60 Glorious Years!

Queen Elizabeth II on her Coronation

Les Senteurs salutes Queen Elizabeth II on her Diamond Jubilee: 60 glorious years in the style of her great great grandmother Victoria, just the two of them having achieved this feat in the thousand years since the Conquest. Only the reigns of George III and Henry III come close: 10 years ago, Her Majesty said she thought she could give the latter a run for his money, and this she has done with elan. George III has been pipped by a matter of weeks. Long Live the Queen!

Let’s have a look at some suitably queenly scents for the occasion. Creed has been a supplier of couture and perfume to royalty for 250 years so we might start with Fleurs de Bulgarie, a blood-red Bulgarian rose fragrance based on a formula offered to Queen Victoria in the days when she was herself young, passionate and rosy. Madly in love with the beautiful Albert (who she noted wore nothing beneath his cashmere breeches) Victoria adored brilliant colours, jewels, musky perfumes and eye-popping dresses – once turning up on a State Visit to Paris in an outfit trimmed with geraniums and clutching a large bag crotcheted with a bold poodle motif. Fleurs de Bulgarie is magnificently opulent and intense; roses all the way blended with sandalwood, musk and ambergris. It sits like the Black Prince’s ruby in the Crown Imperial – glowing and exotic.

Creed owe a huge debt to Napoleon III’s Empress, the Spanish beauty Eugenie de Montijo, for their establishment in France in the 1850’s. With her abundant red-gold hair, quizzical butterfly eyebrows and huge violet eyes Eugenie followed in the steps of her idol Marie Antoinette by making Paris the fashion capital of the world. The couturier Worth was brought over from Lincoln to design the Empress’s vast crinolines; and as the Empire faded and the crinoline began to evolve into the bustle, Creed presented their prototype for what is now Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie – a sumptuous powdery oriental, with a palpitating heart of jasmine on a creamy base of iris,vanilla and musk. It has the gift of evoking the fabrics and style of the era – taffeta, velvet, organdie, bombazine, crepe, brocade, satin – and in the mind’s eye reflects their colour: violet, the newly invented magenta, snowy ermine and glossy black sables, the parure of imperial amethysts you can see today in the Louvre.

Still on the Creed shelf there’s Fleurissimo, that white and green hyper-floral which captures the frosted magnolia beauty of Princess Grace; and Millesime Imperial, launched in 1994 to celebrate 140 years of service by Creed to the Imperial Courts of Europe. Fleurissimo is one of those exquisitely thought-out fragrances which perfectly evokes the woman to whom it pays homage: cool, beautiful, elegant, a little reserved but magnificently sensuous. Spray a little and you see the likeness of Her Serene Highness shimmer before you.

The scents and creams of E.Coudray, all got up in pink, ivory and gilded packaging, make wonderful Jubilee gifts, either for oneself or for a dear one: this House has been in business since the 1820’s and once shipped toiletries and perfumes out to the Emperor of Brazil and the Tsars of Russia. Victoria, too, was a loyal client: what we tend to forget is that 120 years ago, this tiny old lady in black was the centre of the world – she was on the list of every tradesman on the planet, from Windsor to Kabul.

Grossmith of London made the sparkling floral Betrothal for the wedding of Victoria’s grandson, the future George V, to Princess May of Teck. May became Queen Mary, the lady who famously advised, “never miss an opportunity to use a lavatory”; and who was so intrigued by the harvest fields of Badminton during World War Two – “so, THIS is hay…!” A blonde Gemini subject, the sophisticated champagne floweriness of this gorgeous green scent was perfectly suited to the wearer. Detractors of Mary – and of Victoria – tend to forget they were both Geminians: interested in everything, intensely feminine, fascinated by the the realm of the senses. And of course also blessed with the concomitant shortcomings…

Now our own dear Queen is a stolid faithful Taurus, loyal and true. It would be vain and impudent to speculate on her choice of scent, but the Taurean generally avoids anything too heavy, too cloying or sweet and that seems to fit the Royal profile. Something lightly crisply floral I would imagine is her personal preference.

May she wear it in Good Health and Joy this Jubilee Year!

We remember Victoria’s superb reply to one of her many grandchildren (I think it was Princess Marie Louise) who said after the Diamond Jubilee drive to St Paul’s amid the cheering masses, “O! Grandmama! How proud you must feel!”

“No, dear child: very humble…”

I feel that our Queen would echo this.

Crinoline + Creed

The very nature of fashion dictates that what is ravishing to one generation seems hideous to another. Women’s styles of 100 years ago look exquisitely elegant in contemporary fashion plates and when cunningly recreated with the subtlest of 21st century slants for Downton Abbey. But informal photographs of 1912 are often horribly disillusioning, showing women as dishevelled bundles of clothing, topped by frizzled hair scorched + dried by curling tongs. Note too, the popularity of the sexy double chin and jowls for 18th century men and Edwardian ladies; and the egg-like facial look – no eyebrows or lashes – beneath those romantic fifteenth century wired butterfly veils. Anne of Cleves has been the butt of history’s clumsy wit for nearly 500 years as Henry VIII’s ugly wife, “the Flanders mare”; but if you bother to look at her portraits you will agree with novelist Margaret Campbell Barnes that to the modern eye she was by far and away the most attractive of the six queens with her heavy-lidded Dietrich eyes; and unlike the others she even manages a faint smile (unusual and risque in portraiture of her time).

Consider that sartorial turn-on of the 1850’s and 60’s, the cage or crinoline – a vast bell-like construction of hoops of whalebone and steel which stretched out the skirts to outlandish dimensions thus incidentally keeping ‘Punch’ and all the satirical magazines in material for a decade. The crinoline had its origins in the Elizabethan farthingale, the intention of which in its native prudish Spain was to conceal pregnancy, and keep men at a distance simply by the egregious width of one’s dress. In its Victorian version it became more explicitly erotic: it drew attention to the tiny tight-laced waist (this was the time before the triumph of the bosom as erogenous zone); it made the arms look slenderer and the hands more fragile in comparison; and the hoops swayed and dipped in an alluring way as the wearer walked or danced, revealing (ideally) dainty neat feet + ankles. Everything then but the breadth of your skirt and the width of your eyes must needs be in miniature. A tiny fragile woman, gasping for air due to the restrictions of her stays, and imprisoned in her clothes: this was the erotic ideal of our great great grandfathers. Weird, you might think…but not so far in concept from today’s highest heels and the latest trends in Spandex.

But what made the crinoline so controversial, and led Queen Victoria to initially ban its wearing at Court, was that wearing it did away for the need to wear the old-fashioned plethora of petticoats and this was thought highly indecent. And what’s more it could be dangerously unstable: crinolines blew up in the wind, got caught on carriage wheels and stuck in doorways; and tipped up at an alarmingly revealing angle if you sat down without due manipulation. This led to the sudden popularity in the wearing of knickers, previously used only by actresses and harlots, the reasoning being that no decent woman would ever come near to revealing her nether regions in public and so had no need of panties: the risky crinoline changed this. Though not apparently in France where one of the Empress Eugenie’s dames d’honneur tripped on her hoops, fell and gave the visiting King of Savoy an unexpected eyeful.

Of course the crinoline predates the first milestones of modern perfumery by a good twenty years, but we can still catch a whiff of the scents of the period in three surviving Creed fragrances. Fabric patterns were exceedingly dramatic to emphasise the dimensions of the skirts: broad bold stripes, flouncing and heavy trimmings were de rigueur. Colours of the period were loud, thanks to the gaudy new aniline dyes: part of the huge chemical advances that would soon transform perfumes. So emerald, canary yellow, electric blue and magenta were well balanced by the heavy heady scent of Bulgarian rose, jasmine, musk and ambergris that are redolent in what we now know as Creed‘s Fantasia des Fleurs, Fleurs de Bulgarie and Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie. Obviously all three have been trimmed, tailored and refined over 150 years, but what we smell today gives some idea of those heady blends of flower and animal oils that would have been dabbed on the handkerchiefs only of modest women; while the more daring of the new knicker-wearers may have touched their hair and wrists with a perfume-stopper. Eugenie, incidentally, was the patroness not only of Creed but also of Charles Worth, the boy from Lincoln who went to Paris and as Collins Dictionary says, “founded Parisian haute couture”.
Together, he and the Empress were responsible for the launching the crinoline craze.

These are big scents for big clothes: to be worn with velvet, bombazine, satin, furs, veils and never without gloves and hats outside the home. Fans, muffs and bouquets were all essential accessories. Smelling these perfumes in context helps to make much more sense of these extravagant, delicious but strange creations. It brings them to life on their own terms. Not so good maybe worn with t-shirts and jeans; and not at all, as the ignorant have it, “old ladies’ smells”, but once paraded by Queens, Empresses and courtesans at the apogee of their beauty and style: Eugenie, Elisabeth, Cora Pearl, La Paiva – the female fashion leaders of Europe.
Perfumes to dress up for and live up to.
Now there’s a challenge for a Diamond Jubilee year!

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Say It With Flowers

In this Diamond Jubilee year of the second Elizabeth (of whose perfume tastes we know little) let’s remember her great royal namesake who died after a reign of 45 years on March 24 1603. It is well attested that Elizabeth Tudor had a particularly acute sense of smell, and an especial detestation of the then fashionable trick of treating soft leather with lavender oil: this brought on the violent nervous headaches to which the Queen was prone. We have the amusing tale of her ordering some courtier out of her presence on account of his perfumed cape only to have him best her (a rare event) with his riposte “Tush, Madam, tis my boots that stink!”

And the devastating anecdote of the poor man who broke wind when bowing to his sovereign and hid his mortification in self-imposed exile for seven years. When finally he re-appeared at Court Elizabeth was at her most charming,gracious and hospitable before remarking over her shoulder as she swept out, “We hath quite forgot the fart…”

The Virgin Queen bathed more often than was considered safe for her health; about once a month. Her near-fatal smallpox of smallpox in 1562 was attributed to this dangerous indulgence. Elizabeth’s daily hygiene routine would have consisted of wipings down with cloths soaked in rosewater, colognes and spirits. Spring water was also imported from spas for her use, London sources being far too filthy to use. To sweeten the breath it was then logically but fatally thought well to swill the mouth with vinegar, honey and sugar. Vain of the whiteness of her skin and her long delicate fingers the Queen cut a far more attractive figure however than her successor James 1st whose hands, perennially unwashed, were said be as soft as black silk.

For propaganda purposes Elizabeth sat for a succession of portraits which defined her popular image according to strict government guidelines, and which became more symbolically complex as they grew increasingly less realistic. The Rainbow Portrait was painted when the Queen was sixty seven but there is no acknowledgement of this in the painting: she is fantastic in appearance, literally ageless. She holds the eponymous Rainbow in her left hand – we are tactfully reminded that without the Sun (Elizabeth herself) the Rainbow cannot exist – and we think of Iris, the goddess who trailed her multi-coloured cloak across the sky and gave her name to the exquisite flowers which even in Tudor times played such a key role in perfumery: orris powder, from the dried and pulverised iris roots, was used to scent clothing, hair, closets, chests and linens.

The Rainbow portrait is so crammed with symbols that a small book might be written on its various possible meanings; the point is that in an age of illiteracy these now enigmatic emblems would have been immediately understood and appreciated by everyone who saw the painting itself, and the innumerable cheap prints and copies which took the Queen’s image to the masses.

Let’s take only one detail: the plants embroidered on the royal bodice. Elizabeth is personified as the virgin goddess Astraea who dwelled on Earth in the Golden Age when the world was one vast (and surely English) flower meadow.
Furthermore, each plant has a specific meaning:

The Arum – for ardour (and devotion to duty)

The Cowslip – for grace and youth (the Queen’s, naturally)

The Honeysuckle – for fidelity and the bonds of love (between the Queen and her subjects)

The Pansies – for her wise thoughts

The Acorn – for immortality, and for the English oak which built the ships that destroyed the Armada and founded the Elizabethan empire

The Rose – the Tudor badge and the emblem of the Virgin

The Carnation – a woman’s love (for her people)

The Violet – faithfulness

This rich, compact but elaborate shorthand may suggest to you a new approach to assessing a perfume, reflecting on the ingredients and their arcane significance; what may still be concealed from us is the alchemical relevance of the scents of the flowers and their medicinal properties. Construct your own iconic perfumed image: per perfuma ad astra!

Image from Wikimedia commons