semi-documentary and horribly dreary detail. Joan Henry had been banged up in Holloway herself, and she was not sparing with the local colour. It’s not at all an easy film to watch. You may have to take it in short tranches, at least the first time around. But view it you should.

Mrs Mary Hilton (Dors) has been sentenced to death for gunning down her rival, the rich and disagreeable Mrs Lucy Carpenter in a London mews. Their mutual lover, Jim, has gassed himself in Mona Washbourne’s lodging house on New Year’s Eve, to the strains of Knees Up Mother Brown and Little Brown Jug coming up the stairs from his landlady’s party. Mary then uses Jim’s wartime revolver to commit her murderous act of despair and revenge. The casting of Dors ( an old friend and colleague of Lee Thompson and Joan Henry) was a masterstroke. Diana’s screen image and her apparently raffish but also obscure and ambiguous off-screen personality could not have suited the character better.

In flashbacks to the events which led to the crime, Mary seems a typical Dors character: exuberantly blonde, open-hearted, bosomy, impetuous and fun- loving. The audience is pre-conditioned to expect bad behaviour from Dors: was  not the star once publicly condemned by the Archbishop of Canterbury? Mary is one of a long line of individuals in British Cinema whom my mother used to describe as “naughty little girls”: discontented & sexually active young ladies who work in “Beauty Shops” but whose speciality is making trouble. Remember Phyl, landed with the manicures (and all the Allied Services) in MILLIONS LIKE US? And Queenie in THIS HAPPY BREED, who runs off with a married man and breaks her parents’ hearts? Mary’s discreetly curtained establishment – “Martin Douglas” – is right at the centre of things, perhaps in Sloane Street or Bond Street. “Lots of people came into the Beauty Shop…” recalls Mary in Holloway. The shop is a maybe a euphemism; certainly a metaphor for life, for sexual experimentation and adventure.

No completely “nice” girl would be standing there on counter, looking edibly gorgeous in “that sort of place”, selling perfume. That’s made quite clear. Mary is on the slippery and risky slope of living with vicarious luxury, even if a romantic dinner later consists of a tin of Heinz spaghetti. But, such a glorious counter of scents as Mary has to offer! Never was such splendid product placement of Guerlain and Lucien Lelong. The glorious Shalimar parfum flacon (1 oz) even gets its own glittering close-up and we glimpse Mitsouko, too. You’ll probably spot other old favourites if your eyes are sharper than mine.

Then Jim appears, sniffing around and trying to remember the name of horrid Lucy’s scent:

– ‘…not as cloying as that. Something sharper, more like the bouquet of very good brandy..’

– ‘ “The Lost Weekend”, by the sound of it!’

Mary is an excellent saleswoman  – ‘you’d be fortunate to have this person work for you!’: outgoing, immaculately groomed, knowledgeable of stock. Her counter is spotless; her manner is a nice blend of light flirtatiousness and reassuring briskness. And she’s not afraid to “ask for that sale”.

It turns out, of course, that Mary is wearing the perfume in question: an ironic re-orchestration of the old shtik of wife and mistress being given the same fragrance to avoid “mistakes”.

– ‘It’s called Christmas Rose…we only have very small bottles of Christmas Rose at 5 guineas’ ¤¤¤

The name is inspired: the plant which in the language of flowers is said to mean “please relieve my anxiety”; the coldly beautiful, poisonous and witchy hellebore which blossoms imperturbably through the coldest months of the year, decked in the semi-mourning colours of mauve, white and dark purple. It is one of the many strands of the flower imagery that plays such a major role in the film, echoing  the Christian burial service:

“He cometh up and is cut down like a flower…”

And throughout YIELD TO THE NIGHT Mary is obsessed with Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and its intimations of mortality –

‘”Loveliest of trees, the cherry• now
Is hung with bloom along the bough…”

….hung…’

The aged prison visitor Miss Bligh (Athene Seyler) – a lightning sketch of gaol reformer Margery Fry•• – comes to see Mary in Holloway.  Miss Bligh is a great gardener –

‘…it’s chastening work, gardening’.

This triggers off all kinds of thoughts in the contemplative viewer – Christ’s Agony in the Garden; Our Mother Eve in Eden; and another poem, Kipling’s sermonising, sententious but irresistible The Glory of the Garden. Miss Bligh unpins a small bunch of violets••• from her own dress and presents them to Mrs Hilton:

‘There you are, my dear. They’ll give you some water and you can put them beside your bed.’

But in her cracked and peeling cell with its parody of an en suite bathroom, and the dreadful “Other Door” at the foot of her bed, Mary cannot even do that. A ghastly “caring” provision is made for every bodily need and necessity in Holloway – if only for three weeks.  The constant starchy meals and mugs of cocoa*; “tea!”; ‘plenty of sugar’ dumped  on her porridge by a flustered wardress. There are the endless footling games of chess and cards to “distract” the prisoner; the smothering fuss over the blistered foot of one so soon to be killed. The terrible naked lights are kept on twenty four hours a day ( all the better to see the unsparing truth ) and there’s an upsetting scene where Mary is bathed like an infant while a wardress cuts her nails. Yet the intrusion of a spontaneous posy of flowers cannot be accomodated. The wild violets with their disturbing ungovernable fleshy sensual scent do not “fit” – and the tin mug in which they are dumped will not sit on the window sill either.

Mary’s last three weeks on earth are in the month of April – “the cruellest month”; the fertile, Easter month; the sweet rainy month of The Canterbury Tales. Life should be crazily burgeoning not being brought to an abrupt and unnatural end. But what a weird and blasted April Lee Thompson creates! The prison yard sets are dressed to look like a nuclear winter. “There’s a bitter east wind”, and not a bud on the twigs. Only at the very last, on Mary Hilton’s final afternoon, as she comes to some sort of terms with her fate does the sun briefly come out and there’s a distant glimpse of a daffodil.

But by then the light of the sun is too bright for Mary and she asks to be taken back to her cell where the last smells are of bromided tea, the medication of calming injections, the slopping-out pail
and the final cigarette which burns on long after Hilton’s life is snuffed out.

DIANA DORS  1931 – 1984
diana dors perfume

¤ Joan Henry became the second Mrs Lee Thompson a couple of years later.

¤¤ unlike the film’s publicity.

¤¤¤ that’s around £90 today.

• “white cherry = deception”.

•• sister of pre-eminent art critic, Bloomsbury sage and Omega Workshops maestro Roger Fry.

••• “violets = faithfulness, modesty”.

* note the tin plate of baked beans, maybe mirroring the canned spaghetti eaten in happier days.

Clothes In The Wardrobe¤

Delicious fumes of Norman Hartnell's In Love surge forth...

Delicious fumes of Norman Hartnell’s In Love surge forth…

I worked for years next to this exotically buoyant and very vocal girl who sold heady sultry Chiara Boni perfume. She habitually wore emerald eye shadow and cyclamen lip rouge, and she used to hang around the public pay phones to grab potential customers the moment they hung up. Her big line as she plied the bottle was –
“..is the sort of perfume, when you open your wardrobe door you smell it!”

And that magic tag shifted a lot of stock. As Lord Beaverbrook would have said, it “shook hands with people’s hearts”. I love this notion too, but to be perfectly honest it’s not a phenomenon I seem able to materialise in my own home. Maybe my family and I don’t spray heavily enough; maybe we wear too great an assortment of fragrances for one particular scent to cling.¤¤ Or perhaps the fabrics are all wrong, no leathers or furs; not enough wool, feather, silk or velvet. Like an pre-Columbian Aztec, I tend to live principally in plain or wadded cotton. I am currently sweetening a built-in closet on the bedroom landing by hanging scent-soaked flannels on the clothes rail: it works but I’m still not greeted by a gorgeous billow of fragrance when I open the door. (It’s maybe another aspect of this current pseudo-scientific obsession with projection versus sillage: a controversial subject which we might come to on another occasion. Or on the other hand which we might choose to ignore).

But thousands DO get this enviable boost! A survey taken by LW on your behalf reveals that around 50% of habitual perfume-users experience a buzz from their own clothes whether in cupboards, on hooks or slung over chairs. A regular reader confides:

‘Over the years I’ve loved opening my wardrobe door and being hit by a wave of Shalimar: it’s just magic… It makes you feel wonderful and I can’t put my finger on it… however, as the perfume has been differently formulated that hit has become less and less..’

I think, maybe, that sense of wonderment my correspondent refers to, and which so many share, comes from the perfume seeming to have developed another life, a separate existence as a comforting avatar. For those who enjoy the wardrobe effect, fragrance has become the wearer’s Doppelganger, animating the garments in her absence so that she opens the closet to find her other self rushing out to greet her like the reflection in a glass. A mirror image graced with her own perfume: a second, perhaps idealised, self with (intriguing if spooky speculation) an entirely different character altogether.

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And of course we love, too, to smell the clothes of loved ones  – whether absent temporarily or for ever. The widowed Queen Victoria slept with the Prince Consort’s nightshirt in her arms and his dressing gown was placed in her coffin. Toyah Wilcox talked on the radio last week of working with Katharine Hepburn in 1979, and Hepburn still wearing Spencer Tracy’s old clothes – shirts, suits, trousers – twelve years after his death. “This is his sweater, never been washed. I can smell him…”. And think of how babies and infants reject much-sucked, licked and cuddled toys and “snitch-cloths” once they have been cleaned. The intermingled smells and fluids provide the animal comfort not the texture nor the cute faces.

Our wonderful Sarah McCartney created a glorious perfume around the idea of a secret scented storage space: The Lion Cupboard is named after her late father’s personal treasure cupboard. It smells of lavender-strewn cashmeres and scarves, dark fragrant woods, tooth powder and paste (heavenly pink Euthymol perhaps? Eucryl?), leather-bound diaries, distant colognes and the familiar, ever-present yet always tantalising mystery of the past. Lorenzo Villoresi’s Alamut was once described by its creator as a ancient carved sandalwood chest found in a fairy castle of the Arabian Nights, crammed with rich oriental fabrics, spices and perfumes: wonderful odours released as the seal is broken and the heavy lid lifted.

Then there’s the redolence of fabric itself. All materials have a definite and not always attractive odour, especially the natural ones. Wet wool. Gaudily dyed new cotton. Leather jackets impregnated with take-away dinners and hung over the backs of too many cafe chairs. Remember Polly and Fanny in ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ discussing their party dresses?

“Mine’s silver lame, it smells like a bird cage when it gets hot but I do love it.”

Polly is so right: I always had this problem with the odour of lame – and indeed any fabric shot with metallic threads – but thought it was just me until I read Nancy Mitford. It’s a wrenching grating smell almost as tormenting as chalk on a blackboard, tearing cotton wool or licking the wooden stick of an ice-lolly. Ugh!

Because I’m feeling it difficult to read much at present, I recently went back to an old favourite Elizabeth Goudge, that most soothing and – in a modest way – inspiring of novelists. I found The Scent of Water at the Loros shop and it really calmed me down: Val slips into a new & expensive golden and bronze house coat. Her husband is entranced both by the colour, and by the smell of new silk. For silk, too, has a very particular odour: slightly akin to steel, and also something about it of a clean budgie or parrot after a shower bath and concomitant preening session. A certain mineral quality – though far less pronounced than the sour bitterness of Polly Montdore’s slinky gown. Nowadays I occasionally smell silk in a lovely fresh tie or scarf, and it certainly holds perfume exquisitely. But I remember the scent of silk especially from old clothes in childhood: two blue evening gowns relegated at the end of their lives from once fashionable wardrobes to the grubby infant-theatre of the dressing up cupboard.

I see all this is now leading me on to further thoughts, the overlap of old clothes with the supernatural, which must wait for a further instalment on this theme in due course. Talk to you later.

¤ with grateful acknowledgement to the genius of Alice Thomas Ellis.

¤¤ and of course all my drawers and closets are filled with herbal moth repellents, smelling delicious in their own right.