“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.
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 ?
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.
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 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.
To celebrate the centenary of its release I sat down and watched ‘A Fool There Was’ on the You Tube: the great sex shocker of 1914 which propelled Theda Bara upon the world, the first screen femme fatale: The Vamp. Hard to believe that an almost mythic movie has played for 100 years. Bara (nee Goodman) died, not old, the year I was born. Refused a certificate in Great Britain, the movie still retains the power to shock, not by its prurience but in the final shots of a man reduced to human wreckage and total physical & psychological degradation. I squeaked aloud in my chair. ‘Some of him lived / but the most of him died’ reads the title card. It’s a theme that von Sternberg and Dietrich returned to with even greater effect some 15 years later: a pillar of society reduced by sex to a baying, dying beast.
Theda Bara has less to do in the film than I had imagined: she is taller, too, and rather more attractive. She was probably the cinema’s first brunette leading lady, the original wicked dark-haired temptress, a creature of the Night destroying the daughters of Light and their lawful wedded husbands. Her wide mouth is covered in lip rouge which photographs as black, and her huge inky eyes are liberally smeared with Vaseline and candle smoke. She is heaped with clothes in the especially hideous styles of the day; in one sequence her feet become entangled in her fish tail train. I can’t decide whether this is a cute device to give the viewer an eyeful of her ankles or whether the director either didn’t notice or couldn’t be bothered to cut.
Roses, cruelly used, are her leit motif. We first see the Vamp smelling two flowers, then tearing them to pieces: the destruction of her prey, the denial of her own femininity, the end of innocence. In one sequence of startling phaliic symbolism she disarms a rejected admirer who draws a gun on her by stroking the the revolver – now detumescent and redundant – with the rose she carries. Whereat the wretched man shoots himself.
The Vamp and her confreres play cards, loll around half-dressed, let down their back hair and indulge in a lot of what my mother used to call ‘posturing’. But interestingly perfume is not part of the picture. Scent does not appear though the viewer rather anticipates shots of atomisers and drenching showers of musky fragrance as an additional sign of shameless sin. After all this film was made in a Golden Age of perfume: L’Heure Bleue, Jicky, Quelques Fleurs, Narcisse Noir, Phul Nana, Shem-El-Nessim and the early Coty repertoire were all by then on the dressing tables of the rich & fashionable.
Maybe Theda Bara’s director – Frank Powell – felt that his Vamp should exude her own seductive and noxious aroma, like a night-blooming flesh-eating flower; that she should lure men to their doom by an involuntarily secreted deadly & delectable unnatural odour. Writings and novels of this period describe scent as being emitted by hair, clothing, furs, fabrics and furnishings rather than by the skin …” a faint delicious fragrance hung about her..”. But perfume actually poured onto the skin? Or oozing from it? A subject then ‘too difficult even to talk about’ as the adverts used to say. Too animal, too raw, too downright carnal: ideal for Theda Bara.
Now all you have to do is run the movie!
Image: Wikimedia Commons
One of the most famous and romantic addresses in Marylebone, a few minutes brisk walk from LES SENTEURS, is 50 Wimpole Street. Here the invalid Elizabeth Barrett spent long sad years on her sofa and from here she eloped to Italy with her future husband Robert Browning: two poets who fell in love via their work. The set-up is legendary: the vague but distressing illness; the monster Papa with the dreaded tankard of medicinal porter; the numerous doting siblings; the hysterical scenes; the devoted maid Wilson and the spaniel Flush. The whole boiling of them piled into that grim house dominated by old Mr Barrett’s possessiveness and neuroses. Elizabeth lived behind windows sealed up against London fogs and soot, the glass panes covered in summer with trailing nasturtiums. She was almost elderly by the standards of her day (over 40 ) but with her dark mournful face, soulful eyes and luxuriant ringlets to rival her dog’s she remains a figure of high romance, a mysterious captive princess finally rescued by an adoring younger man from the fashionable but alien chasms of Marylebone. Highly political, blazingly intelligent, fascinated by spiritualism and the struggle for Italian independence Elizabeth bloomed again in the warm air of Florence and even bore a healthy son at the age of 43.
”This verbena strains the point of passionate fragrance…” she writes in Aurora Leigh, a poem saturated in sensuous imagery which some think was fired up by her chronic dependence on opium and laudanum. When you’ve found Mrs Browning’s Blue Plaque, meander back to LES SENTEURS and smell our Verveine d’Eugene by James Heeley; and those 3 flowers of late Victoriana by Grossmith – Phul Nana, Hasu no Hana and Shem el Nessim. Surrender to the spell.
Kind regular readers of this page will know that I have a penchant for perfumes redolent of the unconscious and the realms of sleep. The bedroom is the room where I prefer to be: years ago I was told by a friend in analysis that this is a bad sign, a refusal to confront Life. This I doubt seeing as how our indubitably vigorous and confrontational medieval forefathers revered the bedroom as the only private space in manor or castle: a luxury to which the poor, bedded down with the cattle and pigs, could not aspire. A room for contemplation and introspection: the scene of birth, begetting and dying. The holy of holies of the home and family. Now, a reversion to life in the bathroom – a return to the warm waters from which we all sprang – that really is a worrying development, as witness the endings-up of Callas, Marat and Blanche Dubois.
Two scents to loll alongside you on the pillows, then: Poudre de Riz and Cologne Pour Le Matin. Both mesmeric and hypnotic, perfumes to drowse and lull. The germ of Poudre de Riz comes from the Belle Epoque novel “L’enfer”, a classic study of voyeurism in which a jaded gentleman spies through a hole in his hotel bedroom wall at the changing scenes of love next door. Pierre Guillaume’s creation catches the languor of spent passion, slaked desire – the scent of those observed, not of the Peeping Tom. It is also the odour of that crimson room of assignation where Emma Bovary and her lover meet at Rouen; the powdery pearly smell of Lea’s great temple-of-love bed in Colette’s “Cheri”. Pan-sexual, sweet and ambiguous Poudre is the aura created by love and its practitioners – a close, airless evocation of hair and warm skin gleaming with monoi oil and nacreous with sheer rice powder. An emanation of crepe de chine, lace, silk and feather bolsters. Compare it if you like with an authentic Edwardian fragrance, Shem el Nessim: there, too, is frou frou and susurration – but Poudre de Riz is emphatically interior and intimate while the Grossmith cracker is for the grands boulevards. Poudre is marabou, chiffon and monkey fur, whereas Nessim sports bird of paradise plumes and chinchilla.
Draw back the velvet drapes, leave the city for the Midi dorée and smell Cologne Pour le Matin, Kurkdjian’s hypnotic child of sun and heat. This is a fragrance to celebrate the selfish animal joys of waking only for the pleasure of dozing again; the almost liquid relaxation of the body on Egyptian cotton sheets behind slatted blinds; but this time alone, cat-like, in love with sleep and torpor. Here the powdery quality is of lavender, iris, violets, thyme – veils of mauve and blue sun-dried Mediterranean flowers shimmering in the heat starred with specks of golden dust in the filtered bedroom light. You can almost hear the cicadas in the garden below the windows, and the whisper of the sea beyond. The sparkle and purity of orange blossom negates sex but emphasises escapism, a spiritual freedom as the body surrenders to heat, the white light of noon and clean dreamless sleep – a sleep like falling down a deep green well.
I have a feeling Aromafolio has still not yet exhausted this theme. Dors bien!
Image from culture.gouv.fr
One can admire and revere a perfume without having a desire to wear it and the last of the great Edwardian scents, L’Heure Bleue, is not to everyone’s taste. The great modern perfumer Francis Kurkdjian hates it, thinks it smells of burning rubber. Others, including myself, find the core of the scent more reminiscent of food – almond pastries, glutinous black cherry conserve and the clove of orange pomanders or pink Italian carnations. The heavy cloying food which piled all that creamy flesh onto the picture postcard beauties of the day: how they stride out these girls,charged up with calories, still lively on ancient newsreels of Ascot, the Gaiety Theatre, Longchamps and the Bois de Boulogne. A thoroughly emancipated walk heralding a new era, though still hampered by hobble skirts,
stays and no vote. L’Heure Bleue likewise falls between two worlds – more majestic and assertive than the swoon-away mauve boudoir ambience of Apres L’Ondee, Shem el Nessim and L’Origan; less mad than than the frenzied exaggerations and bizarrie of Narcisse Noir, Tabac Blond and the noisy novelty scents of Ragtime and the Jazz Age.
For a scent which ostensibly celebrates the hour of love, the twilit time of assignation when Paris as Nancy Mitford wrote looks as though “made of opaque blue glass”, L’Heure Bleue is a strangely robust perfume. It reminds me of Lillie Langtry whose exquisite face is from certain angles disconcertingly strong and powerful; her jaw square and bold; her body curiously muscular and masculine in that famous photograph of her marching down Sloane Street from the palace built for her by the Prince of Wales behind the Cadogan Hotel. Maybe this aspect of the perfume is what attracted the late Queen-Empress Elizabeth whose signature scent it is said to have been. It seems an odd choice for the ever smiling chiffony-powdery-petally Queen Mum, but more suitable for George V1’s steely consort and mentor, the Enriye of David and Wallis, the bombed-out consort who could look the East End (and no doubt Hitler, had needs be) in the face.
For at the heart of L’Heure Bleue’s grandeur is an intense melancholy and sense of tragedy which appealed so much to the neurotic literary genius Jean Rhys; and the lyrical perfumer Mona di Orio who confessed to being reduced to tears by the scent. I don’t know if Lady Duff Gordon and Mrs Astor took bottles aboard Titanic but the ship and the perfume both made their debut in 1912, and all too soon the best selling L’Heure Bleue became associated in the mind of its generation with the horror of the Great War, the collapse of old Europe, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919-20. It had caught the Zeitgeist to perfection and in a way, it transmuted into one of those superstitions that grew organically from the War: like “three on a match” and the ill-omened mixing of red and white hospital flowers.
Perfumes absorb the spirit of an age as well as reflect them: Chanel No 5 (1921) is a world reborn, glossy and adventurous and full of confident sexuality. L’Heure Bleue is death and decay, fading and lost love, a product of imperial luxury and complacence and the decadence inherent in that last flowering in the years before 1914 when the fruits were rotting from inside out. Within 5 years of the Romanov Tercentary Celebrations of 1913 the bodies of the Imperial family were ground into mud and ashes in a Siberian forest; the Prussian and Austro-Hungarian emperors gone into exile.
L’Heure Bleue rolled on, marked by its experiences and the wounds of its wearers: the only Guerlain scent that is indelibly dated; an unmistakable child of a century ago.
No wonder so many find it sad, even depressing: it is often smelled at funerals as it lulls mourners into a stupor of black poppies, spices, jasmin and those almost oppressively lush Bulgarian roses redolent of pepper and musk. It wraps you not in a veil, but a cloak of midnight blue velvet and musquash and sable. It stifles thought, it brings on the comforting warm darkness,it tempers the blues with the blue in almost homepathic principle. Hardly erotic, it is romantic, introverted,narcotic and sentimental. Reassuring and calming like the camouflage of mourning weeds, it muffles feeling and numbs thought like intravenous diazepam.
If you wear it, go easy or it will overcome you and your surroundings with an almost anaesthetic redolence with hints of camphor and menthol before the stained glass floral notes boil over like rose petal syrup – “…such sweet jams as God’s own Prophet eats in Paradise.” And to read as you wear it, William Boyd’s “The Blue Afternoon”, another masterpiece of doomed love.