Keep Your Powder Dry!

“A bit of talcum
Is always walcum” – Ogden Nash.

Tins of Devon Violets, Damask Rose and English Lavender are the archetypal gifts for Mum and female family circle.  But now, and not for the first time, talc is in the dock over health concerns. Vast damages – $72 million! – have been awarded in Missouri against Johnson & Johnson. How poignant and strange that our dear old childhood friend and innocent lifetime companion, baby powder, should be besmirched. That symbol of cosy innocence, smelling faintly of orange blossom with distant reassuring echoes of eau de cologne, NARCISSE NOIR, and the firm but fair security of mummy, nanny & the monthly nurse: it’s too sad for words.

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I love silky talcum – not corn starch or rice powder – but it’s on borrowed time and not only because of medical reservations. Talc’s delightful and fatal impracticality is part of its charm. To use powder with the abandon and lavishness it is owed, one needs a readily wipeable bathroom – chrome, glass and tiles – and a maid on the payroll, for favour of constant mopping. No doubt the pace of modern living has contributed as least as much as health concerns to the decline of talc. Powdering takes time. Do you remember Vanessa Redgrave, years ago, playing Clementine Churchill on TV? She sat at her glass, leisurely, sensually and thoroughly powdering and patting her arms & shoulders preparatory to going downstairs to a Chartwell dinner. And at Downton Abbey, the insufferable Lady Mary used to powder her kid gloves, the easier to roll them on, in that notorious bedroom.¤

For thousands of years women – and men – have powdered their faces and bodies to sop up excess moisture and oil, and to present a flawless matte smoothness to the world. In the chronicle of fashion, powder is also inextricably involved with the story of false hair. The history of male pattern baldness in our present royal family is a fascinating one. Not less so is the tale of two abnormally hirsute monarchs who started a trend for men’s wigs. In the 1660’s two cousins sat on the thrones of England and France: both Charles II and Louis XIV had magnificent heads of black curling hair and it was probably a form of flattery that their male subjects of any consequence very abruptly took to shaving their own heads and wearing hot heavy wigs – a trend that lasted well over a century and which has still not quite died out in our modern law courts. By the 1700’s men were powdering their perukes with gold dust¤¤; blue or silver tinted orris; perfumed rice and pumice powder (available in violet, rose, neroli, ambergris, musk); even with flour. It was the use of the latter, with concomitant setting creams of bear grease and lard, that gave rise to those occasional head infestations of insects, mites and even baby mice. Or were those stories merely envious satires, put about by those who were unable to fork out the modern equivalent of around £5,000 for a decent wig ?

Circa 1750, A political cartoon entitled 'The English Lady in Paris, an Essay on Puffing by Louis le Grande', showing a seated old lady having her wig powdered by a nasty looking Frenchman.

Circa 1750, A political cartoon entitled ‘The English Lady in Paris, an Essay on Puffing by Louis le Grande’, showing a seated old lady having her wig powdered by a nasty looking Frenchman.

At any rate, the powder ritual may have begun as a sort of dry shampoo routine but it soon became a de rigueur accessory. Women followed suit. Marie Antoinette’s return from Varennes to Paris house arrest in 1791 is one of the great set pieces of the Revolution. Her women washed her hair clean of stale powder and the grime of the roads, only to discover that her blond cendre tresses had turned as white as snow in the course of three days.

To be sure, powdery scents are all about romance and nostalgia. Powder suggests not only the milky warmth of starchy soapy nursery security but also the childhood scented kisses of female friends and relations; their bags, their maquillage, their clothes. There may be a spicy snuffy-tobacco tang of dad too. And a memory of certain foods – rice pudding, custard creams, meringues, icing sugar ( “dredge generously”) – that whizzes you back through the Time Tunnel to sitting on someone’s knee in the warm crumby comfort of cake and caresses.
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So powdery scents can scatter and melt and segue into the gourmand tribe. People come to Les Senteurs from far and wide for Villoresi’s TEINT DE NEIGE – “the colour of snow”. Think of drifts of ice crystals in the opalescent glow of the Northern Lights – emerald, gold, carnation pink and mauve. And at a high window, behind glass, a professional beauty sits powdering her face, her cheeks painted by the reflected rosy stain of the snows, and her colour heightened by a dish of candied dragees.  More sexually ambiguous is POUDRE DE RIZ, the aura created by love and its illicit practitioners – a stifling evocation of  hair and warm lickable skin polished with coconut-tinged monoi oil, and nacreous with sheer rice powder. Compare it if you will with an authentic Edwardian fragrance, SHEM EL NESSIM. Here all is frou frou and susurration; an ivory miniature world of crepe de chine tea gowns, feather boas and endless drifts of embraceable iris. This last is perhaps the most sophisticated and, at the same time, the most innocent of our great powdery triad.

Divinities sitting slightly below this triptyque and exhibiting permutations of powder might include:

– the raspberry waxiness of LIPSTICK ROSE with its warm and lusciously generous cleavage

– the wanton confectionery/tobacconist boutique of DIVIN ENFANT

– the witty hot pepper powderiness of PIPER NIGRUM

– the sweet smoky gunpowder/ pistol-cap/ Christmas cracker trick that inflames LA FIN DU MONDE and HIMALAYA.

– the pancake stage makeup and black suede ankle-strap lavatory heels which seduce in PARFUM SACRE.

– and a new arrival on these shores, exclusive to Les Senteurs: IRIS PALLADIUM – ample, luxurious and paradoxical. Blue chiffon iris with a glittering mineral accord.

Lest anyone should be inclined to consider powdery perfume a mere frivolity, let him think on. What is powder but the very stuff of Time itself? All things – ourselves included – come from dust and ashes and return into them. And here thoughts arise of the immortal Ashes of Roses – an evocative and profound name! A three minute sermon in itself.
¤ talc is excellent for removing oil and grease stains from fabric, too. Keep the soiled item well away from water. Coat the stain in a good thick layer of talcum and leave for as long as possible – at least 24 hours – for the powder to absorb the grease. Brush off. Repeat as necessary. Be patient: you will be nearly always be assured of total success. I have seen pale blue silk and new white linen perfectly restored.

¤¤ a charming extravagance briefly revived by such exotics as Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead in the early 1930’s.

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