Keep Your Powder Dry!

“A bit of talcum
Is always walcum” – Ogden Nash.

Tins of Devon Violets, Damask Rose and English Lavender are the archetypal gifts for Mum and female family circle.  But now, and not for the first time, talc is in the dock over health concerns. Vast damages – $72 million! – have been awarded in Missouri against Johnson & Johnson. How poignant and strange that our dear old childhood friend and innocent lifetime companion, baby powder, should be besmirched. That symbol of cosy innocence, smelling faintly of orange blossom with distant reassuring echoes of eau de cologne, NARCISSE NOIR, and the firm but fair security of mummy, nanny & the monthly nurse: it’s too sad for words.

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I love silky talcum – not corn starch or rice powder – but it’s on borrowed time and not only because of medical reservations. Talc’s delightful and fatal impracticality is part of its charm. To use powder with the abandon and lavishness it is owed, one needs a readily wipeable bathroom – chrome, glass and tiles – and a maid on the payroll, for favour of constant mopping. No doubt the pace of modern living has contributed as least as much as health concerns to the decline of talc. Powdering takes time. Do you remember Vanessa Redgrave, years ago, playing Clementine Churchill on TV? She sat at her glass, leisurely, sensually and thoroughly powdering and patting her arms & shoulders preparatory to going downstairs to a Chartwell dinner. And at Downton Abbey, the insufferable Lady Mary used to powder her kid gloves, the easier to roll them on, in that notorious bedroom.¤

For thousands of years women – and men – have powdered their faces and bodies to sop up excess moisture and oil, and to present a flawless matte smoothness to the world. In the chronicle of fashion, powder is also inextricably involved with the story of false hair. The history of male pattern baldness in our present royal family is a fascinating one. Not less so is the tale of two abnormally hirsute monarchs who started a trend for men’s wigs. In the 1660’s two cousins sat on the thrones of England and France: both Charles II and Louis XIV had magnificent heads of black curling hair and it was probably a form of flattery that their male subjects of any consequence very abruptly took to shaving their own heads and wearing hot heavy wigs – a trend that lasted well over a century and which has still not quite died out in our modern law courts. By the 1700’s men were powdering their perukes with gold dust¤¤; blue or silver tinted orris; perfumed rice and pumice powder (available in violet, rose, neroli, ambergris, musk); even with flour. It was the use of the latter, with concomitant setting creams of bear grease and lard, that gave rise to those occasional head infestations of insects, mites and even baby mice. Or were those stories merely envious satires, put about by those who were unable to fork out the modern equivalent of around £5,000 for a decent wig ?

Circa 1750, A political cartoon entitled 'The English Lady in Paris, an Essay on Puffing by Louis le Grande', showing a seated old lady having her wig powdered by a nasty looking Frenchman.

Circa 1750, A political cartoon entitled ‘The English Lady in Paris, an Essay on Puffing by Louis le Grande’, showing a seated old lady having her wig powdered by a nasty looking Frenchman.

At any rate, the powder ritual may have begun as a sort of dry shampoo routine but it soon became a de rigueur accessory. Women followed suit. Marie Antoinette’s return from Varennes to Paris house arrest in 1791 is one of the great set pieces of the Revolution. Her women washed her hair clean of stale powder and the grime of the roads, only to discover that her blond cendre tresses had turned as white as snow in the course of three days.

To be sure, powdery scents are all about romance and nostalgia. Powder suggests not only the milky warmth of starchy soapy nursery security but also the childhood scented kisses of female friends and relations; their bags, their maquillage, their clothes. There may be a spicy snuffy-tobacco tang of dad too. And a memory of certain foods – rice pudding, custard creams, meringues, icing sugar ( “dredge generously”) – that whizzes you back through the Time Tunnel to sitting on someone’s knee in the warm crumby comfort of cake and caresses.
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So powdery scents can scatter and melt and segue into the gourmand tribe. People come to Les Senteurs from far and wide for Villoresi’s TEINT DE NEIGE – “the colour of snow”. Think of drifts of ice crystals in the opalescent glow of the Northern Lights – emerald, gold, carnation pink and mauve. And at a high window, behind glass, a professional beauty sits powdering her face, her cheeks painted by the reflected rosy stain of the snows, and her colour heightened by a dish of candied dragees.  More sexually ambiguous is POUDRE DE RIZ, the aura created by love and its illicit practitioners – a stifling evocation of  hair and warm lickable skin polished with coconut-tinged monoi oil, and nacreous with sheer rice powder. Compare it if you will with an authentic Edwardian fragrance, SHEM EL NESSIM. Here all is frou frou and susurration; an ivory miniature world of crepe de chine tea gowns, feather boas and endless drifts of embraceable iris. This last is perhaps the most sophisticated and, at the same time, the most innocent of our great powdery triad.

Divinities sitting slightly below this triptyque and exhibiting permutations of powder might include:

– the raspberry waxiness of LIPSTICK ROSE with its warm and lusciously generous cleavage

– the wanton confectionery/tobacconist boutique of DIVIN ENFANT

– the witty hot pepper powderiness of PIPER NIGRUM

– the sweet smoky gunpowder/ pistol-cap/ Christmas cracker trick that inflames LA FIN DU MONDE and HIMALAYA.

– the pancake stage makeup and black suede ankle-strap lavatory heels which seduce in PARFUM SACRE.

– and a new arrival on these shores, exclusive to Les Senteurs: IRIS PALLADIUM – ample, luxurious and paradoxical. Blue chiffon iris with a glittering mineral accord.

Lest anyone should be inclined to consider powdery perfume a mere frivolity, let him think on. What is powder but the very stuff of Time itself? All things – ourselves included – come from dust and ashes and return into them. And here thoughts arise of the immortal Ashes of Roses – an evocative and profound name! A three minute sermon in itself.
¤ talc is excellent for removing oil and grease stains from fabric, too. Keep the soiled item well away from water. Coat the stain in a good thick layer of talcum and leave for as long as possible – at least 24 hours – for the powder to absorb the grease. Brush off. Repeat as necessary. Be patient: you will be nearly always be assured of total success. I have seen pale blue silk and new white linen perfectly restored.

¤¤ a charming extravagance briefly revived by such exotics as Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead in the early 1930’s.

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Handbags

queen and her launer

And before we even start, I’m telling you now I am not going to mention Dame Edith Evans.

There was a most fascinating and wonderful inspirational speaker on the radio the other day from the University of Kent. Professor Julia Twigg (with Christina Buse) has made a study of the role and significance of handbags in the lives of elderly women with dementia; examining how life may contract to the expressions of personality and memory centring on a bag as the mind slowly loses its own ability to carry information and characteristics. Meanwhile, a cherished friend of the bosom from the world of scent writes of how she sees her vast collection of bags as extensions of herself, never just as objects or accessories. A very good reason (as with a perfume wardrobe) why she needs so many.

I have always admired the idea of a bag because I like to have a great many companionable things to hand at all times: practical stuff like glasses, keys, Polos, pens and painkillers. And also the more talismanic items such as family photos (“ancestor worship”), favourite postcards & books, scent, amulets against the Evil Eye, paper ikons, medallions and so on. So I cart all this about in a series of nylon and plastic carriers from the supermarket; or latterly in a rather smart orange canvas bag provided at a perfume conference. As with shoes I’ve never had much luck in finding a smart bag not too egregious for elderly male use; I don’t want one of those leather patchwork things in shades of maroon, magenta and dung. In any case, I think the assemblage and presentation of a decent handbag is above all a female and feminine art.

Women’s bags are much more imaginatively designed, coloured and all the rest of it. They have the added advantage of smelling delicious: and not just when a bottle of Shalimar, Giorgio or Fidgi has disastrously leaked therein. Or so I have always found during rare forays into bags when left in charge briefly by intimate friends and relations, or asked to delve in to find a pair of spectacles. When very small I was devoured by curiosity as to what was inside these bags, an itch which landed me in very hot water as “little boys NEVER EVER look in ladies’ bags!” Many years later I read some piece of popular psychology which claimed that boys who peer into handbags most generally grow up into lifelong bachelors. An extraordinary thing to say!

But my grandmother always encouraged my natural inquisitiveness and it was in her bag that I learned to appreciate that delicious texture and scent of worn soft leather, silk, suede, pressed face powder, wispy lawn hankies, sweet waxy lipstick, 10 Players, burned matches and money. Paper money (rather greasy) and old coppers used to have a very definite smell, not so much now that cash changes hands quicker. Then there were all these little folders and inner pockets and secret compartments, zipped and popped and studded and buttoned; and filled with looking glasses, bills and well-worn letters and lists – ” tonic water, lettuce, library, frozen peas”. Really I suppose my grandmother was of the first generation of women to need a bag. Before the turn of the 20th century the folds of ladies’ ample skirts were full of pockets; keys were kept on a chatelaine; no decent female admitted to smoking or making up. There was no need for a bag. Hankies and cachous were tucked into bangles, up sleeves or into the decolletage or muff. The most a girl needed was a tiny mesh purse for pin money.

Miss Nathalie Lecroc has made a good living illustrating the contents of bags; as varied as their owners, her pictures are riveting to pore over. Various perfumers have produced candles which imitate the scent of a good handbag but I think no one has made a wearable perfume to wear which performs the trick. Having said this, I have always found during our lengthy relationship that Caron’s seductive Parfum Sacre is divinely “sac a main” in style. According to Caron lore it is a blend of their notorious Poivre and the swooning Fete des Roses. What I smell is the most expensive suede evening bag with faintly damp rose-scented face powder spilled on a thick silk lining with accents of cinnamon, coriander, amber and musk oozing in from crimson-nailed hands soaked in a lifetime of scented oils. Irresistible.

Total Immersion

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As you know, at Les Senteurs we make rather a good job of finding a fragrance to complement a particular occasion. A woman came in the other day looking for a perfume to wear as godmother at a christening. Now I suppose the imagination at once goes to something light, crisp, fresh and florally green – new life, new hope; “we blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree”, you know? One thinks of Malle’s Lys Mediterranee or Cloon Keen’s Bataille des Fleurs.  However, I’d been to a baptism myself only the previous day and had been overwhelmed in the chancel by a spontaneously generated redolence of myrrh, the godfathers’ smooth spicy scent and vases of crimson & cream late roses, with just a hint of pure clean baby.

So for my visitor – who was dramatically brunette with fine clear olive skin (for such things will alter the perception and wearing of a scent) – I chose the following. Parfum Sacre from Le Selection de Caron is a new translation of the classic mix of roses, pepper, cinnamon and incense. Alamut by Lorenzo Villoresi is a fantasy tour of the Persian Castle of the Assassins : the perfume is a head-turning and head-spinning kaleidoscope of sweet incense oils, rose, tuberose, amber,narcissus and orange blossom. My new friend took away a sample of each to ponder: we await her decision with interest.

Image from: thetimes.co.uk

Land of the Pharoahs

Kyphi worn atop the headMy niece is teaching her class the modes and manners of the ancient Egyptians this term so we’ve all thrown ourselves into the compilation of colourful material for her use. Egyptian history is a perennial passion with me and I find it hard to let my old school prizes out of the house, even on temporary loan. Twenty years ago I spent two weeks in the land where perfume began, sailing down the Nile with 30 other passengers, most of them in the throes of heat prostration and food poisoning (the mercury went up to a freakish 130 degrees F). I protected and survived by keeping my hat on and living on the inside of the loaf with a disinfecting brandy chaser (bottle brought with).

The never-forgotten smells of that timeless land…. On my first morning we came ashore at the Temple of Hathor (the cow-headed goddess of love) at Dendera in a grey-green dawn river mist, our noses eager as those of new born babies to explore scents; the cool morning air was full of the odours of red mud, Nile water, fresh banana leaves and blue lotus flowers. Then we climbed up to the temple where Cleopatra had worshipped, with its ruined walls and pylons baking already in the rising sun and shimmering in fragrant smoke rising from one of those bonfires that seem ever-present in the East: dried camel dung never smelled so good. But then this is the very dung rolled across the sky by the sacred scarabs to manifest as the morning sun.

The inner chambers of these temples are so lacking in oxygen and so stifling with the atmosphere of the millennia – the paint, the prayers, the incense – that visitors often feel strangely oppressed and depressed ( one of the origins of the tomb-curse legend? ). As you come out into the open again the air hits you like champagne, making one exuberant, excitable and light-headed as though inspired by the goddess. “Pooh, those old crocodiles smell terrible” said a visitor to Kom Ombo as we peered at the embalmed reptile-gods that once led the Imperial Egyptian army or swam, braceleted and jewelled, in the temple pools. But after 3,000 years the aroma was only of heat and dust, defunct piety and maybe a lingering whiff of kyphi.

Kyphi was the all-purpose Egyptian incense, mentioned and listed in all the old inscriptions, burned continuously in the sacred places. Some say it was mixed into the mud bricks to permeate the precincts for eternity. Caron’s Parfum Sacre, full of pepper, rose and incense is partially inspired by it; but if you ponder the classic ingredients kyphi seems to be the living link with Lauder’s Cinnabar and Youth Dew. Wine was mixed into a paste with honey, raisins, juniper, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, labdanum, spices, cassia and fragrant woods. Is there anything new under the sun in the perfume shop?

The old gods fed on kyphi, its smoke made a pathway from earth to heaven and kyphi’s heady fumes impregnated priests and worshippers. Like other perfumes it was rolled into cones of animal fat which were painted and worn on the head at festivals both sacred and profane: these then slowly melted to coat the body in a slick of fragranced grease. Whole-hearted in their love of life, Egyptians were never shy in their embracing of perfume. Exiguously and scantily dressed, they relied on jewellery, artful cosmetics, elaborate hair and heavy scent to make their fashion statements.

Can these attractive people really be gone? Or have they turned into fashionable metropolitans of 2013?