Big Shopper

jane-austen

 

A lovely lady wrote to me this week. She is writing an historical novel, and was curious to know more about shopping for perfume, as it would have been at the time of the Regency. We are talking of a period exactly 200 years ago when the whole etiquette of modern retail was really getting into its stride in Britain. The cities were growing like mad, the roads were improving, the railways were almost in sight. We read about Jane Austen’s aunt shop-lifting lace in Bath – a mysterious episode! – and Mr Bronte’s purchases for the children in Leeds, specifically that famous box of toy soldiers. The Haworth stationer in old age remembered how the Bronte girls were always his best customers, and how grumpy they were if ever he ran out of paper.

 

In the great cities ‘going shopping’ was already one of the favourite pastimes of the well-to-do and the bored. So, in 1817, with Napoleon recently banged-up on St Helena, and with peace declared after a quarter-century of war, where would you have bought scent?

 

Remember that at this time perfume was not really defined or sold by gender – ‘male’ and ‘female’ perfumes would not become classified as such for another century. Scent was sold promiscuously. Perfume lovers at the time of the Regency bought whatever was fashionable and “comme il faut”  wherever they found it. Manners then were less inhibited in some ways (chamber pots in the dining room sideboard); more so in others. For refined wearers of perfume their entire ambience was perfumed: their furniture, clothes and accessories, their bath water – but not their actual flesh. Neat scent applied direct to the skin was considered injurious to health, playing havoc with the volatile humours of the body.

 

The concept of the department store was yet to be thought of. A few names familiar to us today were already current. Although they were not then primarily perfumers, the tailors Creed of Conduit Street were already creating small amounts of exclusive bespoke fragrance for favoured clients. Perfume was also much sold in apothecaries’ shops – this is because it was regarded also as a healing, medicinal preparation. Sometimes you would find it also being sold in the patisseries and confectionery boutiques of the Regency era, alongside jellies and cordials. If this seems odd, think of the way we cook today with orange flower water, rose-water, saffron, edible flowers and the like.

 

Many folk would have ingested herbal or citrus colognes as health remedies on the principle that what smells good will do you good. Consequently perfume would also have been sold by wise women, charlatans, healers, fairground hucksters, pedlars, quacks, witches, fortune-tellers and others of like ilk.

 

These shady characters aside, there was always something suspect about nearly all shop-workers. Anyone “in trade” was automatically degraded. Retailers were necessarily perpetually “on show” and therefore immodest, pushy and mercenary. They perforce mixed with all sorts, with no regard to station or social “place”. They might well be religious dissenters (shop work and nonconformity often went together) and so were doubly suspect. Shopkeepers in many early novels are hideously evil-tempered, crabbed and misanthropic: trying to prove their respectability while chasing a hard-earned crust. Those retailers who sold magical, seductive, luxurious perfume were likely to be of a especially ambiguous reputation.

 

Perhaps it was safer to make perfume at home. Girls of all classes – if leisure and money permitted – would have been taught by their mothers to prepare herbal and floral waters in the still-room of the family home. There, they would have also made fragranced salves, pot pourri, soaps, moisturisers, washes, pomanders, candles and ointments. Raw materials would have been grown in the garden, or bought in the markets or from merchants and travelling pedlars.

 

Perfumery began to be used in a more modern way during the Regency era. This reflected the way that clothes and costume had changed in the last years of the 18th century. Garments for both sexes became much more simple. Cotton and light woollen fabrics became enormously fashionable. These were washable, so people became cleaner. False hair was abandoned after being widely used for over a century: hair hygiene and fastidious personal cleanliness became all the style.

 

Therefore heavy musky perfumes which covered, masked and camouflaged body odours went out; and light citric/flowery colognes came in. Napoleon – “The Corsican Ogre” – was the Great National Enemy but he was still admired in Britain with a kind of horrified fascination – and his passion for drenching himself in bright crisp colognes was much copied by those who could afford it. There was a brief lull in the fighting in 1802 following the Peace of Amiens. Anyone who could afford it dashed across the Channel to Paris to study Napoleon, his elegant consort¤ and the latest styles of the Consulate.

 

After George IV (formerly the Regent) died in 1830, the drawers in his apartments were found to be crammed with all sorts of interesting things. Flasks of opium, laudanum and cherry brandy with other stimulants and painkillers. And also, endless locks of women’s hair, long-preserved love tokens from years gone by. All powdered and stuck up with grease and dressings; all reeking of long-ago scents.

 

¤ Josephine Bonaparte, by the way, spent far more on perfume than any person in the whole of French history: and that includes such famous fragrance-fanciers as Henri III and Marie Antoinette. Mme Bonaparte had her own creations specially prepared at companies such as Rance, Houbigant and Lubin – all still extant today.

That Glittering Night At The Ball

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Only a century ago a parade of unending entertainments was considered essential for the making of upper class marriages. In every European capital the arrival of the summer Season saw flocks of girls in white muslin and tulle herded by their chaperones to Court presentations and Society balls, opera galas, luncheons, dinners, teas, recitals, picnics and garden parties.

Prior to these outings the young ladies were prepared like lambs for the slaughter in a sensual ritual and with a faintly prurient glee that recalls the films of Max Ophuls and the novels of Stefan Zweig. Firstly the clothes: one began with a voluminous shift. Then in the Naughty Nineties knickers, which were just coming to be seen as decent and desirable rather than racy whorish accessories. Over the stays and countless starched boned & lacy petticoats, a girl’s dress must be white and made of virginal light fabrics such as muslin, gauze and tarlatan. The waist was tiny – even after having six children Queen Alexandra kept a waist that never exceeded 23″. A maiden’s decolletage should be generous, but jewellery was minimal: a christening gift maybe or a present from mama and papa – seed pearls, corals, a silver bangle and a tiny turquoise brooch in the shape of a dove. Long skin-tight buttoned kid gloves and a small posy of flowers in a filigree holder were de rigueur. Later, after a proposal of marriage, a bouquet might be sent round by the lucky gentleman concerned, but otherwise any gift to a decent young woman from a man outside the family was regarded as presumptuous indecency. Virtuous women prided themselves on never accepting presents.

Then the ingenue required a fan, ordered from Duvellroy or Faberge (London, Paris and St Petersburg). Her dancing shoes, with the soles carefully powdered, were laid out by the lady’s maid: she being lent by mama for the evening and in a mood both sentimental & archly suggestive. A tiny vial of sal volatile was tucked into the palm of a new glove in case of faintness after a brisk polka or vertiginous waltz. Sometimes an admirer might press a hand too ardently and the glass would break, emitting pungent fumes. For the face, just a touch of barely tinted lip salve, a film of papier poudre on the cheeks and maybe a hint of rouge if the excitement of the occasion was causing unbecoming pallor. Then a swansdown wrap round the shoulders, a scarf to protect the intricately piled hair and maybe a serviceable mackintosh cloak, even a sheet, draped over all to protect the finery in the carriage, to be thrown off at the last moment before the shy entry into the ballroom.

And what of scent? It is no more than a hint, a whisper, an echo of Pear’s or Cusson’s soap. Maybe a Coty floral water (as worn by the Russian Imperial Grand Duchesses) sprinkled on the handkerchief, a drop of rose attar in the hand cream or a glistening in the hair pomade. But nothing actually on the skin. Scented flesh is, for the late Victorians, highly risque, the mark of a Naughty Lady, a very Merry Widow, a barmaid, a strumpet. A strong-minded nobly-born lady can just about get away with it, though few will dare. They won’t run the risk of being banned from Court or the houses of their dear friends.

But the holistically perfumed woman is yet flamboyant and magnificent in sequinned violet, mauve, magenta and rose satin, fragrant from its sandalwood chest and herb-lined cedar closet. She is crowned with osprey aigrettes and bird of paradise plumes. Her scarves, handkerchiefs and gloves are soaked in oils of ambergris, Russian leather, jasmine and musk. Her hair, gleaming with bear grease scented with ylang ylang, has been conditioned with the Empress of Austria’s own blend of a bottle of brandy and a dozen egg yolks. She wears a corsage of mauve orchids, and trails two yards of train (lined with crumpled tissue paper to rustle the louder) with the intoxicating sillage of Houbigant’s Fougere Royale, Grossmith’s Phul Nana, the mauve powdery Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie or an early Caron masterpiece. The Merry Widow’s redolent hummingbird fan is used not to conceal her blushes but to cool her after too much iced champagne or too sprightly a hop in the mazurka. Perspiration is her only enemy, to be combated with sweat pads, borax, vinegar and rice powder. But oh! the horror when a certain dampness appears around the waist line after working through a full dance card or too many oyster patties. Fortunately the gentlemen,too,are all wearing gloves, too. Or – as in the notorious case of Lillie Langtry’s new pink gown being ruined in the waltz by the dripping hands of a teenage Archduke Rudolph – not!

Cake or Pastry?

From ilovemuffins.es

“If the people have no bread then let them eat cake”. How that apocryphal royal recommendation dominated my childhood. My grandmother thought that Marie Antoinette had come out with it completely straight-faced, dumb blonde style: a Rococo Marilyn Monroe trying to be helpful. The diminutive droll, Charlie Drake (big on ’60’s tv), took it up as his catchphrase, even making a little song of it, as perhaps my older readers may remember. How mad was that? We know the Queen never actually said it, yet – strange but true – Marie Antoinette’s nutty advice now has a new resonance: if you look at the supermarket shelves you’ll see that cake is often the cheaper these days. Slabs of Battenberg, railway fruit loaf, angel cake and boxes of garish fondants come in at well under the price of a large sliced loaf.

Now why? Cake has undergone a cultural metamorphosis. It once used to be rather common, a dish to treat servants and the lower middle classes, eschewed by ladies and served stale to children when some of the richness was thought to have burned off (as calories are said to fall out of broken biscuits). Regency slang for “daft”, it later became the Mitford nickname for the late Queen Mother, apparently on account of that great lady’s enthusiasm for wedding cake. Rasputin’s assassins tried to poison him with tiny cream cakes, playing on greed like that of a mad dog. Today cake is the order of the day: cook books, tv shows, coffee shops all breast the recession with the cult of cooking – and more importantly, eating – Cake.

Cake is comforting and it satisfies with fats and sucrose; I have a sweet tooth myself but the modern store-boughten gateau is often quite overpoweringly inedibly sweet. Is this an act of infantilised defiance in an austerity society where health and health-foods are constantly preached? Baking is  a miniature act of creation and much emphasis is placed on the “look”; often there seems more emphasis on the filling, icing, colour and decoration than on the cake itself.  All the goods in the shop-window, as it were. One might theoretically get just as much of a kick (and more nutrition) from bread-making, but this is a less showy art. One cook I spoke to thinks we’re seeing a deeply guilty pleasure dressed up and disguised as an art form: animal greed masked by deft decoration. A sociologist might regard the phenonemon as ritualised obsessive self-loathing; compulsive baking, prettifying and eating of something which does the body no good and which can only lead to the most despised and dreaded affliction of the neurotic Western world: weight gain. Hence the obsession with “soggy bottoms” I guess.

It’s hardly coincidental that gourmand perfumes are booming again: ice creams, fruits, citrus coupes and above all patisserie. This is a trend in scent that goes right back to that black cherry and almond mood at the back of L’Heure Bleue a century ago, and the Guerlains’ love of vanilla. Sometimes the foodie note appears almost accidentally, not evident to every nose: I’m thinking for instance of the smell of lemon drizzle cake in Songes, Goutal’s cornucopia of tropical flowers. Or the ginger biscuits at the heart of Love in Black, the powdered icing sugar of Teint de Neige, the candied pineapple in Une Crime Exotique. Cakey perfumes which appear comforting and innocent are by definition deeply sexy in intention: the wearer is proposing herself as a dainty dish to devour, despoiled and wolfed down with the fragile raspberry meringue of Brulure de Rose or the dripping melted butter (so sticky and tactile) of Jeux de Peau. And gourmand scents are increasingly accessible to men; the feral tiger’s tea in Fougere Bengale, the sacrasol and Flemish pastries of the latest Malle, Dries Van Noten, and the smoky toffee bonfire of Aomassai. All reminiscent of that ultimate compliment paid to a bonny baby,”I could eat him!”

Talk about having your cake and eating it…No danger of piling on the pounds with these, just the teasing of the senses and the flirting with naughty urges promoted by that close relationship between memory, nose and tongue.  Some gourmand fanciers even claim that these fragrances satisfy forbidden appetites; others find they stimulate the desire for sugar melting on the lips, and not only vicariously on the skin. Maybe the scents are more fully satisfying than the cakes: they certainly last longer and leave nothing on the hips. All in the mind: and this where we came in – a fantasy world of cakie-baking, as at Marie Antoinette’s toy hamlet at Trianon. Playing at shepherdess and poultrymaid in couture gauze; patting out cheeses and butter in a Sevres china dairy. All the beguiling accoutrements and a great appearance of productive activity but finally just a delicious illusion.”

Picture from: ilovemuffins.es