Some smells do linger, Jean…

Circe Invidiosa

Circe Invidiosa

“Sillage”: in French the word means the cleft water and foaming ripples that mark the wake of a ship; it also denotes the trail of an animal. There’s a clue in that, for by the English it is used almost exclusively to mean the waft of perfume left by the presence or passage of a wearer. Everyone demands intense sillage these days: they even measure it. A sillage of three inches is nugatory; a respectable sillage should reach an arm’s length from the body and no further. And so on. Frederic Malle has even, you might reasonably claim, recreated the odour of sillage in his witty and delicious Cafe Society candle and room scent: une sillage de sillage.

Today people are by and large ready to admit (albeit under pressure) that they are wearing perfume, though they might be reluctant to reveal the name of their Chosen One. For centuries, though, the lovely and desirable sought the alluring enchantment of the sillage without the dubious connotations of the scent that gave it birth. To be seen to wear perfume on the skin was meretricious and dingy; yet to smell delicious was the mark of goodness, of moral integrity. The odour of sanctity revealed that a person was pure, benevolent, divine, without spot or stain. And it would continue to manifest even after death, rendering the mortal remains incorruptible, giving off an redolence of sweet myrrh, roses and what have you. So the aim of the fashionable was to create the illusion that scent emanated from one’s own skin, pores and soul – just as Alexander the Great sweated forth the smell of violets – and not from some dubious potation which aped the divine gift on none-to-clean skin.

“From her fragrant robes a lovely perfume was scattered” reads a hymn to the goddess Demeter. For thousands of years men and women strove for this effect: and contemporary literature – poems, plays, novels – colludes in the illusion. Desirable individuals exude scent from a vague, mysterious source. They are surrounded by an aura of perfume which suffuses their clothing, furniture, possessions and which leaves wonderful sillage when they move: “a faint delicious fragrance hung about her…”. Perfume clings to the objects that the beautiful people touch and it lingers in their rooms, their beds, luggage and hair – “she smells all amber!” But the source of the scent remains vague, unspecified: it manifests spontaneously; it seems to transmit from incense burners, herbs & flowers or from the very air. It comes from the purity of the soul. Nothing so vulgar as a bottle of perfume is mentioned: not in connection with sympathetic characters, at any rate.

I remember, I remember memorable encounters with sillage. I recall the girl with magnificent mahogany hair buying postcards in the National Gallery shop some 20 years ago, and she suffused in a cloud of Guerlain’s Samsara. I have never smelled that lovely but tricky scent so beautifully interpreted. I remember Chanel No 5 at a Covent Garden matinee, stealing over the stalls from a golden-shouldered matron in white linen: far more beguiling than discordant old Prokofiev. Some 30 years ago the ground floor at Harrods always smelled subtly and sweetly of gardenias as though left in the wake of generations of exquisite shoppers dipped in the Floris house exclusive. And most of all I recall midsummer midnight at Luxor in 1992 and the temple of Rameses on the Nile waterfront: everywhere the faint but insistent odour of Oscar de la Renta’s Volupte, the osmanthus & violet hit of the day. It was the scent and epicentre of the hot blue night.

“Some smells do linger, Jean!” as that careful lady in the tv ads used to say. And thank goodness for that. There was a woman picking over Cheddar in the Co-Op the other day who left a gorgeous powdery floral mist behind her – I don’t know what it was; dry, faintly spicy, it hung in the air like a sparkling iridescent bubble. And for sillage connoisseurs everywhere let me put in a word for Andy Tauer’s Sotta la Luna Gardenia – la Stupenda, indeed! Here is a massive and glorious gardenia scent enhanced with all the creamy sandalwood, tonka and vanilla notes exuded by the flower itself; and there’s a mossy, dark, jungly quality that expands its gender relevance. But the volume, the expansion! I like to wear just a drop of this one and follow its progress as it expands and inflates like a great balloon of fragrance. It opens up like the flower which inspires it, from a tight green bud to a voluptuous all-encompassing mantle. This is a case where less is definitely more.

Number 5

We’re off! Brad Pitt’s campaign as the new Face of Chanel began last month. It’s quite a cute choice on many levels : the Legend and the Heart-throb teamed at last, though why a perfume should need a “Face” at all is beyond me. At this high level of classic perfumery, every fragrance already has its own very well-developed and assertive personality. No 5 of all scents already has an unmistakable and unforgettable face: Mlle Coco’s black-eyed little marmoset features, cigarette glued to lower lip beneath a broad-brimmed hat, seem to grin beguilingly from every bottle – the true look of genius, tinkering around in her labs with Ernest Beaux and selecting her formula by instinct and superstition.
What could be more fascinating, appealing and sellable? Anything else seems redundant; it’s almost the equivalent in art terms of choosing a PR look for a painter – the Face of Tracy Emin or Francis Bacon.

I guess the modern axiom insists the youth market must be enticed with an allure of great big blazing star: a former Face, Nicole Kidman, despite a massively expensive publicity campaign and that seemingly endless tv ad never seemed to me quite right for Chanel: rather too nervy and wired. Maybe Brad’s somewhat laconic and laid-back glamour will be more effective as he becomes a projection for every man who ever courts with No 5, and more to the point, the guy from whom every girl would like to receive a flacon.

Endless “scientific” surveys and tests, we keep being reassured by the popular press, show that men of Brad’s type with soft, big-eyed rounded features – somewhat baby-faced, something of the child still about them – appeal most to modern women as reliable safe lovers and putative fathers. Maybe Chanel are following the tabloids’ cut- out- and- keep advice. A wilder, less cosier masculinity might conjure up a more exciting image but that seems not to be generally desired, by the opposite sex at least. 21st century men have been so demonised, ridiculed and rendered so drippy and in their advertising image that the Richard Burton/Maxim de Winter/Errol Flynn type seems to have gone for good. Brad’s iconic screen Achilles image – all bronzed muscle and flowing blond hair – appeared ostensibly virile but there was also something of a parodic tribute to Marilyn Monroe about it. It teetered on the verge of doll-like, suggesting the sex roles reversed: a passive man to be bossed about by his lady friend, a chunky nugget of eye candy with a gift wrapped bottle of Chanel the size of a chocolate box.

But there’s also an interesting ambiguity about choosing a male Face: maybe Brad should encourage his brothers in arms to have a try at wearing No 5 themselves… How subversive would that be – yet eminently practical and creative. The musky base notes tend to be brought to the fore on a man’s skin and smell darkly, richly wonderful; and not at all feminine – if you’re worried about that sort of thing. The male hormones generally burn through the rose + jasmine to reveal the vetiver and sandalwood beneath. A perfumer can do no more than propose that a scent be male or female: the publicity campaign is what anchors its gender in the public mind, that and a certain association of ingredients. Flowers for girls, woods for boys: a dull old cliche neatly inverted by Vita Sackville West in “The Land”:

“Every flower her son
And every tree her daughter.”

The British at least are far too constricted by ideas of what they are “allowed” to do with scent. May I wear it at the office? In the morning? On holiday? On my hair? For many people perfume is still the boss. Listen: you can do anything you like with it: bend it to your will and pleasure. It may be a genie in a bottle, but like Aladdin its you who are in command. Chanel No 5, a best-seller since 1921, is of the era when scent was still a huge luxury and far more the preserve of the wealthy artist, socialite and aristocrat who felt far less constrained by social mores and wore perfume as they pleased. Gary Cooper, Noel Coward, the Duke of Kent and Diaghelev are all said to have sported Jicky, Arpege, Mitsouko, and No 5 con brio, to memorable effect. Luckily these new Perfume Faces are usually contractually obliged to wear the product: what a chance to double sales of the world’s most famous scent. Ball in your court, Mr Pitt.