Mama Rose

martin-schongauer-madonna-of-the-roses-1342220404_b

Madonna of the Roses

Mothering Sunday falls on March 15 this year, which still leaves you time to choose a glorious perfume for that unique lady in your life. Maybe Mother has already dropped a hint as to what fragrance she would love as a gift; or perhaps you have a standing order for her favourite signature scent. If not, here are a few ruminations at the shrine of the modern Matronalia: potential perfumes to offer up with thanks at the altar of the Mother Goddess!

By and large the British are not so hot on botany but a rose is the one flower that everyone knows. It is a symbol of universal currency: even the name is basically the same in all the main European languages. The rose has not been on the planet as long as the Jurassic magnolia – flowers came late in evolution though they pre-date Man – but it has entranced us since anthropoid apes first stood upright and tucked blossoms in their fur.

Because of their universality, and due to their scent, delicacy, beauty, richness and colour, roses have accumulated a great body of lore and cult significance. The rose is the symbol of maternal love as well as of carnal passion. It represents altruistic suffering (the flowers sprang from the blood of Christ); or wounded rejected love (the thorns which injured baby Cupid). The goddess Aphrodite – “foam-born” – was blown ashore in a cloud of rose petals on the sands of antique Cyprus, the birthplace of perfumery. Roses are the emblem of the Queen of Heaven whether she be personified by Juno, Isis or the Blessed Virgin – “The Mystic Rose”. Mary appears in countless medieval paintings crowned with roses, or sitting with the Christ Child in bowers and arbours; even enthroned among the stamens of one vast Cosmic Rose, with angels swarming overhead like exotic insects attracted by the Divine Sweetness and Odour of Sanctity.

No wonder with all this tremendous back story we all think we know what a rose smells like; or what it should smell like. One of my favourite perfume legends is the rumour that Nahema, Guerlain’s gorgeous hymn to the Flower of Flowers does not contain a drop of rose oil: all is magnificent illusion, a dance of pink and crimson veils. What a stroke of genius that might be! Every perfumer longs to create the definitive rose scent, as he does the sheerest and most glittering of colognes. But in perfume terms, what is the scent of a rose? Should it be a beautiful template, like Garbo’s face, on which to project our olfactory desires and perceptions? Science now allows molecules to be identified, isolated and manipulated to the nth degree: yet a rose fragrance still remains one of the most controversial of creations – “THAT doesn’t smell like rose to ME!”

Consequently, Les Senteurs have cultivated an extensive nursery of roses on the shelves. Here come 12 of the best, in no particular order but all beautifully long-stemmed and worthy of Mother’s finest crystal vase. And we have plenty more to choose from,too, so why not come by before Sunday? Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

UNE ROSE by Editions de Parfums

Editions de Parfums - Une Rose

Editions de Parfums – Une Rose

Red wine, black truffles, blue camomile + Turkish rose. Stately and majestic.

ROSE ANONYME by Atelier Cologne

O8-RA 100ml Packshot
Hot dark nights spiced with ginger, incense, oud and patchouli.

TOBACCO ROSE by Papillon

Papillon - Tobacco Rose

Papillon – Tobacco Rose

Heady surreal clouds of overblown rose, beeswax, honey and patchouli.

DELIRE DES ROSES by Caron.

Caron - Delire de Roses

Caron – Delire de Roses

Sweet and diaphanous; jasmine, lychee & lotus at a cool poolside.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY by Editions de Parfums

portrait of a lady 100ml

Editions de Parfums – Portrait of a Lady

Turkish roses fizzing with spices,patchouli and amber. Audaciously elegant: a silver frost melting to golden sun.

LIPSTICK ROSE by Editions de Parfums

Editions de Parfums - Lipstick Rose

Editions de Parfums – Lipstick Rose

Raspberries, vanilla and the scent of a gleaming lipstick warmed on a lovely mouth.

UNE ROSE VERMEILLE by Tauer Perfumes

Tauer Perfumes - Une Rose Vermeille

Tauer Perfumes – Une Rose Vermeille

Sweet, creamy rosebuds served with cream in a silver bowl. Playful & joyous.

A LA ROSE by Maison Francis Kurkdjian

Maison Francis Kurkdjian - A La Rose

Maison Francis Kurkdjian – A La Rose

Inspired by the pastoral portraits of Marie Antoinette; a rococo cascade of pink champagne.

FLEURS DE BULGARIE by Creed

Creed - Fleurs de Bulgarie

Creed – Fleurs de Bulgarie

A favourite of the young Queen Victoria, lover of flamboyance and colour: crazily deep, dark and intense Bulgarian roses.

HIPPIE ROSE by Heeley

Heeley - Hippie Rose

Heeley – Hippie Rose

Hommage to the 1960’s and that Summer of Love: take a lovin’ spoonful of incense and patchouli with your roses.

PAESTUM ROSE by Eau d’Italie

Eau d'Italie - Paestum Rose

Eau d’Italie – Paestum Rose

Roman temples and the votaresses of Venus: myrrh, coriander & osmanthus.

ISPARTA by Parfumerie Generale

Parfumerie Generale - Isparta

Parfumerie Generale – Isparta

Turkish rose oil sharpened by piquant red fruits and deepened with woods and aromatic resins.

Wishing you all a very Happy & Loving Mothering Sunday!

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Are You Wearing Lipstick, Rose?

There was a remarkable interview with the great novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard (once daughter-in-law to Scott of the Antarctic and formerly Mrs Kingsley Amis) in the Times recently. Among other interesting observations she talked of her friendship with Charlie Chaplin’s widow, Oona, who apparently possessed the largest collection of lipsticks in the world. How extraordinary and wonderful is that! And how did Oona know hers was the most extensive? I feel men are missing out on something unique here: for the price of a bottle of spirits a girl can buy an item that is considerably more than a mere cosmetic.

I used to sell alongside a woman who sported printed silk cocktail gowns to work and who in youth had doubled for Loretta Young. She always said as she painted a wide generous mouth, “you can make up your face as you please but without lipstick, it’s nothing; lipstick is the signature that completes the picture.” If you’ll notice, most “candid” photos of celebrities “without makeup” rarely show the sitter reluctant to pose with a naked mouth. Karen McLeod, former doyenne of Arden and Guerlain, and a treasury of information on this subject, tells me “Lipstick is the most versatile and most womanly of all cosmetics: mood-enhancing, life-changing, it lifts the spirits, boosts confidence and morale. Thoughtfully chosen and expertly applied it flatters your eyes as well as your mouth, gives spirit and life to your whole face…”

Something of the transmutation of this power seems inherent in the well-known sign-off of leaving a triumphant, dismissive or abusive message scrawled in lipstick on a mirror. As it may be, Dietrich’s dismissal of Cary Grant’s attentions in Blonde Venus; or journalist Evadne Price’s scornful autograph across Hitler’s bathroom glass – beneath which another war reporter, Lee Miller, had so recently bathed in the Fuehrer’s tub. Writing with lipstick is almost as powerful as writing in your own life-blood but conveying authority and confidence rather than despair.

And the colours! the rainbow of colours from nude transparent pink and 1960’s white, through taupe, pillar box red, plum, chocolate and black via that tarty 1930’s favourite tangerine which looks so irresistible with a dark honey tan and matching painted toe nails. Which brings us to Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice and her lipstick rolling across the floor to John Garfield’s feet in a challenging gambit and a wildly mixed metaphor of sex. And here’s another thing: lipstick lost none of its impact in black and white movies . Think of what Vogue called Joan Crawford’s “bow-tie mouth”, Bette Davis’s thickly smudged omission of the cupid’s bow, Mae Murray’s bee-stings and Katharine Hepburn’s oblong quivering inverted grimace. The drama, the gloss, the gleam and the punctuation of lipstick worked long before Nathalie Kalmus and the Technicolour consultants arrived on the scene. For along with eyeshadow and mascara, cinema had birthed lipstick, even before Theda Bara stickily mouthed “Kiss me, my fool”. Women had coloured their mouths for millenia but the lipstick is a favourite child of twentieth century Hollywood.

So now I’m sitting in the garden smelling a rose which is the exact shade of strawberries mashed up with cream; and which smells of sugar, raspberries, tonka, vanilla and just, ever so faintly, of a very expensive lipstick warmed on the mouth – some olfactory reference whether real or imagined to pollen, honey and beeswax. And I’m amazed, yet again, at the cunning and chutzpah and beauty of Ralph Schwieger’s Lipstick Rose perfume which breathes out all these scents, and maybe more. Schwieger’s fragrance also succeeds eminently in evoking a very precise sense of colour: impossible that it be crimson, cream or scarlet – it is inescapably a brilliant, shiny satin pink – close to Schiaparelli. Pink, that most uplifting,relaxing and calming of colours. A Gertrude Jekyll or Queen Elizabeth rose, exuding the vibrant powerful perfume of a glorious summer morning when the dew has gone but the sun not yet too high: fresh, fruity, intoxicating and overwhelmingly feminine.

Lipstick Rose is young, like the morning: upbeat, happy, vivacious. In the best sense it’s naïve and innocently sexy, without being coy or shy. Frank is maybe the best description – and with a great sense of humour. There is a hint of a lipstick print about it too: that most intimate souvenir traced on a Kleenex, a cocktail glass, a cigarette, a picture. In 1972 we came up from school (despite the headmaster’s grave misgivings) to see Dietrich on the London stage: she shimmered at the Stage Door in shocking pink and gold Balenciaga with lips to match – my best friend had the wit to ask her to wipe her mouth on a photograph and I was pea green with envy for lightning did not strike twice…

And there’s more. The shine and sheen and aldehydic glitter of the fragrance makes one think not only of the gloss on the mouth, but the elaborate metal casing of the lipstick, the lacquered black, gold or silver which gives out such a satisfying click, like the snap of a handbag clasp – a click like an amen: the contents safe, a mind made up, a life put temporarily back in order,a face painted, composed and ready. With this thread Mr Schwieger cunningly leads us into thinking of an expensive and beautiful purse redolent of suede, make-up, powder, perfume and perhaps a fresh linen handkerchief. Like a conjurer with a silken cloth, he makes a pass in the air and seemingly without effort offers his perfect Lipstick Rose.

“Chuck him without a qualm, Violet!”

Dans Tes Bras Frederic Malle Editions de Parfums

The first violets of the year are opening on the grass verge by my bus stop. Very early this year. Strange that such beautiful and iconic flowers should spring from the litter of crisp packets, flattened Coke tins and ciggie butts; akin to Swift’s “gaudy tulips sprung from dung” and not a whit diminished by their sordid fertiliser. The leaves are large, heart-shaped and a brilliant lettuce-green; and while the flowers are not as large or fragrant as Parma’s the scent is a knock-out.

And not quite as you imagine: every year I am pleasantly and slightly shocked by it. It’s definitely a carnal, indolic smell. Sweet of course, and musky, but sometimes almost like the faintest whiff of fresh meat: not at all like the traditional Devon Violets bath salts or those cheap mauve cachous “traditionally eaten by maids to sweeten the breath”. Violets in the raw have a sexy, sensual, fleshy smell, albeit extremely subtle: hence their use in modern “skin scents” (not a very attractive term: and is not every perfume intended for the skin?). Malle‘s Dans Tes Bras is a classic of the genre: violet blended with iris, suede and cashmeran, just lightly brushing the wearer’s skin,alighting on it like a butterfly.

And yet the violet was beloved by the late Victorians as a symbol of innocence, shyness, and modest womanhood. There was a rage for them in the garden, the conservatory, as a perfume, as a crystallized delicacy, a wine and as a dress accessory – posies of the real thing, and made of silk or velvet to pin on hats and gowns. Violet became excessively popular as a colour and as one of the newly fashionable flower names for girls: Violet Trefusis, Violet, Duchess of Rutland, Violet Bonham Carter; Sherlock Holmes’s client Violet Hunter; Violet Carson,and on the new cinematograph, Violet Hopkins. Old catalogues list wonderfully named plant varieties for cultivation  – Marie Louise, Neapolitan, Victoria Regina, White Czar and Comte Brazza.

Both sexes doused themselves in violet fragrances: even our dear staid George V loved Trumper’s Violettes d’Ajaccio, maybe influenced by his mother Queen Alexandra, who lived in a haze of violet and rose. So ubiquitous was the use of violet perfume that it fell quite undeservedly out of fashion in the mid-20th century, hopelessly stigmatised by that other awful phrase – “old ladies’ scent”. (As we hear on the news today that the expression “old dears” is to be banned, wouldn’t it be nice to see the back of that silly phrase, too?)  For years violet scent was very scarce in the shops, and then around the late 1990’s perfumers once more returned to its magic, re-invented for a new generation.

Now we have the quintessentially 21st century extravaganza Lipstick Rose which wittily subverts all the traditional presentation and shows up a dazzling shocking pink bouquet of raspberry, rose, violet, grapefruit and aldehydes. The Unicorn Spell also turns the old ideas inside out and sparkles like an icy green forest where violets brave the frosts to exude their odour. For those who desire to swathe themselves in an aura of purple and flame velvet, try Caron‘s Aimez Moi: a baroque fantasy of Parma violets, apricots and vanilla. Gourmand to a degree, smell me…eat me.

But there is another aspect to violets – what we might call the “Political Perfume”- and to this I shall return another time.

Great Big Lips

Eddie Redmayne's Great Big Lips

As Eddie Redmayne mania continues to sweep the nation so does the preoccupation with those voluptuously pillowy lips, unprecedented in the male since the heyday of Mick Jagger and Michael Portillo. Big generous mouths are the new craze: have you read about that star cricketer whose party piece is to pop a tennis ball into his mouth? With women its a more familiar story; long pre-dating Gloria Grahame, “the girl with the novocaine lips”.

In my Harrods days, hundreds of years ago, the Cheese Counter was run by an egregious film-fan who was much preoccupied by the appearance of British movie star Valerie Hobson. By then, as Mrs John Profumo, she was a regular Harrods shopper and evidently blessed with great patience besides exquisite manners, as her appearance in Cheese was inevitably greeted with a barrage of verbatim dialogue from “Blanche Fury” or “Kind Hearts and Coronets”. “My word,” Mrs Profumo would say mildly, “WHAT a memory, David…perhaps a little Stilton,today?”. As she left, David’s admiring “Great Big Lips!” shouted rather than murmured, followed her to the lifts.

Because the mouth + lips have such obvious sexual + sensual connotations, the fashion in mouths was for centuries discreet for both sexes. A small mouth + narrow lips denoted wisdom, prudence, discretion + continence. Two of our best looking kings (in their golden youth) Edward IV and his grandson Henry VIII had mouths like neat buttonholes; theoretically, the perfection for every boy and girl was a mouth like a tiny rosebud.

As late as the 1920’s the ideal was a mouth smaller than one’s eyes: look at those old silent stars and post card beauties like Lady Diana Cooper, Edward VIII and Ivor Novello. Only when Wall St crashed (IS there a connection?) did what Vogue then called the “bow-tie mouth” begin to manifest. Garbo, Crawford, Gable, Dietrich, Davis, Gary Cooper + Fred MacMurray, thanks to better dentistry and an increasing sexual openness, set a new trend for wide mouths and full, generous well-glossed kissable lips.

Old Hollywood stars of both sexes were generously lipsticked: Ralph Schwieger‘s glorious perfume Lipstick Rose is unconventional but supremely feminine. This is a paean to the scent, the colour and connotations of a gorgeously shiny deep rose lipstick – a child’s memory of his mother dressed for the evening; a waxy pink waft from an expensive bag filled with cosmetics,scent and the scent of suede. It’s a warm fresh flirty scent which perfectly encapsulates that delicious frontier of the senses where smell and taste meet. The rose and the violet (think of the colours as well as flowers) overlap with raspberry and grapefruit; velvety textures are overlaid with a sparkling effervescence. Gorgeous – to coin a phrase: two lips like tulips. Kiss me quick!

The loveliness of Queen Alexandra

Queen Alexandra the Princess of Wales

I belong to that generation who in infancy heard a great deal about Alexandra of Denmark from people who still remembered her huge blue eyes, her bewitching smile and incomparable charm which miraculously project even today from cinema newsreels of 100 years ago. Some of us might go so far as to observe that Prince William’s looks are inherited as much from his paternal gt gt gt grandmother as from his mother. Alexandra rivals even the late Princess of Wales and Elizabeth the Queen Mother in the British royal popularity ratings on account of the conventions of her day setting her slightly apart from her subjects: there was no hugging, weeping, betting or gin and Dubonnet to encourage a woman-to-woman mateyness. Alexandra was ethereal, elusive, remote and revered; yet she projected such warmth, sympathy and grace coupled with flirtatious caprice and vibrant feminity as to make her adored though untouchable.

She dressed to please herself, pinning Orders and crown jewels on at random wherever they suited her best, regardless of protocol. Her fans and accessories were ordered from Carl Faberge; she was famously slim and diet-conscious in a very porky age. But how did the divine Alexandra smell? Alexandra Rose Day, founded in her old age commemorated her love of that flower and Floris supplied both her and her husband’s mistress, Mrs Keppel with their Red Rose. Long discontinued, this was a magnificently petally, velvety, deep soft rose which had as great an influence on rose scents in its time as Malle’s Une Rose in the 21st century. Ladies of Alexandra’s day were considered to be flower-like in their delicacy, their sensibility and fragility – they should be scented like blossoms, avoiding the coarse actressy voluptuousness of musk, civet and amber. A faint odour of flowers should emanate from their clothes, laid up in fresh lavender, rather from their bodies: colognes and toilet waters were still applied to handkerchiefs rather than to the skin or the hair, a practice still considered “fast” – a useful and telling word long since obsolete, alas.

Queen Alexandra would have been well aware of Grossmith’s best-selling perfumes, recently revived this century in their old splendour – Phul Nana, Shem El Nessim and Hasu no Hana. Her daughter-in-law (the future Queen Mary) wore Grossmith’s Bridal Bouquet to her own wedding – an occasion on which it was noted that Alexandra looked lovelier than the bride. Houbigant, Guerlain and Piver would have been familiar names to her. She lived long enough to smell Chanel No 5 and the baroque splendours of Caron even if she was too much of a Victorian to have worn them. But after the rose, the flower most traditionally associated with Alexandra is the violet – in the style of her day she pinned huge corsages of them to her clothes, carried bouquets of them in public and incorporated velvet and silk violets in her toques – the convention of royal ladies not obscuring their faces by wide brimmed head gear being already well established. Besides, as her mother-in-law Queen Victoria waspishly observed, “Darling Alix has the tiniest head I have ever seen” so that Alexandra was well aware of the flattering appearance of small, high turbans. She moved in a mist of Parma violet cologne, sheer silks and lace,the perfection of Edwardian womanhood.

Her rooms at Sandringham and Buckingham palace were crammed with roses, violets and azaleas. Faberge also recreated her favourite plants in crystal, gold and precious stones. Her favourite floral scents would have scented her gloves and rice powder for the face. I wonder whether this well-known fascination of the nation’s favourite old lady (she died at 80 in 1925) for these fragrances led to them for so long after her death to be considered old-fashioned and demode. And then quite suddenly, around ten years ago, the tide turned again and rose and violet perfumes came back, firstly via the niche perfumers and then amongst the commercial houses. One of the most opulent and most artful is Lipstick Rose, in the Malle collection – here Ralf Schwieger triumphantly updates the accord, introducing a violet-rose perfume with fruity aldehydic notes of immense vibrancy and panache, but still displaying a retro powderiness and floral poignancy that is the quintessence of Alexandra.

Image from Wikipedia