Eugenie, Eugenie…

news_story_detail-DOSSIER  EUGENIA DE MONTIJO

Do you find the Empress Eugenie a sympathetic character? I never know quite what to make of her; I find her hard to get close to. Her numerous portraits are theatrical and glamorous to a degree, especially the glorious set pieces by Winterhalter with their sensual and tactile treatment of his sitter’s luxurious garments and draperies. Romantic, too, are the circumstances of Eugenie’s long life: the exotically mixed and mysterious ancestry; her Scottish blood; her wooing by Napoleon III – “the only way to my bed is through a well-lit chapel”; her role in creating the concept of haute couture and making Paris the fashion centre of the world. And then there are the frivolous but delicious legacies left by Eugenie to the world: a mauve passion flower; an amethyst tiara in the Louvre: a rakish style of hat, re-introduced to fashion by Garbo and even more popular the second time around. Above all, the crinoline is forever associated with her and with her pet designer Worth – the nice boy from Lincolnshire who spoke with a strong Northern accent in a “low deep voice” and was unable to draw faces or limbs: he cut them out from photos and lithographs and stuck them on to his sumptuous designs.

Then, too, Eugenie was fabulously lovely: or so Worth and Winterhalter made her. She was slim and of middling height ( 5’5″) with cascades of red gold hair put up in chignons and ringlets. She had violet eyes, perfect skin and the most extraordinary eyebrows which she made her signature. You can recognise her in any likeness by these quizzically raised butterfly brows which lift like antennae from the outer corner of the eye. They give her a somewhat affected look, very distinctive. The Empress kept them pencilled dramatically black to contrast with the dazzling brilliance of her complexion. Her teeth were good: like many of her Imperial contemporaries she had a state-of-the-art American dentist, Mr Thomas Evans, who was destined to save more than the Empress’s teeth when the Second Empire collapsed in 1870. He whisked her into a cab and off to a 50 year exile in England before the Paris mob could subject her to the fate of Marie Antoinette: a circumstance of which she had always a superstitious dread.

We think of Eugenie when we use her preferred Roger & Gallet soap, and Guerlain’s blissful Eau Imperiale. The latter is supposed to have been commissioned for her, but then her unattractive husband (“a very awkward shape”) liked it so well that he made off with it for his own use ( as Samuel Pepys often did with his wife’s accessories). Above all Eugenie’s aura can still be smelled in Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie, for which Creed devised the original formula just as the Second Empire collapsed. If ever there was a scent to be smelled against a background of ermine, sable, violet velvet and pink silk this is the one. Jasmin is soft but penetrating, headily warm, all-embracing; somnolent and sleepily erotic, well-laced with iris and aphrodisiac vanilla. Maybe the scent is in fact too sexy for the eponymous wearer; or perhaps it is ironically piquant that a woman said to be so prudish and uninterested in sex should apparently have sprinkled such a slow-burning scorcher about her person.

Whether Creed kept up with the ex-Empress in her retirement at Farnborough is unknown. Mabell Airlie who visited the 77 year old Eugenie at home in 1902 was horrified at “the way …she had let herself go – like any old French peasant woman”. The famous brows, now white, were clumsily and only partially blacked in and the Empress’s once formidable sense of decorum seems to have slipped: ” There were some other English guests at tea, but when the Empress told – in English – an impossibly indelicate story about two swans they were so shocked that they rose hastily and took their leave”. In photographs of this period and later Eugenie is appallingly changed and aged, even frightening, and always in the same huge and terrible hat: the sort of old lady who scares little children.

By the age of 53 she had lost her crown, her sister, husband and only child, the Prince Imperial. Her son fell in the Zulu Wars and his body was brought home to be buried at Windsor. When I went to pay my respects I found his tomb in the centre of the St George’s Chapel souvenir shop: tourists wrote their post cards on his chest. But despite Eugenie’s tragic circumstances she didn’t lack for admirers: Queen Victoria (“ma chere soeur”) always adored her, with the passion of a homely person for a beauty. Even in her 70’s Eugenie attracted a passionate suitor in the suffragette and composer Ethel Smyth who wrote that the Empress was more brilliantly lovely than ever. It was to Ethel that Eugenie once revealed her snow white naked leg,”in extenso”, a curious episode which Miss Smyth vividly described in a letter to the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury.* Meanwhile Eugenie herself nurtured a sort of schoolgirl crush on the aged and (in this case) baffled Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, begging in vain for a meeting.

Eugenie lived to be 94 and died in Madrid in 1920, while on a visit to her native Spain. I find her elusive and I suspect her biographers do likewise. No life of her seems really to capture the woman. Perhaps this was part of her charm to contemporaries; maybe too she was a mystery to herself, one of those strange sphinxes without a secret. People who knew her said she was highly emotional, prone to fuss and easily bored; nervous and a martyr to migraine. But she was a survivor – as is her perfume. Come and smell it chez nous.

*For the whole bizarre story see the incomparably marvellous biography “As Good As God, As Clever As The Devil: the impossible life of Mary Benson” by Rodney Bolt, Atlantic Books 2011.

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