Glad Rags and Tatters

marilyn-with-dog

 

Ever been told by a stay-at-home how your dog knows that you’re on your way back, even though you’re still in transit half an hour away? Maybe he goes to sit by the garden gate or peers, all expectant, from a window. One of our pugs used to squawk like a macaw in the car when we were homeward-bound, albeit miles off. I once escorted a pining peke from Leicester to Cambridge to be reunited with her mistress. I swear, that peke picked up from the moment we boarded the train. Of course, it’s all due to the acute power and versatility of the canine sense of smell. The dog realises that his perception of the owner’s smell is growing fainter: so apparently he reasons that it must be time for an imminent reunion. To put it in crude human metaphor, it works like an olfactory clock; a variation of the ones that Carl Linnaeus and Eugene Rimmel planned with plants and perfume and which never worked properly. But animal senses have perfect timing. They just proved it with “tests”, though I think we all suspected as much.

Smells cross the hours and the years as well as the miles. That dress Marilyn wore to sing ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ has been auctioned off once again. Last time the occasion was all written up at length in a magazine; Vanity Fair, I think it was. The dress was then in a poor state of repair, for MM had been sewn into it for the live performance and cut out of it after. The Jean Louis nude souffle chiffon¤ was so wringing wet with sweat, they had to dry it with a squad of hair-dryers before Marilyn was hastily sewn back into it to go off to a Kennedy dinner. She was rushed and fussed and she fidgeted a lot, so the re-robing caused minor tears and spilled bugle beads. She had insisted on putting it on again -“since when I have worn no other” – and it was well sprayed with No 5, I suppose, to “refresh and sweeten”.

Never cleaned – you couldn’t clean garments like that in 1962 – the dress subsequently decayed badly. I recall a certain Luxury Specialist Cleaners making a disastrous attempt to launder a similar dress even some thirty years later – the thing simply dissolved. Only the trimmings survived. When they opened the drum, there were all the rhinestones and sequins rattling about, but no trace of a golden gown. You wonder, therefore, if there’s much left of the original: I’m imagining extensive expert restoration. Dietrich, as is well-known, used to do running repairs on her Jean Louis stage costumes with hairs pulled from her own head, saying thread or cotton was too coarse.

Expected to fetch $1.5 million this time around, the Monroe gown was finally knocked down at $4.8 million. Amazing. An observant correspondent writes in: “….the thing is, no new icons are being created so the old ones are priceless, like Vermeers…”

I wonder if you can still smell the Chanel.

I thought of that terrible story told¤¤ of Garland during one of her final concert seasons. She was in such a bad way by then that toxic odours gushed from the poor girl’s pores – “stage hands recoiled visibly” – and she had to drench herself in Ma Griffe before, during and after every performance.

Legends of old Hollywood often smelled a bit funny. We’ve all heard about Gable’s teeth and Grable’s nervous incontinence. Crawford had her movie sets kept icy cold, reputedly to control her sweats. Garbo chewed garlic cloves to put a damper on amorous leading men. Returning to Marilyn, do you remember that story of her munching greasy cold cutlets in bed and wiping her hands and lips on the sheets? Gloria Swanson made a point in her memoirs of mentioning Lionel Barrymore’s terrible smell, a reek which offended her super-sensitive (and very beautiful) ski-jump nose. During the filming of ‘Sadie Thompson’, therefore, she had Lionel’s clothes confiscated and destroyed during his lunchtime nap¤¤¤. Apparently thereafter he was a changed man. Maybe as Gloria writes “he’d taken a notion to bathe”.

A tiny tot once shouted out in a crowded department store : “Mummy! There’s the man who smells!” She wasn’t referring to me, thank Heaven, but to a game octogenarian who was always soaked in L’Heure Bleue, even at 8 in the morning. Inevitably, there were terribly hurt feelings. You have to be so careful. Smells – like yawns – are contagious.

Let’s talk some more about this another time.

¤ “a very rude dress” writes a correpondent. She’s right.

¤¤ by biographer Anne Edwards.

¤¤¤ beauty sleep. I remember “going round” after a matinee of ‘Aren’t We All?’ at Birmingham in 1984 to be told firmly: “Miss Colbert and Mr Harrison are asleep”.

Some smells do linger, Jean…

Circe Invidiosa

Circe Invidiosa

“Sillage”: in French the word means the cleft water and foaming ripples that mark the wake of a ship; it also denotes the trail of an animal. There’s a clue in that, for by the English it is used almost exclusively to mean the waft of perfume left by the presence or passage of a wearer. Everyone demands intense sillage these days: they even measure it. A sillage of three inches is nugatory; a respectable sillage should reach an arm’s length from the body and no further. And so on. Frederic Malle has even, you might reasonably claim, recreated the odour of sillage in his witty and delicious Cafe Society candle and room scent: une sillage de sillage.

Today people are by and large ready to admit (albeit under pressure) that they are wearing perfume, though they might be reluctant to reveal the name of their Chosen One. For centuries, though, the lovely and desirable sought the alluring enchantment of the sillage without the dubious connotations of the scent that gave it birth. To be seen to wear perfume on the skin was meretricious and dingy; yet to smell delicious was the mark of goodness, of moral integrity. The odour of sanctity revealed that a person was pure, benevolent, divine, without spot or stain. And it would continue to manifest even after death, rendering the mortal remains incorruptible, giving off an redolence of sweet myrrh, roses and what have you. So the aim of the fashionable was to create the illusion that scent emanated from one’s own skin, pores and soul – just as Alexander the Great sweated forth the smell of violets – and not from some dubious potation which aped the divine gift on none-to-clean skin.

“From her fragrant robes a lovely perfume was scattered” reads a hymn to the goddess Demeter. For thousands of years men and women strove for this effect: and contemporary literature – poems, plays, novels – colludes in the illusion. Desirable individuals exude scent from a vague, mysterious source. They are surrounded by an aura of perfume which suffuses their clothing, furniture, possessions and which leaves wonderful sillage when they move: “a faint delicious fragrance hung about her…”. Perfume clings to the objects that the beautiful people touch and it lingers in their rooms, their beds, luggage and hair – “she smells all amber!” But the source of the scent remains vague, unspecified: it manifests spontaneously; it seems to transmit from incense burners, herbs & flowers or from the very air. It comes from the purity of the soul. Nothing so vulgar as a bottle of perfume is mentioned: not in connection with sympathetic characters, at any rate.

I remember, I remember memorable encounters with sillage. I recall the girl with magnificent mahogany hair buying postcards in the National Gallery shop some 20 years ago, and she suffused in a cloud of Guerlain’s Samsara. I have never smelled that lovely but tricky scent so beautifully interpreted. I remember Chanel No 5 at a Covent Garden matinee, stealing over the stalls from a golden-shouldered matron in white linen: far more beguiling than discordant old Prokofiev. Some 30 years ago the ground floor at Harrods always smelled subtly and sweetly of gardenias as though left in the wake of generations of exquisite shoppers dipped in the Floris house exclusive. And most of all I recall midsummer midnight at Luxor in 1992 and the temple of Rameses on the Nile waterfront: everywhere the faint but insistent odour of Oscar de la Renta’s Volupte, the osmanthus & violet hit of the day. It was the scent and epicentre of the hot blue night.

“Some smells do linger, Jean!” as that careful lady in the tv ads used to say. And thank goodness for that. There was a woman picking over Cheddar in the Co-Op the other day who left a gorgeous powdery floral mist behind her – I don’t know what it was; dry, faintly spicy, it hung in the air like a sparkling iridescent bubble. And for sillage connoisseurs everywhere let me put in a word for Andy Tauer’s Sotta la Luna Gardenia – la Stupenda, indeed! Here is a massive and glorious gardenia scent enhanced with all the creamy sandalwood, tonka and vanilla notes exuded by the flower itself; and there’s a mossy, dark, jungly quality that expands its gender relevance. But the volume, the expansion! I like to wear just a drop of this one and follow its progress as it expands and inflates like a great balloon of fragrance. It opens up like the flower which inspires it, from a tight green bud to a voluptuous all-encompassing mantle. This is a case where less is definitely more.

Breathe Deeply: 100 Scents you need to smell…


Image: Atlantisqueen.co

Image: Atlantisqueen.co

Everyone loves a list.

Here is my own riposte to all those endless ‘must do’s’ – 100 things to see/read/eat before you die – always so popular in the Bank Holiday Newspapers.

Yet so many of those recommended experiences are curiously passive, depressingly automatic: they involve buying a ticket, taking out a subscription, visiting some sort of restaurant, theatre or other place of entertainment. “You pays your money & you takes your choice”. A bit lifeless, maybe? 

Smells are different. They are trickier to seek out; they take you by surprise at unexpected moments; they rocket you across time and space; they resist control or manipulation. With smell you must take your pleasures where you find them.

Most of the following scents are delicious; some are startling. A few are revolting but arresting. Only one I have not yet smelled…

Even as I write, reports are coming in from Australia that the Duchess of Cambridge ‘recoiled’ at the smell of a koala: the eucalyptus oil comes out through the koala’s pores, you see, intensified by its own natural odour. Smells never fail to amaze: if you let them.

Tell us what you think of this list.

Here we go:

Box… & phlox: pink & white phlox was introduced into Europe by the Empress Josephine – a hot white peppery scent; the smell of childhood.

Phox: directgardening.com

Phox: directgardening.com

A new bar of soap

A traditional eau de cologne

Orange peel & marmalade

Clean sheets – laid up in lavender or simply air dried.

Fresh cut spring grass

Cowslips

Cowslips: plantlife.org.uk

Cowslips: plantlife.org.uk

Pigs

The silk lining of a vintage fur coat

Apple blossom

New books: hardback &  limp edition smell quite different.

New Books: radionorthland.org

New Books: radionorthland.org

Chanel No 5 – it changes all the time like so many classics. Our wonderful Sarah McCartney,  recently smelled the 1929 version: curiously like Lux soapflakes.

Jasmine – in a pot, in the garden or on the streets of Damascus. 

The hills of home – that indefinable smell of your native air. I can smell Leicester coming a mile off.

Lilac

Ether

Ether: Wikimedia commons

Ether: Wikimedia commons

Fried onions

Russian airports – once redolent of over-ripe apples, cigarettes & petrol. Have they changed ?

Toast

A glasshouse of ripening tomatoes

Sweet peas – which is lovelier? The colour or the perfume?

White sugar – a nasty smell. Used to make me feel quite sick as a child.

Tom cats

Tomcat - Walt Disney (comicvine.com)

Tomcat – Walt Disney (comicvine.com)

Hyacinths – though to some they smell of tom cats.

Scarlet geraniums – more properly called pelargoniums but you know the plant I mean.

Christmas and Easter – something indefinable in the air. Unmistakable, impossible to pin-point.

Privet hedges

Shalimar by Guerlain- at least in its glory days. See Chanel No 5, above.

Suede gloves

Vinegar

The sea

Icy iron – an iron railing with a hard January frost on it.

Image by Sharon Wilkinson: kingstonphotographicclub.ca

Image by Sharon Wilkinson: kingstonphotographicclub.ca

Horseradish – the hotter the better.

Honeysuckle

Lily of the valley

A convent chapel – inner cleanliness.

Prison – I have yet to smell this and trust I never shall; but the awful miasma is something that everyone who has been banged up infallibly mentions.

New shoes

Ripe pineapples – warm fragrant golden sweetness. 

Bluebells & wild garlic

Bluebells and Wild Garlic: Wikimedia commons

Bluebells and Wild Garlic: Wikimedia commons


Backstage – of any theatre.

Syringa on a June evening.

Olive oil

Snuffed candles – in the second they are extinguished; hot wax & burned wick.

Rosemary, lavender, thyme – the glory of the herb patch.

Cocoa butter

Fear –  a sour, foxy reek.

Jonquils in a sunny beeswax-polished hallway.

Camomile – though not camomile tea.

Bacon, coffee; cigarettes at the moment of lighting: all notoriously smelling better than they taste.

Coffee and cigarettes

Coffee and cigarettes

A gardenia + a magnolia flower – often talked about; seldom experienced for real.

An iris bed in bloom: the flowers DO have a scent, an unforgettable smell.

Daffodils

Laburnum 

Stargazer lilies

Hot tar

Indian basil

Creosote

Narcisse Noir de Caron

Guelder rose –  that gorgeous vibernum shrub reminiscent of expensive vanilla & peach ice cream.

Broad bean flowers

Methylated spirits

Tuberose

Vanilla pods

Gorse – coconut frosted with sea salt in May sunshine.

Incense

Lemons –  like the sweet peas, the colour and scent are mutually enhancing.

Clove pinks

Fresh oysters on ice

Oysters on ice: theguardian.com

Oysters on ice: theguardian.com

Celery 

Nail polish remover

Hot custard

Marlene’s hands, 1972 – covered in Youth Dew

Linseed oil

Violets

Bonfires – in small doses

A well-soaked sherry trifle

Rain

Marigolds

New potatoes boiling with mint

“Iles Flottantes” – that exquisite delicacy first tasted at a French service station. 

Steaming hen mash

Kaolin & morphia

A rose

Sealing wax 

Newly washed hair

Hot mince pies

The bitterness of poppies

Scalding hot tea

Hot Tea: misslopez.se

Hot Tea: misslopez.se

Linden blossom

The inside of handbags

Myrtle – always a cutting in a royal bride’s bouquet.

Raspberries

Anything from LES SENTEURS….

Les Senteurs - Seymour Pl

Les Senteurs – Seymour Place

Une Touche de Rouge

Rothko Foundation Robert Bayer, basel

Whenever Nicky Haslam is introduced on the radio I jump to it, adjusting the tuning and turning up the sound for he always has something fascinating to say to be pondered on later. In youth he was a friend of the great beauty, wit, ambassadress and writer Lady Diana Cooper and I always wait for her to come up in his conversation. The other day was no exception. Mr Haslam talked of Diana Cooper’s mother, the 8th Duchess of Rutland and her singular views on interior decoration. Violet Rutland – “the artistic Duchess” – was an original in all her attitudes. Diana’s memoirs recall how her mother drew and sculpted to professional standard; condemned tomatoes, lemon flavourings, holding hands and being seasick as common; invariably wore the family tiara back to front. When I was a child our old gardener remembered working for the Rutlands at Belvoir Castle and pinching Violet’s behind as she sat sketching in shrubbery, mistaking her rear view for that of an under parlourmaid.

Violet passed on to her daughter this fascinating theory that when you come to furnish a room, it should always be completed with “une touche de rouge”. I couldn’t wait to try out this idea but I soon realised that it was already in effect willy- nilly around the house – the principle works so well that you often seem to achieve it effortlessly and involuntarily, almost instinctively. That splash of red, however small, which brings the rest of the room together, like lipstick completing and signing off a woman’s maquillage. The scarlet cushion dumped down in a decor of blues, pink and ochre; one crimson parrot tulip on the kitchen dresser; a vermilion tooth glass; a bowl filled with nasturtiums. Positioning that touche de rouge is like switching on a light.

Red is the most psychologically, emotionally and culturally loaded of all the colours. It’s probably also the most vibrant violent and varied, with infinite associations and resonances. It inevitably stirs up emotions and reactions. In some languages and societies it is the only colour; the same word is used both for “colour” and for “red”. In Russian, “krasnya” means beautiful as well as red. For the Egyptians it was the personification of the bare burning desert, of chaos, war and evil. Nuns used to be permitted a red pocket hanky as the only spot of colour in their dress: a psychological crutch, an emotional licence implicitly acknowledged by the Rule. It’s the colour of prostitution, a tradition going right back to the early books of the Old Testament; of passion, life, love, victory, blood, danger, birth, help, warning, justice. In the Bette Davis vehicle Jezebel, red provides the plot: Davis perversely wears a “gloriously red” gown to the virginally white Olympus Ball, losing her lover and ruining her life in consequence. Even in black and white, such are the mental associations  of the colour – Jezebel the Scarlet Woman – that the device works without reservation. Red is all things to all men: to me it always manifests with something of a shriek. I can’t wear it, makes me look like a corpse.

How can the touche de rouge relate to scent? I think it’s the leaven in the lump, the unexpected touch of genius, thrown in instinctively, which transforms a humdrum formula into a unique  masterpiece. It’s the overdose of vanillin in Shalimar, the barmily exaggerated aldehydes in No 5, the wine lees in Malle’s Une Rose. For Opium, it was the choice of name: now routine, then so outrageous. Historic Caron perfumes are really one massive touche, a spreading stain of crimson baroque surrealism, a disturbing Rothko canvas. Etat Libre d’Orange’s Encens et Bubblegum is an inspired daub of poppy red.

The touche is not grotesque; it may shock but that is not its aim or purpose. Its not a substitute for creative thinking. It’s not the avocado mousse made up with lime jelly and mandarins or that awful dress run up from sirloin steak or Princess Beatrice’s pretzel wedding hat.  Rather the touche de rouge is the catalyst that brings about the Big Bang, the fiery vital spark of creation.

Picture by Robert Bayer, basel.

Three Minute Sermon

IRIS

I walk out into my back garden and down the lane to the fields where at this  time of year the warm air smells like the best perfume shop in the world. There’s a bed of old-fashioned blue bearded iris beneath the kitchen window in ground as dry as dust; they are flourishing, as they have done for years, in what is little more than sandy grit. Ultimate low maintenance. They need no care or attention whatsoever: they just get on with it and for three weeks every year they smell like the plains of Heaven.

‘Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’.

The mesmerising enveloping langourous fragrance of iris is truly out of this world. It’s the roots, the rhizomes that are used in perfumery but if you’re mad about scent please don’t forget to poke your nose into those weirdly orchidaceous flowers adorned with their hirsute inner crests dusted with golden pollen. You’ll find it difficult to move on, to return to reality.

The scent is soft, powdery: its summer’s evening warmth is enhanced by the cool silkiness of the petals. There’s a sophistication, a poise about the perfume that reminds us that the iris, not the lily, was the inspiration for the French heraldic fleur de lys. These flowers give off a note that is very close to aldehydic, a knowing stately nod to Mlle Chanel and her stable of scents created by the chemical genius of Ernest Beaux. He must have loved this flower named after the Roman goddess of the rainbow, arching her body across the skies in her mantle of many colours.

Finally tearing myself away from the Mysteries of Iris I go down the fields with a bucket and spade in search of horse manure for my roses. The meadows smell like the Caron Paris boutique, truly. You sidle in off the road, negotiate the stile and the scent comes close to knocking you over. Clouds of keck, cow parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace crown the grass with endless dancing webs of creamy flowerlets and pollen. Here I inhale that gorgeous note of hay that haunts the depths of all the Daltroff classics: green, sneezy, warm, peppery, sweet, close, simultaneously very dry and faintly damp. Here it is, free for all, on the edge of the cow pasture intensified by hawthorn and new grass. The smell of burgeoning nature, growth, reproduction, fertility and life.  Truth stranger than fiction: reality stronger than artifice.

Number 5

We’re off! Brad Pitt’s campaign as the new Face of Chanel began last month. It’s quite a cute choice on many levels : the Legend and the Heart-throb teamed at last, though why a perfume should need a “Face” at all is beyond me. At this high level of classic perfumery, every fragrance already has its own very well-developed and assertive personality. No 5 of all scents already has an unmistakable and unforgettable face: Mlle Coco’s black-eyed little marmoset features, cigarette glued to lower lip beneath a broad-brimmed hat, seem to grin beguilingly from every bottle – the true look of genius, tinkering around in her labs with Ernest Beaux and selecting her formula by instinct and superstition.
What could be more fascinating, appealing and sellable? Anything else seems redundant; it’s almost the equivalent in art terms of choosing a PR look for a painter – the Face of Tracy Emin or Francis Bacon.

I guess the modern axiom insists the youth market must be enticed with an allure of great big blazing star: a former Face, Nicole Kidman, despite a massively expensive publicity campaign and that seemingly endless tv ad never seemed to me quite right for Chanel: rather too nervy and wired. Maybe Brad’s somewhat laconic and laid-back glamour will be more effective as he becomes a projection for every man who ever courts with No 5, and more to the point, the guy from whom every girl would like to receive a flacon.

Endless “scientific” surveys and tests, we keep being reassured by the popular press, show that men of Brad’s type with soft, big-eyed rounded features – somewhat baby-faced, something of the child still about them – appeal most to modern women as reliable safe lovers and putative fathers. Maybe Chanel are following the tabloids’ cut- out- and- keep advice. A wilder, less cosier masculinity might conjure up a more exciting image but that seems not to be generally desired, by the opposite sex at least. 21st century men have been so demonised, ridiculed and rendered so drippy and in their advertising image that the Richard Burton/Maxim de Winter/Errol Flynn type seems to have gone for good. Brad’s iconic screen Achilles image – all bronzed muscle and flowing blond hair – appeared ostensibly virile but there was also something of a parodic tribute to Marilyn Monroe about it. It teetered on the verge of doll-like, suggesting the sex roles reversed: a passive man to be bossed about by his lady friend, a chunky nugget of eye candy with a gift wrapped bottle of Chanel the size of a chocolate box.

But there’s also an interesting ambiguity about choosing a male Face: maybe Brad should encourage his brothers in arms to have a try at wearing No 5 themselves… How subversive would that be – yet eminently practical and creative. The musky base notes tend to be brought to the fore on a man’s skin and smell darkly, richly wonderful; and not at all feminine – if you’re worried about that sort of thing. The male hormones generally burn through the rose + jasmine to reveal the vetiver and sandalwood beneath. A perfumer can do no more than propose that a scent be male or female: the publicity campaign is what anchors its gender in the public mind, that and a certain association of ingredients. Flowers for girls, woods for boys: a dull old cliche neatly inverted by Vita Sackville West in “The Land”:

“Every flower her son
And every tree her daughter.”

The British at least are far too constricted by ideas of what they are “allowed” to do with scent. May I wear it at the office? In the morning? On holiday? On my hair? For many people perfume is still the boss. Listen: you can do anything you like with it: bend it to your will and pleasure. It may be a genie in a bottle, but like Aladdin its you who are in command. Chanel No 5, a best-seller since 1921, is of the era when scent was still a huge luxury and far more the preserve of the wealthy artist, socialite and aristocrat who felt far less constrained by social mores and wore perfume as they pleased. Gary Cooper, Noel Coward, the Duke of Kent and Diaghelev are all said to have sported Jicky, Arpege, Mitsouko, and No 5 con brio, to memorable effect. Luckily these new Perfume Faces are usually contractually obliged to wear the product: what a chance to double sales of the world’s most famous scent. Ball in your court, Mr Pitt.

Cocktails for Two

I see perfume as a cocktail and a cocktail as a perfume. Both are an artful, skilled and witty blend of exotic ingredients put together to create a certain mood, illusion or portrait. The packaging of both is vital – the catchy seductive name, the classic bottle, the correct glass, the elegant flacon. And on the subject of names there is much dispute as to the derivation of the word “cocktail”. My favourites are the theory that it reflects the colours and flamboyance of a rooster’s tale; and an unlikely but picturesque Aztec legend which claims the drinks origin as a love potion brewed by the princess Xochitl (the Lady of the Flowers) – hence ‘choc- til’ to Western ears.

Now to the application. There is a knack to choosing and applying perfume and an ideal way to drink a cocktail: both are appreciated to their best advantage in a serene, leisured environment. They should be taken as part of a leisured, sensuous and hedonistic ritual in which every aspect of both fragrance and drink is savoured, analysed by the brain via tongue and nose. Relaxation and patience lead to pleasure and gratification. Haste and over-indulgence can be diasastrous.

Consider also the connection between the senses of smell and taste, how closely they run together. When you sip a Cupid, Orange Blossom, Dry Martini or a Blue Lagoon, you should derive almost as much delight from the scent of it as from the taste: the stimulant effect must definitely run third. We are not talking about Bargain Booze or Buy One, Get Two Free here: one drinks a cocktail as a luxury, to heighten a mood, to inspire an atmosphere, to appreciate an exquisite artistic blending, not to get blotto asap. The legendary non-alcoholic cocktail, the Shirley Temple has been a barman’s staple for nearly 80 years To continue the perfume parallel: fragrance may be an aphrodisiac but its aim is hopefully far subtler and broader than simply to bag one’s amorous prey for a night.

Ponder the texture, too. Like a perfume, a cocktail can take so many forms. Look at the liquid in the scent bottle: its colour, viscosity, clarity are all part of its charm. The same with the gorgeous colours of a cocktail, layered, shaken or stirred – the whole spectrum in a glass: the green of Creme de Menthe, crimson Grenadine, violet Cassis, sea-blue Curacao, velvety chocolate brown Tia Maria and Creme de Cacao. The hues of fruits, herbs and natural syrups.The colour and the taste segue into the texture of the whole: sparkling, sharp, creamy, acid, silky, smooth, salty, bitter and sweet.

The cocktail has been around since the mid-19th century, growing steadily in popularity, and reaching its apogee in the 1920’s and 30’s, supposedly because mixing bathtub gin with cream, cordials and other accessories helped to disguise the taste of low quality illicit hooch in years of Prohibition. The golden age of the cocktail thus coincided with that of the cinema and what is often regarded as the great classic age of perfumery – the years of Tabac Blond, Habanita, Chanel No 5, Joy, Fleurs de Rocaille, Bellodgia, Shalimar, a veritable corsage of Gardenias and Shocking. And how shocking were all these trends to the middle-aged and elderly of the time. The youthful Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 satire Vile Bodies has much to say on all these phenonema; though, of course, these serpents in Eden were none of them newborn 20th century blues at all, but late Victorian innovations brought to full bloom.

This was an era of strong scents, tastes and emotions inspired by and enhancing larger than life personalities: legendary celebrities defined by their elegant way with a cocktail, a cigarette and a dry line in repartee. Noel and Gertie, Ivor Novello, Cecil Beaton, Hutch, Somerset and Syrie Maugham, Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson (Red Box Papers returned to No 10 marked with rings from cocktail glasses), and of course Tallulah. As the headmaster of Eton cautioned her as to her visits to the Sixth Form, “Cocktails and cigarettes I may tolerate, Miss Bankhead: but I do draw the line at cocaine.”

There was a song that seduced the world, “Cocktails For Two”; a perfume modelled on a cocktail (“Gin Fizz”); and those marvellous concoctions named for stars of the day which encapsulated their style or image, just as perfumes such as Fracas and Bandit sketched the allure of Rita Hayworth and Edwige Feuillere in the 1940’s. Drink a toast to the “Marlene Dietrich”, the “Mary Pickford”, the “Mae West” – and the old “Bosom Caresser” himself, “Charlie Chaplin”.

Cheers! Though as Lady Diana Cooper, THE wit and Society Beauty of the 1920’s, advised the script writers of ITV’s “Edward and Mrs Simpson” decades later:
“Royalty don’t say cheers. They just drink and everyone else goes glug, glug, glug!”

Image from Wikimedia Commons