After the Ball is Over…

I have written before on this page of my experiences with Jean Desprez‘s Bal a Versailles: today I thought it might be instructive to consider the scents of the Chateau de Versailles in its heyday and see how they compare with the perfumer’s glorious fantasy. Built by the Sun King in the mid-17th century and added to by his successors the vast palace was once the envy of monarchs the world over: thousands of courtiers, guards and servants surrounded the Kings and Queens of France as they lived a life of almost entirely public magnificence; dressing, eating, sleeping, even giving birth in front of a gawping and by no means uncritical audience. Versailles with its huge park and gardens was the seat of government, a hunting ground, a theatre, housing complex, shopping centre, canteen and to some extent a bordello. Filles de joie were hustled off the premises if found touting for trade in the Grande Galerie, but Louis XV maintained his own discreet private establishment, the Parc aux Cerfs, in the town.
So there pervaded overall a very rich miasma. Not least from the kitchens which catered for the needs of all these people, and the fires which not very successfully heated the hundreds of rooms: in the winter of 1709 ink froze in the ink wells and wine on the dining tables. The Royal Family lit their rooms with beeswax candles but others would have made do with tallow, which smoked dreadfully and stank. From the stables came the pungent odour of innumerable horses kept for the hunt, travel, transportation and work in the park. The manure was ploughed back into the vegetable gardens and the flower parterres. Louis XIV was not a patient man (‘I almost had to wait’) and insisted on a system of instant gardening: rather than waiting for flowers and trees to grow they would be transplanted in pots in full bloom and shoved into beds. Some lived, some not: there were always plenty more to take their place. We hear of one occasion when the scent of thousands of hyacinths and tuberoses proved so strong in the heat that visitors retreated, faint and sickened. Inside the palace blossoming orange trees stood in silver tubs, and as can be seen in the Wallace Collection today, exquisite Sevres porcelain containers were used as incense-burners and to store pot pourri.
Bad smells were a constant misery: it is debatable how often people washed then. Presumably as today, some more than others. (Did you read that grim survey that revealed that some 20% of modern Britons change their sheets only quarterly?). Visitors to modern Versailles can inspect Louis XV’s bathroom (tastefully painted with bullrushes) and that of Marie Antoinette, who for modesty’s sake bathed in a robe which covered her from neck to ankle. But of course there were no deodorants and only primitive soap (often made of animal fats) to deal with the dreadful problem of sweat: the summer heat must have been an ordeal. No wonder exercise was usually taken after dusk, in the cool of the evening. Women’s chemises were cut very voluminously to absorb the abundant perspiration that accumulated under their steel or whalebone stays: men tended to use their long shirt tails as – what shall we say?- protection for the inside of their breeches. No knickers. And these were the super-rich and fashionable. Of course, until the 1780’s when washable cottons and muslins started to become fashionable, there was no way of laundering one’s outer garments. Velvet, brocade, taffeta and satin had to make do with a good brushing and a kind of primitive dry cleaning with rice powder and spices. There would also have been the stench of dirty hair (and false hair, too): washing was rare because considered injurious to health, and the elaborate coiffures of the period relied heavily on applications of bear grease to hold things in place.
Bear in mind, too, animal life other than the horses: indoors there would have been a great many pets – dogs, cats, parrots, and of course monkeys, not all of them house-trained. Royalty also relied on goats, cows and ewes being brought to their apartments to supply fresh milk at source. The dreadful diseases prevalent then emitted their own odours – the terrible smells tormenting the last days of both Louis X1V and Louis XV are notorious. Vile medical procedures of the day called for reeking animal ingredients (fresh blood, skins); and probably, as is recorded of Charles 2’s palace at Whitehall, there would be the odd whelping bitch producing a litter of puppies here and there in unlikely places. Lavatories were still in their infancy, with much reliance on the chamber-pot and relieving oneself in a corner, even on occasion the Chapel. No wonder that the Court relied so heavily on perfumes, not only to sweeten the air but also the person. However, as in medicine, the cure was often worse than the complaint. Think of the fashionable oils of the day – narcissus, jasmine, jonquil, tuberose, rose, civet, musk and ambergris – thickly layered on sweaty skin already covered in primitive make-up; on grubby clothes and powdered hair. Not attractive; so much so that the folk-memory lingers even today. There is still a feeling at the back of many people’s minds that the use of too much perfume is suspect: a camouflage for something unclean or alien. And cleanliness to the Protestant Anglo-Saxon is next to godliness  Jean Desprez has turned all this glamorous dross to gold: “Bal a Versailles” rises like a lotus from the primeval slime of its inspiration.

Bal a Versailles

Bal a Versailles

August 1981: miles high in the sky on a night flight from Ottawa to London. Some turbulence so a certain amount of noisy nausea along the aisles, possibly exacerbated by complimentary glasses of Kahlua being handed out: delicious if risky compensation for inconvenience caused by minor industrial action. And of course we were still smoking in planes, then. A faintly sordid atmosphere. They finally dimmed the lights (which always makes me feel much hotter, for some nutty reason) and, like small children, urged us to sleep. I can never sleep on a plane and on this occasion simply became rigid with tension and discomfort and the apprehension that comes with exhaustion.

Came the dawn and the Duty Free trolley and the gleam of gold…an exquisite package of Bal a Versailles, a 3.5 ml parfum with that ravishing pink and blue Fragonard-inspired label. “I’m having that” I thought on a whim and bought it, opened it and o! the scent..up in the brightening sky and it really was like smelling the rustle of angels’ wings. Sweet, incense-smoky, oriental, faintly animalic, intensely aromatic…over 300 oils involved in its composition, from roses and orange blossom to civet, patchouli and amber. This wonderful rich other-worldly scent wafting from a tiny bottle no larger than a watch face: absolutely magical. I recall nothing of the descent into Gatwick; sat there in a happy haze, hypnotised.

If you visualise perfumes as having a colour and texture, Bal a Versailles is liquid old gold with highlights of topaz and gleaming copper. It’s both luxuriously creamy and gauzily ethereal. When it came out in 1962 it was famously said to have won great favour with Elizabeth Taylor, then making the notorious “Cleopatra”, and it certainly matched her persona perfectly – that blend of the exotic, the seductive, the naïve, the earthily impulsive and voluptuous. It was great for her peachy skin, too, the violet eyes and night-black hair. If you remember seeing Cleopatra in the Odeons, marvelling as we did at Liz’s liquid-jewelled eye make-up, her palpitating cleavage and the golden-winged Isis costume you can almost smell billows of Bal a Versailles coming off the screen, mixed with clouds of kyphi burned by Pamela Brown in the hallucinatory assassination of Caesar sequence. It really sends you, this perfume, as we said back then. No doubt it sent Richard Burton, too.

Bal a Versailles is 50 years old this year. It has grown only more glamorous with age. It reveals secrets of a more sophisticated world; it’s mesmeric, psychtropic. Try it.