“Too kind..”

vanity

 

I believe it was “Dizzy” Disraeli who opined to the effect that: “We all love flattery: and when you come to royalty, then you should lay it on with a trowel.”

Certainly the widowed Victoria purred  like a cat under her Prime Minister’s assiduous attentions. Rotund and querulous in black bombazine and crepe, the Empress of India revelled in being cast as Disraeli’s dainty “Fairy” and “Fairy Queen”.

Elizabeth Tudor demanded to be assured that she was the Fairest Princess in Christendom. Not even the grossest flattery was excessive for her: was it a game? Did she secretly enjoy seeing statesman and intellectuals making fools of themselves over a tragic old lady? Perhaps she saw that the demanding and obtaining of continual irrational praise was a measure not of her beauty but of her power. And that was why the horrible ( and boring ) Earl of Essex who surprised her, balding and undressed in her own bedroom, had to die. Elizabeth knew that after that experience – shattering to both Queen and courtier – Essex would never be able to lie convincingly, eyeball to eyeball, again.

I’ve been thinking about all this a lot and I’ll tell you why. My spies in the department stores tell me that currently the most frequently-heard complaint from perfume purchasers is that the fragrance brought the wearer no compliments. No one said a word. The crash of silence! – to coin a phrase.

It used to be widely said that if you could not smell your own perfume then it was the perfect match for you. There is something in this apparent paradox. As we all know, the more you are in love with a scent the less you pick it up. The brain and the nose are all at peace and they don’t need to keeping registering the fragrance. They know you are happy and safe with it. So they simply switch off and worry about something else.

Frederic Malle told us that he knew he’d got a hit with iconic Musc Ravageur when he sent his P.A. down the Metro doused in the new scent, and the Paris commuters went wild. It certainly is a rousing accolade to be told you smell marvellous but I don’t think we should either panic or grouse when we don’t get the compliments.¤

The compliments don’t come largely because many people are still shy about scents. Smell is a very intimate thing. Smelling bad is, as we know, something even your best friend may not be able to tell you. I would hesitate to comment on a stranger’s gorgeous scent unless asked specifically for an opinion. Men can’t help acting on Impulse – but I’d be very wary of stopping someone in the street to pass a remark on their redolence. Especially in these strange days! I wished someone a good morning recently and the sky fell in. “WHAT did you say to me??”

I am just old enough to remember a time when my elders thought it intolerably gauche, tasteless and bad form to praise anything. You thanked your hostess for entertaining you, but you would never single out the food, or her dress, her hair, her jewels or her perfume for specific comment. Diana Mitford’s old nanny told her on her wedding day to stop fussing at the glass, for:

“Nobody’s going to be looking at you, dear”.

Drawing attention to oneself; seeking attention or approbation was then beyond the pale.

This may not have been altogether healthy; but, in any case, do we not wear perfume primarily for our own private delight? When lovely customers come to the shop to find themselves something new, they often worry that their partners may not care for the chosen prize. I always advise them as I’m now advising you. Say Absolutely Nothing to your Loved One; just wear the perfume with quiet confidence. Don’t canvass opinions. Asking others for their views on what you are wearing always makes folks nervous – and consequently “predicates the answer ‘no'” as we used to learn in French grammar lessons. Never explain and never complain.

Well, doesn’t it make sense? Please yourself and then at least someone’s happy.

Have a joyously perfumed week!

¤ “She’s wearing TRAMP – and everybody loves her!” was a wonderfully ambiguous advertising line some 40 years ago.

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Cat’s Cradle

mr-kitty

 

Such filthy cold weather as we’ve had! I’ve been boosting my circulation with scalding hot baths and a selection of vanilla & tonka soaps. The Mizensir fragrance Musc Eternel – now selling like hot cakes at Les Senteurs  – echoes this creamy musky heat. Musc Eternel has a beautiful clinging sweetness to it, like a thick fluffed-up bath towel that’s been laid up in the airing cupboard with baby powders, oils and intimate lingerie. Simultaneously comforting, innocent and seductive.

 

What you really need in wet raw weather is a cat or a dog at the end of the bed; or curled up asleep on your chest. I never slept so well in the afternoons as when I had Mr Kitty or Dolly the Pug to hand. It’s not just the entirely relaxed weight and soothing involuntary noises emitted by that furry bundle on your lap. It’s the rhythm of the breathing synchronised with your own; and the perfectly clean smell of a small animal.

 

Now a swanky new hotel and spa for dogs and cats – 7 star, apparently, whatever that may mean in this context  – has opened in Beijing. The hotel has the unusual name of ‘SmellMe’. This strikes me as a bit odd and not especially attractive, but I suppose it is acknowledging the primary greeting between all animals. You know, that apparent “kissing” – or, at least, rubbing of noses; and the uninhibited peering and sniffing beneath tails.

 

Since the nationwide “awareness campaign” for neutering, you don’t smell cat nearly as much as you used to when out and about. I remember childhood sofas which possessed a certain unwished-for redolence. My grandfather had a flock of wilful cats who did as they pleased. Thomas used a Georgian sugar basin as his private amenity. Flowers of the asparagaceae family – bluebells for instance – are used rather warily in perfume because to many people they suggest felines at their least attractive. A bowl of hyacinth bulbs past their best emit a most disconcerting smell. A gardener said recently that she found the heavenly scent of that pink winter vibernum to be unpleasantly similar to that of dog detritus, once the blossom decays.

 

“Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”.

 

It’s the old story: we howl and shout when our dogs “roll in something” on the beach or down the fields and yet the line between the disgusting and the delightful is so fine. Very few of us would revel in every one of these scents and tastes: Stilton cheese, ripe pheasant, tripe, over-blown lilac, tuberoses, ambergris – and coffee beans that have known the digestive tracts of a civet.

 

A couple of years ago I wrote in this column about the very common city problem of a mouse in the house. I imagined then that scattering cat combings in the place where vermin congregate would have a deterrent effect. Now I learn it is specifically the reek of cat urine that scares off the intruders: so I pass this tip on. Sufferers may wish to re-think their policy – or rely (as previously advised) on peppermint; and the intercession of St Martin de Porres.

 

Several of the most famous fictional cats in our literary culture are creations of Beatrix Potter. Mrs Twitchit and Mrs Ribby are immaculate and industrious animals. They run grocery stores, cook, launder and cuff their kittens when the tinies muss their best bibs and tuckers. They eat mice to be sure (mixing the meat with bacon in pies) and – like Miss Moppet – tie rodents in dusters and “toss them about like a ball”.

 

But, now that I know what I know, I wonder about the passage in ‘Johnny Town-mouse’ in which the cat plays a darker and more realistic role¤. Johnny offers a  his guest from the country a place to lay his tiny head:

 

‘The sofa pillow had a hole in it. Johnny Town-mouse quite honestly recommended it as the best bed, kept exclusively for visitors. But the sofa smelt of cat. Timmy Willie preferred to spend a miserable night under the fender’.

 

O! Those well-remembered old couches of my youth: ‘I believe there’s been a cat on here…..”

 

¤ the mice feel faint at the thought of this diabolical cat. She kills the canary and we can see her kittens (naked as nature intended) capering all over the scullery table.

All In The Mind

garbo
“The desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” ¤ 
Round about this time the sluggish torpor of mid-winter begins to lift. You realise that, despite all expectations, a new energy is charging you up, to – hopefully – see you through another year. The sunshine and anticipatory tingle of a single perfect blue day is a promissory note of spring. The light now lasts till after tea. The pink clouds of shepherd’s delight – last night, spreading like an explosion of rose petals – don’t spatter across the sky till gone half past five. The dark begins to retreat, and chilly fresh flowery smells start to emerge once more in the garden. The snowdrops have come, and the first crocus are open. As I grow older, February – formerly loathed and despised¤¤ – now seems one of the more hopeful of months.
They were talking about the wild life and hard times of Lionel – “OLIVER!” – Bart on the wireless. I remember he had a great love of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, that perfumed dying of the light. In the lean years of his old age, the composer would come into Harrods for a spray-up on the Guerlain counter. In those generous days, the kindly staff would rummage in the bins and the stock-rooms for exhausted L’Heure Bleue testers from which a final precious drop might be squeezed.
Perfume is, above all, a wilful creature of moods, impressions and fantasy. We talk a great deal about sillage, tenacity, batch numbers, raw ingredients and projection: but in the final analysis the magic of fragrance is all in the mind. Most of us interpret scent in an entirely subjective way. The creamy waxen glory of sambac or ylang ylang is, for some, redolent more of bicycle tyres or penny bubblegum than the secret gardens of the Jungle Princess. Remember Giorgio Beverley Hills? The party line described it as an explosion of jasmine and gardenias. I always smelled pineapple sorbet. And that, I liked. One takes whatever one chooses from a scent, and revels in it. The rest doesn’t matter.
Mr Bart’s L’Heure Bleue is notorious for the wildly different associations it evokes. To many it represents the apogee of Edwardian opulence, the frou frou of a lost golden age. This is a view which gains assurance from the continued availability of L’Heure Bleue’s cousins – Apres L’Ondee and (proudly at Les Senteurs) – Grossmith’s feathery powdery Shem-El-Nessim. Other people smell L’Heure Bleue as cakey feasts of almond marzipan; dusty clove carnations in the dentist’s waiting room; or the exhausted sadness of shadowy funerals. None of these images define the perfume: they are the fantasies (sometimes shared) of individuals.
One of the great liberating joys of experiencing perfume is that you can do with it exactly as you will. When we have the joy of welcoming new clients to Les Senteurs, I often say to our visitors, “everyone here does just as he likes”. By which I mean, that we are always on hand – if required – to help, advise and explain: but, in the final analysis, every visitor must feel free to interpret, choose and wear fragrance exactly as she or he chooses. That’s the only work required.
It is possible – I hope not, but it is conceivable – that occasionally the way we describe a fragrance may jar uncomfortably with the image in a client’s mind. It is inevitable, really. The old rigour and definition of the traditional perfume families have long since flown out the window. Nowadays (and, wonderfully) perfumers have access to such a plethora of raw materials that their combinations and formulae are both startling and infinite. A consequent ‘semi-floriental gourmand fougere’ is almost impossible to categorise definitively. And to pick it apart atom by molecule would be to break a butterfly on a wheel. Perfume language still being in the olfactory Stone Age, I prefer to speak in metaphor, if not in tongues. One can only suggest; and paint a personal picture.
But, of course:
 “I say to-MAH-toes
You say to-MAY-toes…”
As my dear father used to remark, it’s as well we all think differently or some of us would be killed in the rush. People discover fragrance in the most unlikely places. When Anne Baxter first goes backstage to meet Bette Davis in reel two of All About Eve the camera lingers on all the friendly dusty squalor behind the scenes – and on the lady hoovering in the Stalls out front.
Says Baxter:
‘You can smell it, can’t you? Like some magic perfume…’
You pays your money and you takes your choice. But always with pleasure – and, of course, always at Les Senteurs.
Thank you.
¤ Isaiah 35.
¤¤ “Messieurs janvier et fevrier sont mes meilleurs genereaux!” – Tsar Nicholas 1st.

Shop Till You Drop

royal-jelly-lipstick-ad

 

I was just ending last week’s piece on Regency shopping habits when I bethought me of Mme Du Barry, nee Jeanne Becu, the most notorious courtesan of her day. This gorgeous girl from Champagne began her amorous – and retail – career during the 1760’s. She came up to Paris from the country and found herself a nice little job on the counter at ‘A la toilette’, otherwise the Maison Labille, situated on the rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs.

Maison Labille was a sort of luxury milliners-cum-drapers and was lavishly stocked with all things perfumed and scented. The vendeuses were as widely advertised as the toiletries. Mlle Jeanne was very soon whisked from the glittering vitrines and mirrored shelves to be installed in a private suite at Versailles¤. Here for six years she reigned as the last and most spectacular of Louis XV’s mistresses.
Mme Du Barry was always in the very van of fashion and subscribed to the new health & hygiene fads of Dr Tronchin. As a young woman she was warned against stepping out in her satin shoes lest they be damaged. But she grew out of this nonsense; and later set great store by cold baths, long walks in the fresh air and loose light clean clothing. Her only cosmetics were said to be roses and milk.

Then, in her middle age, the Revolution and a terrible Fate overtook the Du Barry and she was hauled to the guillotine. The often-told tale of her dreadful end has her tumbril passing under the windows of the Maison Labille. All the grisettes, midinettes and coquettes were out on the balconies and peering from behind shutters in the sleety December dusk. All of them pausing at the height of the Christmas trade to see their old colleague going to her death. (We often recalled this – probably apocryphal – story in the perfumery department at Fortnum and Mason, gazing down on Piccadilly from the great sash windows of the second floor).

It was in Paris that the department store was said to have been invented: the first proper example being the Bon Marche, which opened in 1838. Some social historians reckon that the impact of the new railways coupled with the building of decent public lavatories led directly to the development of the big stores. Now elaborately and inconveniently dressed ladies were able to travel long distances and stay away from home all day, without embarrassment, discomfort or inconvenience.

Perfumes and toiletries were from the first well represented on the counters. The birth of modern commercial perfumery coincided perfectly with this revolution in shopping: the ideal lure for the honey-traps of the ground floor. Though older sources suggest that the earliest fragrance and cosmetic departments were slow to make a profit. Shoppers had formerly bought their aids to nature at more discreet outlets. To be spot-lit at their furtive purchases by gas and – rather later – brilliant electric illumination was, for some, all too much.

So many Continental and British nineteenth century novels paint a dismal picture of working conditions in the retail. The sales assistants were drilled like soldiers under the terrible eye of the Buyer and the Shopwalker. Counter staff were regarded as lower than dirt, and dismissed their posts for as much as raising their eyes to greet a customer. (“Dumb insolence”). They must never initiate a conversation. They had to walk around the vast and terrible Floor, never across it. Staff often “lived in”: sleeping in dormitories on the top floor or down in the basement. They were fed in a communal refectory; and rigidly chaperoned when off-duty. The pay was usually nugatory. No wonder that so many of these decorative drudges were not averse to earning a little more in other ways, thanks to the only people they ever met: lonely customers.

Most stores considered moral turpitude as a reason for instant dismissal. Less scrupulous employers might consider an especially presentable “counter-jumper” as a lure, to be beautifully set off among the crystal flacons and perfumed powders. For memories of the Du Barry have lingered long in the retail memory. She became a kind of secular patron saint of “intimate requisites”, her name commemorated in innumerable lingerie, make up, fragrance and hair products¤¤.

Immortality is often granted in the most extraordinary manner. I once saw a portrait of Marie Louise, the youngest daughter of Du Barry’s royal lover, decorating a very dirty wastepaper bin in a motorway lavatory outside Cambridge. Marie Louise was not only a Daughter of France but a Carmelite nun. To what a very strange and degraded destiny had her image come.

¤ and at Versailles, by a curious coincidence, she ran into old Monsieur Labille’s daughter Adelaide, by then one of France’s leading portrait painters.

¤¤ as well as in the luscious “creme Du Barry” – a cauliflower soup supposedly named because of the fanciful resemblance of the Comtesse’s elaborate hairstyle to the blond whorls of the vegetable.