“Too kind..”

vanity

 

I believe it was “Dizzy” Disraeli who opined to the effect that: “We all love flattery: and when you come to royalty, then you should lay it on with a trowel.”

Certainly the widowed Victoria purred  like a cat under her Prime Minister’s assiduous attentions. Rotund and querulous in black bombazine and crepe, the Empress of India revelled in being cast as Disraeli’s dainty “Fairy” and “Fairy Queen”.

Elizabeth Tudor demanded to be assured that she was the Fairest Princess in Christendom. Not even the grossest flattery was excessive for her: was it a game? Did she secretly enjoy seeing statesman and intellectuals making fools of themselves over a tragic old lady? Perhaps she saw that the demanding and obtaining of continual irrational praise was a measure not of her beauty but of her power. And that was why the horrible ( and boring ) Earl of Essex who surprised her, balding and undressed in her own bedroom, had to die. Elizabeth knew that after that experience – shattering to both Queen and courtier – Essex would never be able to lie convincingly, eyeball to eyeball, again.

I’ve been thinking about all this a lot and I’ll tell you why. My spies in the department stores tell me that currently the most frequently-heard complaint from perfume purchasers is that the fragrance brought the wearer no compliments. No one said a word. The crash of silence! – to coin a phrase.

It used to be widely said that if you could not smell your own perfume then it was the perfect match for you. There is something in this apparent paradox. As we all know, the more you are in love with a scent the less you pick it up. The brain and the nose are all at peace and they don’t need to keeping registering the fragrance. They know you are happy and safe with it. So they simply switch off and worry about something else.

Frederic Malle told us that he knew he’d got a hit with iconic Musc Ravageur when he sent his P.A. down the Metro doused in the new scent, and the Paris commuters went wild. It certainly is a rousing accolade to be told you smell marvellous but I don’t think we should either panic or grouse when we don’t get the compliments.¤

The compliments don’t come largely because many people are still shy about scents. Smell is a very intimate thing. Smelling bad is, as we know, something even your best friend may not be able to tell you. I would hesitate to comment on a stranger’s gorgeous scent unless asked specifically for an opinion. Men can’t help acting on Impulse – but I’d be very wary of stopping someone in the street to pass a remark on their redolence. Especially in these strange days! I wished someone a good morning recently and the sky fell in. “WHAT did you say to me??”

I am just old enough to remember a time when my elders thought it intolerably gauche, tasteless and bad form to praise anything. You thanked your hostess for entertaining you, but you would never single out the food, or her dress, her hair, her jewels or her perfume for specific comment. Diana Mitford’s old nanny told her on her wedding day to stop fussing at the glass, for:

“Nobody’s going to be looking at you, dear”.

Drawing attention to oneself; seeking attention or approbation was then beyond the pale.

This may not have been altogether healthy; but, in any case, do we not wear perfume primarily for our own private delight? When lovely customers come to the shop to find themselves something new, they often worry that their partners may not care for the chosen prize. I always advise them as I’m now advising you. Say Absolutely Nothing to your Loved One; just wear the perfume with quiet confidence. Don’t canvass opinions. Asking others for their views on what you are wearing always makes folks nervous – and consequently “predicates the answer ‘no'” as we used to learn in French grammar lessons. Never explain and never complain.

Well, doesn’t it make sense? Please yourself and then at least someone’s happy.

Have a joyously perfumed week!

¤ “She’s wearing TRAMP – and everybody loves her!” was a wonderfully ambiguous advertising line some 40 years ago.

Autumn Leaves

farmhouse-with-birch-trees-1903

Following that earlier walk down the autumn garden path, here are 10 super scents to gladden your hearts on crisp frosty mornings and gloomy damp evenings. Scents with uplift, comfort and a whole heap of style; perfumes that make a nod to the season but are not governed by it. Nor is this selection made with any reference to gender. All of the following fragrances are great for both men and women, though some seem angled somewhat by their names; and one or two may work better on those of riper years. But that’s something I’d love you readers to comment on: so please, as ever, do write in. Meanwhile: enjoy, taste and try:

1. Vetiver Fatal by Atelier Cologne

B9-VF 200ml Packshot

Vetiver grass has been used in perfumery for millennia: it has a rather rough male reputation but women love the scent so here’s a perfume to suit everyone: sophisticated, easy-going, clean but with a touch of winter comfort. Oud emphasises vetiver’s greenery; cedar and violet leaf bring out the earthiness. Effortlessly charming.

2. Monsieur by Huitieme Art

8 eme art noir_Monsieur

Rocks, streams, stones, trees – the forests of the Auvergne or Wordsworth’s Lakes. Aromatic and woody – full of patchouli, cedar, sandalwood, poplar, dry papyrus and smoky incense. All the invigorating freshness of cool damp forest air but also comforting, warm and perfectly poised.

3. Bois Du Portugal by Creed

Bois du Portugal flacon75ml + etui

An old personal favourite which never palls: an unjustly forgotten Creed scent but still one of the best. Like sinking into a huge green velvet armchair inhaling lavender, mosses, bark, scented woods and memories of hot summer suns.

4. Oud Cashmere Mood by Maison Francis Kurkdjian

MFK-OUD cashemere mood WEB

I adore the loudness, the flamboyance and blatancy of oud. This cracker is wildly animalic, faintly rude, always animalic with sweet oils of labdanum, vanilla and benzoin. A fabulous contrast to the delicate cashmere fibres of Musc Ravageur – see below.

5. Musc Ravageur by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

musc ravageur 100ml

This is a beautifully dressed continental gentleman wearing soft supple tweeds and the finest, lightest cashmere scarf smelling subtly and deliciously of lavender, bitter orange, spices, woods….and clouds of warm sexy musks.

6. Tobacco Rose by Papillon

Tobacco Rose

The last rose of summer; the one still blooming in the sere garden on Christmas Day. Deep, dark, pourri’d and arousing; full of wonderful non-floral notes such as aromatic beeswax, musk, ambergris as well as the lushness of spicy Bulgarian rose oil.

7. Intoxicated By Kilian

Intoxicated_bottle 50ml_HDWEB

To give you courage on dark cold wet mornings; to stimulate you at night. A gorgeous warm spicy coffee fragrance laced with rose, cinnamon, nutmeg and green cardamom. Exciting, addictive, satisfying. Can’t live without it.

8. Vanille by Mona di Orio

vanille_bottleSQUARE

Beautiful fantasies of the South Seas and the Caribbean: a spangled veil thrown across the sky to catch diamond stars. Natural oil of vanilla laced with leather, gaiac wood, vetiver and a hint of rum. A landmark vanilla fragrance: exotic, never ersatz; modest but unconsciously overwhelming

9. Gardenia Sotto La Luna by Andy Tauer

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Tropical splendour from your own hot houses, brought to table with the forced peaches and melons. A boutonniere or bouquet for the winter balls and galas: massed creamy gardenias & white roses with incredible depth and almost vegetal richness. For me, currently Best in Show at Les Senteurs.

10. Sienne L’Hiver by Eau d’Italie

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The city of Siena in dead of winter: stone cold without, sumptuously heated and indulgent within. This little-known fragrance plays with colours, recreating the rich earthy tones of Siena’s architecture with truffle, frankincense, golden hay, labdanum, violet and geranium. A classic jewel!

A Gentle Glow

Camille Clifford

There’s been more sales of these endless pairs of Queen Victoria’s knickers lately. Can her dimensions really have been so vast, even grotesque? From her underclothes her bust has been reckoned in old age at 66″ inches which means it was considerably greater than her height. Her waist comes in at 50″; I don’t know whether this is with the drawstring of her panties drawn tight or left slack. Her own doctor wrote that she was not a pretty sight undressed – barrel-like – but it seems a terrible thing, even now, to parade all this to her shame in tabloids and on websites. However it must be said that Victoria was more robust about the human form and its functions than is popularly thought, writing admiringly as a young woman of the magnificence of Albert in his cashmere breeches “with nothing underneath”. And the strangest thing is, that her youngest daughter Beatrice who prepared her mother’s journals for posthumous publication after the most stringent bowdlerisation let this particular passage stand.

Of course, the dimensions of these voluminous underclothes of the past had a secondary purpose. Up until the 1920’s any decent woman of any class was rigidly corseted in stays. These were tightly laced over chemises cut very generously to protect the skin from chafing by buckram and whalebone, and also to soak up the abundant perspiration concomitant on all this restriction and compression of the flesh. My Victorian grandmother and her contemporaries used to hold forth on the unending efforts of their youth to keep clean: the home-made borax deodorants, the sewn-in underarm sweat pads, the dust braid tacked on to skirt hems, the endless brushing and laundering of petticoats. Anyone wishing for a very full and frank evocation of domestic middle class hygiene in the 1890’s should study the Lizzie Borden murder case: the fly -blown mutton soup served up five days running in a Fall River heat wave; the unmentionables soaking in buckets in the scullery.

In my department store days I used to work with a little lady who kept her black uniform in her locker and change into her own clothes to go home. She said that uniform had never been washed in over 20 years – “it doesn’t require it”. In her wonderful novel “The Women In Black” Madeleine St John pin points the quintessential store sartorial smell of talcum powder and sweat; to which I would add the odour of old  perfume embedded in repetitively dry-cleaned fabric. None of this is exactly unpleasant: fresh sweat in itself is not offensive, the problems set in as it ages and reacts with bacteria. And even that niff has its fans: we all know the story of Napoleon’s letter to Josephine to the effect that he is starting home from Italy and inviting her not to wash. Which must have been a peculiar ordeal for Josephine, one of the cleanest individuals in history, always in the bath, washing her hair (a new fashion) and changing her lingerie four times daily.

More of us that might care to admit are aroused by apparently offensive smells. A fascinating note in the Telegraph last month revealed that my favourite hawthorn blossom emits the scent of sex and secretes triethylamine besides, a chemical also produced by decaying human corpses. For millenia, perfumers used matter from the digestive and reproductive systems of animals to add tenacity and punch to their products. And this summer there is a chic new fad of not washing overmuch, of cultivating a piquant tang of bouquet de corsage; maybe to show in this time of recession and fear that one is with the people, that “we’re all in this together” as someone said. No time to bathe, no time to launder: there’s a big job to do, though no one is sure quite what it might be. It’s reminiscent of French duchesses during the Revolution having greasy red caps of Liberty incorporated into their powdered coiffures, and perhaps this summer’s damp coolth has given the bon-ton the courage to join this grubby trend. It’s certainly delightfully apparent on the light luncheon and dinner-dance circuit.

But if you haven’t quite the nerve to go out without a preliminary dab wash and application of Sure you can fake it much more happily with perfume on immaculately clean skin. There are fresh crisp scents straight out the shower scents, quite devoid of erotic appeal; and then there are the sexy voluptuous fragrances with just a hint of smuts, of unbuttoned come-hither negligence. Perfumes that smell within half an hour or so as though you’ve worn them all day while living life to the full. Rich dark orientals that have moistened under a hot sun; petal-dropping waxy white florals with a musky worm i’ the bud; earthy chypres with a hint of luscious fruit on the edge of rot. Charogne by Etat Libre d’Orange takes this idea to the limit; Editions des Parfums Musc Ravageur is a legend of the genre. But do try also Kilian‘s best-sellers Good Girl Gone Bad – the clue’s in the title – and In The City of Sin. Good Girl is a stupendous white bouquet of jasmine, osmanthus, tuberose and narcissus which suddenly plunges into a honey trap of woody amber. City of Sin has a delicate creamy spiciness that reminds me of those large and now rare white pinks, a scent that recently wafted from a garden, stopped me dead in my tracks in the lane. Recently our dear friend the perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek gave a masterclass in up-to-the-minute ingredients at Les Senteurs and put a name to so many of the smells we recognise but cannot always identify. It was the amber variant, tresamber, which hit the nail for me. I seem to detect its magic in both of these Kilian show-stoppers. It’s right down there at the sultry base beneath the warm, soft slightly fruity odour which I visualise as the colour of the Duchess of Malfi’s apricots (the fruits of City of Sin, mixed with rose and plum). A dusky gold, ripened in sun and humus on the walls of a stable. Sweetish, faintly fleshy, definitely animalic, disturbing in the best sense and very very sexy.

Madeleine Smith: a vignette

I have mentioned before the case of Madeleine Smith and the excellent film based thereon made by David Lean in 1950 starring his then wife, Ann Todd (variously described by contemporary PR as “the British Garbo” or “the Pocket Garbo”). I never met Miss Todd though I saw her once in rural Suffolk of all places (adjoining holiday houses) and heard her announced over the tannoy backstage at Stratford Upon Avon – “Miss Tutin and Miss Todd for Dame Peggy!” Though I have always imagined her brunette, Madeleine Smith is perfectly incarnated by the glacial almost albino blonde Todd, wearing probably the most authentic crinolines ever seen on screen. The facts of the case presented are also reliable and accurate, if necessarily telescoped.

The eldest daughter of a prosperous Glasgow family, Smith was tried in 1857 for the murder of her former lover, a Frenchman named L’Angelier by whom she had been seduced and to whom she had written indiscreet letters with which he attempted to blackmail her. L’Angelier died in agonies of arsenic poisoning: Madeleine Smith was said to have administered this in a cup of cocoa. The defence claimed she had purchased the poison only to whiten her skin. The uniquely Scottish verdict of the court was Not Proven; David Lean’s presentation of characters and case is so detached and remote that the viewer is inclined to concur, foxed by Smith/Todd’s elegant inscrutability. The costume design complements the enigmatic character of Madeleine remarkably. I have discussed her shoes in an earlier piece but we should also note her headgear, a succession of plumed and furred hats and toques: is she a trapped animal, enmeshed by the predatory L’Angelier? Or is Madeleine herself the bird of prey? A wild animal turning in ferocious panic on her persecutor? Even when finally trapped in the dock,her severe if chic bonnet is trimmed with a feather. Only in her introductory scene, before we know anything of her intrigues, do we see a young girl crowned with flowers.

Those who relish the ciphers and codes and short-hand of old cinema, so adroitly used by directors to circumvent the censor, will find a great deal to appreciate here. Note the frequent close-ups of L’Angelier’s cane with which he makes much swagger. Look out for the scene where after an evening in the drawing-room with her parents and prospective fiancee, Madeleine surreptitiously puts on scent before slipping out into the sodden basement area to meet her lover.

“Madeleine…you are wearing perfume..” he says throatily; the rain comes down in stair rods in a sudden storm, and it is immediately clear in those four words that he sees her (and maybe she is) as a completely abandoned woman – and treats her as such. Wearing perfume in middle class Victorian Glasgow is akin to wearing the scarlet letter

Lean and his team were of a generation almost within touching distance of the case: Madeleine Smith had only been dead for some 20 years (she went to the USA after the trial and is said to have invented the table mat). They knew how significant it was for a respectable girl then to put on perfume. Remember the chapter in Little Women in which Meg goes to a dance at a wealthy friend’s and is induced to “polish..her neck and arms with some fragrant powder” to Laurie’s intense disapproval and her own subsequent deep shame. Even as late as 1922/23, as her inspired biographer Rene Weis notes, during the uproar surrounding the trial and execution of Edith Thompson lurid tabloid pieces made much of her prodigious use of perfume and scented baths: a sure sign of supposed depravity. L’Angelier’s line in the movie is a masterstroke of compression and allusion: audiences in 1950 probably read it more clearly than those today. Like Deborah Kerr’s clipping on of an earring in The End of the Affair; and Fred MacMurray kicking the rug straight in Double Indemnity it speaks volumes of passionate and ultimately tragic illicit sex.

So what perfume is Madeleine wearing for her lover? Who can say? She buys rosewater for her younger sister in a later scene; has money in her pocket and access to her father’s account at the chemist-apothecary. Her own taste in dress is shown to be impeccable; she is elegant, fastidious and in the fashion. I think the scent would be chosen to please the lover rather than herself. Miss Smith might have shared her sister’s rose or perhaps lavender water: she takes a bottle of the latter to court with her. Madeleine (L’Angelier’s passionate “Mimi”) probably chooses musk, civet or ambergris, the legendary aphrodisiacs of antiquity. I do not think a perfume that would have been available in 1857 now exists in its original form: animal rights and health and safety legislation have outlawed so many of the old ingredients, and our tastes in fragrance have radically changed. But let’s compose a theoretical formula for Madeleine. Something of the creamy soft muskiness of Musc Ravageur; the pungent civet of the original Jicky and Mouchoir; the animal leatheriness of Knize Ten; the density and richness of Phul Nana; the hot powdery voluptuousness of Ambre Precieux. And finally the narcotic intensity of the Bulgarian roses of Creed’s Fleurs de Bulgarie: a perfume that in its prototype form originated in the 1840’s. Cruel, peppery, lascivious roses not baby-pink buds. Just as posterity and Lean’s film leaves us in suspense as to Madeleine Smith’s guilt or innocence, so must her fragrance: but, as my grandmother always used to say, “they can’t hang you for thinking”.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Miss Host and the Ferret Man: A Note on the Animalic

Civet Cat, Animalic Perfumes, A note on the Animalic, Les Senteurs, Blog, London

My late father was a country vet of the old school and a great collector and raconteur of bizarre experience, both animal and human. The eponymous Miss Host was a gentlewoman of some means who in late middle age conceived a passion for the ferret man who controlled the rabbit population on her land. My father said it was the distinctive sour ferrety smell which clung to his person which gave Miss Host’s lover his irresistible appeal.

We might not all of us go to this extreme, but animalic notes in perfumes give them an extremely sexy, carnal and aphrodisiac edge. Animals depend upon smell to avoid danger, find food and to signal a readiness to mate. So (think Darwin!) when we naked apes pick up notes of civet, musk and castoreum in a fragrance we find all our most basic instincts aroused and thrown into turmoil. The animalic scent is all about survival and perpetuation of the species: a heady concoction to keep in pocket or handbag.

Natural animal notes used in Western perfumery have been illegal for some decades now, so we can explore this erotica with a clear conscience. Anyone who still thinks synthetic materials are inferior and ineffectual should spent an evening with a wearer of Musc Ravageur, Cuir Venenum, Knize Ten or Lady Vengeance. The crucial point is of course how the aphrodisiac oils in the fragrance meet, mingle and blend with those of one’s own skin; how they accelerate, develop and take on an individual life of their own so that the wearer appears to be exuding a delicious odour entirely from their own pores.

No wonder that so many perfume fanciers are as Father would have said, “mad for the dumb!” There is a sensual delight in smelling in these scents something akin to the fur of a pet cat or rabbit. Or, of course, a luxurious fur coat: something that Revillon recognised in the 1950’s when they produced Detchemar to wear as a complement to fur. (It is also the scent that Mia Farrow wears in Rosemary’s Baby to drown the reek of witches’ tannis root).

All the dogs of my life have had their own distinctive delicious smell. Dolly the pug was a beautiful ash blonde, with mink-soft fur which smelled delicately of custard creams. If there is indeed a canine Happy Hunting Ground it will be well stocked for her with grated carrot and Marmite toast. Poppy the black lab was redolent of summer hay fields; and Lucy the poodle like a pure white cashmere sweater. They were none of them much meat eaters; a carnivorous diet tends to imbue dogs with a definite meaty odour on hair, skin and breath. Just as vegetarians detect on human consumers of flesh.

So, radiate a little animal magnetism!

Image from Wikipedia