A Whiter Shade of Pale


Perfumes are turning very pale, do you notice? Olfactory pallor is “on point”. That’s an interesting theme. Myself, I prefer to have my chosen fragrances rich and brilliant. “Penny plain and twopence coloured” is my way of thinking. I was enthralled on this drear and stormy wet morning by the earrings on my Tesco check-out lady: baroque silver sprays with huge glowing ruby drops. Cherries in the rain, she said. “Colour”, as Miss Brodie remarks, “enlivens the spirit”. Other folk are more aroused by the ideal of our ancestors – “pale and interesting”. (Or, as another later version has it – “pale but interesting”. Not quite the same thing).
We have watched with interest as this pallor in fragrance has developed over the past year or so. It began, I think, with a tendency for perfumers to become shy about revealing their ingredients in interviews and PR releases. I approve of this like mad, actually. Many of us fragrance lovers are looking not so much for a recreation of a specific flower, plant or redolence but a mood, a fantasy, an atmosphere. This is as it should be. Perfume is capable of such magical and psychotropic effects that it is the accomplished transcendental whole that is vital, not the component parts. Agreed that a perfect rose scent – see Frederic Malle passim – is a marvel and a joy for ever; but it all too easy to become overly narrow in our presumed preferences of ingredients. An appealing legend in the business – possibly true – has it that one of the twentieth century’s most famous rose soliflores (Guerlain’s Nahema) has not a trace of rose oil in its formula. The stretching of the imagination is key to the joy of scent. Illusion is a very luxurious and accomplished commodity. Think about Marlene’s nude souffle stage gowns.

“She’s leaving no rhinestone unturned!”

white tulip field
The new pale beauties – the enchanted triptych of Altaia; James Heeley’s imminent Chypre 21; Francis Kurkdjian’s Baccarat 540 has just drifted in – are paradoxical. By pale I do not mean insubstantial or naive. Their components (if divulged, or hinted at) are rich, even florid, but their final realisation is fragile and elusive. Baccarat is impossible to define in terms of the now outmoded classic fragrance families. It’s a conceptual exploration of the scent of blown glass, hot sand becoming crystal, of a glittering chandelier chiming in the hot draught of candles – with a single burning drop of crimson, “la touche de rouge”, at its heart. Oolang Infini by Atelier Cologne is another excellent early example of this type. Blond leather, neroli, tobacco flower, jasmine and blue tea are fun to think about and fool you into thinking you are going to enter a traditional Aladdin’s Cave of sweltering oriental chypre whereas the genius of Jerome Epinette gives us instead the hungry ghost – a Fata Morgana –  of these oils. The latest Frederic Malle release – Monsieur – has a massive injection of patchouli at its core, paraded with mandarin, rum and amber – but do not expect a new take on Opium or old-style gourmanderie. Monsieur is exquisitely restrained, aristocratically parched: like the tweed cuff displayed on its inspired PR visuals.

Where has this love of pallor, this exquisite delicacy come from? Does it not reflect a pathology of our times? For millennia, pallor of skin was an essential refinement. Egyptian tomb paintings show noble women as shades paler than their men. Queen Elizabeth painted her skin with egg albumen and white lead. Byron drank vinegar. Seventeenth century ladies of quality applied leeches and enemas, and wore sickly green veils to encourage a look of chlorosis. Women caught in the San Francisco earthquake perished in collapsing buildings rather than run hatless into the street. Like pencil-long Manchu fingernails, paleness was an indicator of status; it showed that you did not have to toil under the sun, cultivating your own diet of root vegetables. Ruddiness was intolerably vulgar.* But then, barely a century ago, vegetables and sunburn became all the rage: everyone wanted to glow and tan¤. And, at around the same time, the soi-disant Golden Age of perfumery exploded in a dazzling heady pyrotechnic riot of gorgeous colour and throbbing fragrances as powerful as the Victorian aniline dyes. The exaggerated perfection of the cinema screen brought sex, glamour and fashion into the lives of anyone with a few pennies. The terrible twentieth century stigmatised reticence and modesty as unbearably dowdy and everyone started cheeping for attention like insatiable baby birds in a nest.

So, the new pallor may be a temporary reaction, a rebellion against seven fat years of oud. Or it may be something deeper: another of those exercises in nostalgia that take such curious forms. Are we associating paleness with the comforting security of the past? I think we certainly equate it with craft and skill and integrity: a return to the days before the scientific molecular explosion when all perfume was “natural”, every man was gallant and every woman virtuous.

“When all the world is young, lad
And all the trees are green
When every goose a swan, lad
And every lass a queen..”

Pale perfumes have an intrinsic agreeable mystery, with intricately subtly wrought ingredients whose secrets need to be teased out. They require patience and detective work. They demand a keen sense of smell which, like pallor, is always associated with sensitivity. In a crass age of blarting noise and demented trolls everyone wants to be thought sensitive – if not spiritual. A new report from the University of Stirling concludes that most people choose a perfume which chimes with their own personal smell – “fragrances are chosen to work in tandem with individual body odour, potentially enhancing an individual’s personal olfactory fingerprint”. Like calls to like. How satisfying it is when all the pieces fit together!

“Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar,
Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell?”

* which is why Edwardian hostesses found tomatoes so unbearably common.

¤ had not everyone mucked in, and fought and laboured together during the Great War?

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