“Just Like a Little Bit of Leather”

shanghai express


Perfume and leather, leather and perfume: the trajectories of both are forever crossing and merging. For centuries, the tanneries of Europe used raw human excreta to cure hides and skins: that’s how the Golden Dustman in Our Mutual Friend makes an honest maintenance, collecting the waste of London streets to sell on at a handsome profit. (‘Dust’ is by way of being a dainty euphemism for what Mr Boffin trades in). Therefore, for our forefathers, the heavy and heady scenting of leathers was not only a sensual pleasure but also a cruel necessity.¤

On the battlefield, in the armoury and the stables, leather has been a virile medium of aggression and restraint material for millennia. The more elegant use of it in clothing and furnishings had its first tremendous vogue in Tudor and Elizabethan times. Leather was made up into curtains, books, cloaks¤¤, covers, jerkins, mantles, gowns, boots, shoes, gloves: soft supple upholstery for both the home and the body. Marie Stuart went to her death in beautiful slippers of Spanish leather, saved for the occasion and much remarked upon. In that age of display and the beginning of modern ideas of luxurious living, stylish but hard-wearing leather was an ideal medium for gilding, bejewelling and painting: a costly but tough and hard-wearing backdrop for priceless ornamentation.

And the leather was soaked, drenched and saturated in perfumed oils; initially as a camouflage, later according to the dictates of fashion. What started as a precaution and an olfactory necessity became de rigueur among the beau monde ¤¤¤.

Hence the well-known tale of Elizabeth 1st ( blessed like her father Henry VIII with a very sensitive nose) telling a courtier to take himself and his scented leather cape out of her presence before she choked on the smell.

The overly-fragranced fancy man had the ready wit to riposte:

“Tush, Madam! ‘Tis my boots that stink!”

But off he went, just the same.

The old Victorian version of this anecdote has the offending garment smelling of the lavender essence which the Queen is supposed to have loathed. Maybe the Victorians – who loved the modest herb so well – saw a certain symbolism in lavender’s repudiation by the gaudy bawdy Virgin Queen of whom they so greatly disapproved.

The other, ruder, tale concerning Gloriana and smells is that of an Earl who inadvertently and noisily broke wind in the Royal Presence Chamber, before the Faery Queen Herself. Mortified, he buried himself for seven long years (the mystic seven!) in the country. On his return to Court, Elizabeth was like honey; charming, witty and adorable as only she could be. Then, at the end of the audience, as she whisked out of the door in a haze of sweet marjoram and Tudor rose, the Queen said with a dazzling smile:

“We hath quite forgot the f…t!”

We’d better get back to leather, though that is hardly a safer theme. There’s something about it that excites, intrigues and titillates people. Perfume is daring enough, but a touch of leather lends an extra edge of wickedness. What does the smell of leather imply? What gender and ambiguous sexual preferences does it infer? As a perceptive woman – well attuned to her animal nature – said to me the other day, “the thrill of wearing scent is all about anticipating what MIGHT happen when someone smells me…how will the beast react? Love me or eat me?”

Or, of course, both.

Imagine, then, if you are sporting a leather fragrance: what might NOT happen? You are presenting visually and olfactorily as a sexually attractive human being, decked in the dressed skin of a beast. And smelling, deliciously but definitely, of that animal’s hide. Leather is a living entity: the creature that yielded it may be long gone but the dried husk lives on. When I was young, my elders were always reminding me of this: leather must be continually “worked”; that is to say fed, polished¤¤¤¤, dubbined and waxed. Above all, it must be much handled. That was the point of having beautiful kid-bound books or good doe-skin gloves. The more you nurtured them with your own oils, the softer and warmer they became. The more intimate they seemed as they absorbed new life from their owner. The human and the animal elements would elide as the DNA mingled.

The Ancient Greeks explored the implications of all this very fully in their myths which have since been dissected with many a cosmic or Freudian slant. Over and again the old poets and playwrights tell us of beautiful flower-crowned heifers pursued by Zeus; Queen Pasiphae’s passion for a white bull from the sea; the voyeur Actaeon ripped apart by his own hounds after Artemis turns him into a stag.

Provocative. And all those millennia ago.

Leather’s second great fashion vogue, both in clothes and perfume, was during the Roaring Twenties* and the Hungry Thirties. This was the craze my parents remembered: my infant mother’s craving for huge gauntlets; her terror of an aunt’s zippered alligator boots; an uncle’s vast white leather overcoat. No doubt – like the fashion for smoking & all those concomitant tobacco fragrances – this rage for leather referenced the emancipation of women and the late hostilities of the Great War. The scent of fine leather was now cherished for its own sake. The fragrance and the texture emphasised, by contrast, the delicacy and fragility of the feminine form and mystique – or so the style magazines might say, for form’s sake. But the wearing of leather also demonstrated sexual ambivalence: it played lightly with the contemporary fascination with “inversion”**, and hinted at the shocking inadmissible fact that Woman could be the Boss.

One thinks of the great originals of that period who toyed with a leather motif: Vita Sackville West in her pearls, silk shirts and great clumping laced knee boots. Garbo as Queen Christina, swathed from top to toe in Adrian-designed suede. The whole flight of aviatrixes – from Jean Batten (“The Garbo of the skies”) to Amy Johnson.  Dietrich in the then outrageous leather jackets and flying caps of ‘Dishonoured’. And Marlene again in ‘Shanghai Express’, the apogee and pinnacle of sartorial fetish: a wardrobe of gleaming black & white. Harsh wire-like net veils, cascades of glossy feathers, furs, silk, lace, bugle beads. Above all, those magnificent kinky hugely-cuffed gloves: black backs, white palms.  And her perfume? “The Notorious White Flower of China”, blooming in a bed of leather.

The Cutting Edge of Leather: now It’s back for a third time around. Try Six Of The Best – at LES SENTEURS

– Tom Daxon’s VACHETTA –  a deep, fleshy, profound leather with meaty hints.

CUIR PLEINE FLEUR – is a James Heeley cracker – silky, musky and unctuous. The gloves of Cardinal Mazarin.

– Parfumerie Generale’s CUIR VENENUM – the smell of tanneries, orange blossom and sulphur. Lucifer descending, in his traditional suit of black and scarlet leather.

– Mona di Orio’s CUIR – smoky, dry, almost savoury with a strong accord of castoreum and the sweetness of opoponax.

And from Andy Tauer, the Dark Lord of Leather:

LONESTAR MEMORIES – the cult evocation of cowboys around the prairie fire – saddles, boots, harness, wood smoke and coffee.

LONESOME RIDER – Tauer’s new chamois twist; sweeter and sweatier – introducing notes of orris butter, pepper, rose and citrus.’

¤ hence the name of the brand so long and happily represented at LS: ‘Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier” (soon to be repackaged): glove makers of the Baroque being, of necessity, also perfumers.

¤¤ it makes more sense of Sir Walter Raleigh’s puddle incident if we imagine him laying a great leather tarpaulin at Elizabeth’s feet.

¤¤¤ just as patchouli did, centuries later. Primarily a moth repellent, then an indispensable perfume oil.

¤¤¤¤ should you doubt that the heyday of polishing is long gone, conduct your own little survey of dismal shoes on the Tube.

*Erich Von Stroheim in ‘Sunset Boulevard’, recalling his Paramount office back in the ’20’s :

“I remember the walls were covered with black patent leather…”

** “the bucket in the Well of Loneliness”

Clothes In The Wardrobe¤

Delicious fumes of Norman Hartnell's In Love surge forth...

Delicious fumes of Norman Hartnell’s In Love surge forth…

I worked for years next to this exotically buoyant and very vocal girl who sold heady sultry Chiara Boni perfume. She habitually wore emerald eye shadow and cyclamen lip rouge, and she used to hang around the public pay phones to grab potential customers the moment they hung up. Her big line as she plied the bottle was –
“..is the sort of perfume, when you open your wardrobe door you smell it!”

And that magic tag shifted a lot of stock. As Lord Beaverbrook would have said, it “shook hands with people’s hearts”. I love this notion too, but to be perfectly honest it’s not a phenomenon I seem able to materialise in my own home. Maybe my family and I don’t spray heavily enough; maybe we wear too great an assortment of fragrances for one particular scent to cling.¤¤ Or perhaps the fabrics are all wrong, no leathers or furs; not enough wool, feather, silk or velvet. Like an pre-Columbian Aztec, I tend to live principally in plain or wadded cotton. I am currently sweetening a built-in closet on the bedroom landing by hanging scent-soaked flannels on the clothes rail: it works but I’m still not greeted by a gorgeous billow of fragrance when I open the door. (It’s maybe another aspect of this current pseudo-scientific obsession with projection versus sillage: a controversial subject which we might come to on another occasion. Or on the other hand which we might choose to ignore).

But thousands DO get this enviable boost! A survey taken by LW on your behalf reveals that around 50% of habitual perfume-users experience a buzz from their own clothes whether in cupboards, on hooks or slung over chairs. A regular reader confides:

‘Over the years I’ve loved opening my wardrobe door and being hit by a wave of Shalimar: it’s just magic… It makes you feel wonderful and I can’t put my finger on it… however, as the perfume has been differently formulated that hit has become less and less..’

I think, maybe, that sense of wonderment my correspondent refers to, and which so many share, comes from the perfume seeming to have developed another life, a separate existence as a comforting avatar. For those who enjoy the wardrobe effect, fragrance has become the wearer’s Doppelganger, animating the garments in her absence so that she opens the closet to find her other self rushing out to greet her like the reflection in a glass. A mirror image graced with her own perfume: a second, perhaps idealised, self with (intriguing if spooky speculation) an entirely different character altogether.

And of course we love, too, to smell the clothes of loved ones  – whether absent temporarily or for ever. The widowed Queen Victoria slept with the Prince Consort’s nightshirt in her arms and his dressing gown was placed in her coffin. Toyah Wilcox talked on the radio last week of working with Katharine Hepburn in 1979, and Hepburn still wearing Spencer Tracy’s old clothes – shirts, suits, trousers – twelve years after his death. “This is his sweater, never been washed. I can smell him…”. And think of how babies and infants reject much-sucked, licked and cuddled toys and “snitch-cloths” once they have been cleaned. The intermingled smells and fluids provide the animal comfort not the texture nor the cute faces.

Our wonderful Sarah McCartney created a glorious perfume around the idea of a secret scented storage space: The Lion Cupboard is named after her late father’s personal treasure cupboard. It smells of lavender-strewn cashmeres and scarves, dark fragrant woods, tooth powder and paste (heavenly pink Euthymol perhaps? Eucryl?), leather-bound diaries, distant colognes and the familiar, ever-present yet always tantalising mystery of the past. Lorenzo Villoresi’s Alamut was once described by its creator as a ancient carved sandalwood chest found in a fairy castle of the Arabian Nights, crammed with rich oriental fabrics, spices and perfumes: wonderful odours released as the seal is broken and the heavy lid lifted.

Then there’s the redolence of fabric itself. All materials have a definite and not always attractive odour, especially the natural ones. Wet wool. Gaudily dyed new cotton. Leather jackets impregnated with take-away dinners and hung over the backs of too many cafe chairs. Remember Polly and Fanny in ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ discussing their party dresses?

“Mine’s silver lame, it smells like a bird cage when it gets hot but I do love it.”

Polly is so right: I always had this problem with the odour of lame – and indeed any fabric shot with metallic threads – but thought it was just me until I read Nancy Mitford. It’s a wrenching grating smell almost as tormenting as chalk on a blackboard, tearing cotton wool or licking the wooden stick of an ice-lolly. Ugh!

Because I’m feeling it difficult to read much at present, I recently went back to an old favourite Elizabeth Goudge, that most soothing and – in a modest way – inspiring of novelists. I found The Scent of Water at the Loros shop and it really calmed me down: Val slips into a new & expensive golden and bronze house coat. Her husband is entranced both by the colour, and by the smell of new silk. For silk, too, has a very particular odour: slightly akin to steel, and also something about it of a clean budgie or parrot after a shower bath and concomitant preening session. A certain mineral quality – though far less pronounced than the sour bitterness of Polly Montdore’s slinky gown. Nowadays I occasionally smell silk in a lovely fresh tie or scarf, and it certainly holds perfume exquisitely. But I remember the scent of silk especially from old clothes in childhood: two blue evening gowns relegated at the end of their lives from once fashionable wardrobes to the grubby infant-theatre of the dressing up cupboard.

I see all this is now leading me on to further thoughts, the overlap of old clothes with the supernatural, which must wait for a further instalment on this theme in due course. Talk to you later.

¤ with grateful acknowledgement to the genius of Alice Thomas Ellis.

¤¤ and of course all my drawers and closets are filled with herbal moth repellents, smelling delicious in their own right.

Toes Like A Monkey


I once had a wonderful Swedish friend who worked for Oscar de la Renta. She had rippling tawny-gold hair and beautiful freckled hands with dark crimson lacquered nails. For winter parties she’d rub Body Shop vanilla oil into her skin, top it up with a veil of Chopard’s Casmir (in the lotus bottle, remember?) and pull a thick white fisherman’s sweater over the lot. The effect, I’m here to tell you, was devastating. “Ah”, she’d reply to all compliments “but I have a flaw: toes like a monkey!” She pronounced the word to rhyme with ‘donkey’, so these prehensile digits acquired for me their own esoteric glamour.

Heading the chapter on symmetry in our O level maths book at school was the Congreve quotation “I could never look long upon a monkey without very mortifying reflections”. For centuries monkeys and apes were used in art as symbols of folly, lust, greed and all the weaknesses of a creature that was seen as man degraded: parodies of humans who had fallen from grace and metamorphosed into graceless slaves of their own bestial appetites. Post-Darwin, the monkey assumed a different role in the scheme of evolution while artists such as Picasso, Rousseau, Matisse and Gaugin explored on canvas the animal urges inherent in man.

In the early 1930’s there was a craze for screen apes – King Kong and Cheetah course, but also the orangutan in The Murders in the rue Morgue and Mae West’s pet monkeys; Hans Albers and Luise Rainer dancing and singing the comic paso doble Mein Gorilla Hat ‘Ne Villa im Zoo. Especially we remember the huge gorilla shambling in chains onto the cabaret stage in Blonde Venus, then tearing off one of its own paws to reveal Dietrich’s luminously white hand garlanded in diamonds. (Was Billy Wilder maybe satirising all this singerie with the burial of Norma Desmond’s chimp in Sunset Boulevard?). Curiously but not coincidentally, this was also the era of such farouche leather scents as Knize Ten; the tanneries of all those variations on a theme of cuir de Russe; the animalic musks & pelts of Caron. And what was the best-dressed grande horizontale then wearing? Black satin, a string of pearls & monkey fur.

Have you met any monkeys, eyeball to eyeball? My grandmother knew one, next door, that spent his winters singeing his fur on the kitchen range. Her own mother had a peculiar horror of simians: the melody of the barrel organ coming down the street would prompt her to fly upstairs burying her head under the pillows until man and red-bolero’d marmoset could be bribed to take themselves off. As a child, I knew a monkey that lived in a pub and sipped stout; and I recall a beautiful blonde who nurtured two baby capuchins in her abundant golden hair – you’d see these minute hands like four spiders emerging from the roots, waving above the lady’s noble forehead.

The capuchins were immaculate, though I remember the ale-monkey whiffing a bit and of course the powerful smell of the monkey house at the zoo still lingers in the mind. Pungent animalic smells are of course by no means a turn-off for everyone: one of Louis XV’s early mistresses Pauline de Vintimille was said to reek like a monkey and the king was intoxicated by her. Perfumes that for me have hovered on the edge of the nauseous include Olivia Giacobetti’s famous Dzing! with its circus theme of civet and damp sawdust; and Weil’s peculiar but once greatly-loved Antelope which I found just too reminiscent of animal skin. It was rather like sitting in the back of a very expensive old car, beautifully hide- upholstered and a little too smooth in motion.

Just now we have taken delivery of the new Parfum d’Empire Musc Tonkin, a recreation of the traditional soiled old musk accords via floral, woody and fruity notes. Very convincing, highly disturbing. Gosh, how this scent clings, permeates and soaks in! My esteemed manager Mr Callum came into the shop the other day and caught my aura: “Aha! Wearing Musc Tonkin are we?” In fact I had merely held up the bottle to show a customer; I’d not even sprayed it. That’s musk in the old grand manner: musky monkey business.

I’ve always been a great one for my shoes…

Who can forget poor old Barbie Batchelor in The Jewel in the Crown dumping a huge suitcaseful of shoes on Clarissa Peplow’s bed after having had to leave home in a hurry. An early example of shoe addiction which is now Topic A in the popular fashion world. The once notorious collections of Imelda Marcos and Eva Peron (armadillo ankle-straps with jewelled heels) seem old hat as every girl worth her salt now accumulates her hoard of peep-toes, pumps, flats, ballets, platforms and torturing Louboutin stilettoes: “High heels are pleasure with pain” says Msr L.

So if we follow his hint, which is more of a turn-on, the shoe or the unconfined foot ? I think the average bunion’d fashionista would come down on the side of the Manolos. Both foot and covering can be highly sexualised and are perhaps the best-known of fetishistic objects: we all have access to them. Much etymic energy has been devoted to the question of whether Cinderella wore slippers of glass (verre) or fur (vair), and appropriate psychological and pathological conclusions drawn thereby. Not to mention the detail of her sisters slicing off portions of their own feet to fit the delicate slipper so admired by the Prince. But from my own observation, correct fittings do not seem to be an important aspect of the current shoe frenzy: Mrs Beckham appears to have set a trend for wearing a size or two overlarge, the old Minnie Mouse look. A recherche fetish of its own, something akin to the painful hobble and totter of the bound feet of Imperial China.

The varied symbolism of the foot is as old as man. The Mexican god Tezcatlipoca had the foot eaten by a jaguar replaced by a smoking obsidian mirror through which he dimly observes the world. Jason loses a sandal carrying the goddess Hera across a stream and, half-barefoot, fulfils King Pelias’s foretold doom. Oedipus is exposed with pierced ankles. Norse mythology tells of the Frost Giant’s daughter Skadi allowed to choose a husband from the gods but only on the evidence of their feet. Luck was not with her: the fragrant white feet she picked belonged not to Baldur the Beautiful but to the hoary and disagreeable old sea god Njord. Greek courtesans, who paid especial attention to the perfuming of their feet, stalked in studded sandals which left erotic suggestions, somewhat blurred I should think, in the Athenian dust. An idea illustrated by that long gone 20’s scent, Suivez-Moi Jeune Homme.

The removal of the shoes is the first steps towards intimacy write Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant in their classic Dictionary of Symbols. But besides denoting possession, it is paradoxically a sign of humility, subservience to man or the divine: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground”. The first rule of etiquette in the East is never to cross your legs lest you insult your companions by displaying your sole.

“And whosoever shall not receive you…when ye depart out of that house or city shake off the dust of your feet…” Matt 10:14.

The quintessence of sexy shoes,the nude shoe, the flesh-coloured shoe is back in style: first recommended by Marlene Dietrich in her ABC as flattering the length and line of the leg. She was clever with her shoe tactics. People who knew her back-stage told me two stories which I hope are true. She lined up identical shoes in the wings, a pair for each song: if she saw a smut on her beaded champagne slippers as she bowed, she could slip into the next pair under cover of the applause. And a dressing-room habitue remembered that if Marlene became aware of a prying scrutiny of her face she would advise her guest “look out for the shoes! Mind where you’re walking, the floor is covered with my shoes…”

Like a glove the shoe sexualises and transforms a socially acceptable part of the body by veiling and concealing and thus simultaneously calling attention to it. Think of Rita Hayworth’s single glove striptease in Gilda and those Toulouse Lautrec posters of Yvette Guilbert who made long black gloves an integral part of her diseuse act. David Lean uses continual and remarkable shoe (and clothing) imagery throughout his film Madeleine to demonstrate his heroine’s ambiguous morality as a seductress and probable poisoner in 1850’s Glasgow. Awaiting the jury’s decision in her cell, Madeleine slips on a pair of new black shoes, and the camera lingers on her feet as it has at key moments of the movie. Her concealment (maybe even from herself) is complete + the verdict naturally is “Not Proven”.

So what of the scent of the shoe? Apparently the foetid smell of those grotesque trotter-like slippers which encased the Chinese lily-foot was part of their peculiar appeal. But we’re not going down that particular trail – for now. I’m thinking more in terms of a shoe of kid suede so fine it would double for a glove; new and exciting from the boutique in a great rustle of tissue papers and varnished card box, all with stimulating electric scents of their own. A shoe just gently warmed by an exquisitely painted, moistured, powdered and pedicured foot: the warm muskiness of skin and flesh mixing with the peardrop bittersweet of nail polish, animalic soft leather, brushed black suede,a metallic tang of tiny gilt buckle and the dark smooth night of the sole. If this appeals, go smell Gantier’s Cuir Fetiche: it has it all, and more…

Nicholas + Alexandra

Nicholas & Alexandra - Tsar & Tsarina

They called one another Nicky and Alicky, Sunny and Lovey-dear, hubby and wifey: they were the last Emperor and Empress of Russia (a title they preferred to Tsar and Tsarina) and all they really wanted was a recreation of English bougeois family cosiness amid the snows and barbaric splendours of Old Muscovy. We looked at their terrible last days in an earlier blog: now let’s inhale the ambience of their lives in splendour.

Alexandra (our Queen’s great great aunt; and Prince Philip’s great aunt) was largely brought up by her grandmother Queen Victoria to whom perhaps she owed her love of fresh air and extreme cold: Victoria suffered so terribly from hot flushes all her life that she would have fires lit by Balmoral staff abruptly doused with buckets of water; she drove out daily whatever the weather; and like two other great sovereigns, Maria Theresa and Catherine the Great liked the windows flung wide at all times. As Empress (as we can see from numerous photos) Alexandra loved spending snowy sub-zero afternoons wrapped in furs on her balcony at Tsarskoye Selo: her sinister friend, Anna Vrubovya, the introducer of the serpent Rasputin into Eden, lived in a damp cottage in the palace grounds so cold that visitors kept their feet drawn up on divans from the icy floors.

Like many depressives, Alexandra was much affected by extremes of temperature and when not out in the cold she would retreat to her claustrophobic bedroom, furnished by Maples Ltd of the Tottenham Court Road. Here twin beds were pushed together under a tent-like canopy and battalions of ikons hung over and opposite the sleepers. Later, a photo of Rasputin’s mutilated corpse would be hung at the end of the Empress’s bed. The air, already laden with the attar of roses burning perpetually for 23 years in the ikon lamps, was heavy with Alexandra’s own white rose perfume and that of her full English breakfasts: Nicky was long up + dressed before his wife’s tray of bacon and eggs appeared, with toast and Coopers Oxford, a pot of very strong tea and a packet of 20 Players.

Having demolished all this (she suffered agonies from heart palpitations) Alex would often paint, sitting up in bed; or else, dressed in loose drifts of white silk, withdraw to a sofa in her Mauve Boudoir, decorated in her favourite colour with the exception of the pale green carpet. Everything else was mauve and cream, and the room filled with vases of immense size, crammed with violets, roses, lilac, wisteria, peonies and stocks brought daily by train across thousands of miles from the Imperial hothouses in the Crimea.

Here her five children would visit her, and Nicholas join her for tea and cigarettes from exquisitely coloured and jewelled Faberge boxes: he chain-smoked of course, and was always redolent of birch-cured Russian leather from his boots. When he had courted Alex in England, Queen Victoria remarked she always knew when he was in the palace from the scent of his leather luggage. If you take a look at the list of monarchs supplied by Creed (its on the lid of every box) you will see the Emperor’s name though details of commodities delivered are lost.

The offensive smells of Rasputin – the stale garlic, the drink, the sweat – left Alexandra  untroubled. Maybe she thought them subsumed by what she saw as his holiness. We know from her letters to the Tsar that just before the Revolution she visited an aged mystic, bed ridden in a country hovel – “but NO SMELL!” said the Empress. Perhaps that too she could see as a sign of sanctity.

Poor hysterical deluded Alexandra: this old woman gave her a magic comb and a magic apple to avert the coming cataclysm of 1917. A strange and weird combination of Snow White, the Gotterdammerung and Mr Pooter….