Last September, Harrods hosted the ‘Perfume Diaries
’ exhibition. There, perfume junkies like me could ogle exquisite bottles (some of which were a hundred and fifty years old) and sniff decades-old perfumes to their heart’s (and nose’s) content.
It really was a glorious and fascinating exhibition and, to my mind, the most interesting sections by far were those focusing on the 1920s and 1930s - quite simply, because of the huge contrast with modern perfumes, in both the scents themselves and in the style of packaging.
I grew up in a household where if you caught a waft of perfume it would probably belong to the house of Guerlain
and would probably be Mitsouko
, the classic chypre from 1919.
My mother could never stand overly feminine fragrances and her personal perfume mantra is: ‘Never trust a pink perfume.’ Wise words indeed. Unfortunately for her, and for other grown women, the modern female perfume market seems to be targeted at ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ - that is, young girls, teenagers, and adults with the tastes of young girls or teenagers. Unless you’re happy to smell like a syrupy fruit salad, or maybe walking candy floss, then you’re going to have to work a bit harder and search more thoroughly to find something that you could seriously consider wearing and which doesn’t actively repel you or induce headaches and nausea. For a lot of perfume lovers, this in effect means hunting for vintage perfume on ebay.
In the ‘Perfume Diaries’ exhibition, there was a small part of the 1930s section devoted to fragrances inspired by travel (pictured above). ‘Vol de Nuit
’ (another Guerlain) in its striking Art Deco bottle, took its name from the novel by Saint-Exupéry. ‘Normandie
’ by Jean Patou, was in the shape of the gleaming cruise liner. In the same decade Worth’s ‘Je Reviens
’ was sold in a simple and elegant deep blue Lalique bottle (right) modelled on a skyscraper. Chanel’s ‘No. 5
’, released in 1921, was produced in the now iconic flask which reflected Coco Chanel’s chic, pared-down style - a strong contrast to the current vogue for women’s fragrance containers to look like a tacky, pink floral explosion. Sharp, shiny and emphatically modern shapes and imagery characterised designs between the wars.
The content of these bottles was also the antithesis of modern perfume. Fragrances appeared which wouldn’t have a chance of being produced now - for example, Caron’s ‘Tabac Blond
’ - a smoky, leathery chypre - or Lanvin’s deep, dark, woody floral ‘Arpège
’. Women were cutting their hair short and beginning to play men at their own game and the perfume houses reflected this and ultimately, encouraged them. Bottles appeared on the market disguised as a full brandy glass (Révillon’s ‘Carnet de Bal
’), or even as an ashtray complete with smouldering cigarette (‘Carnation’ by Bristow). No modern perfume house would touch these with a ten-foot pole - and not just because smoking is so seriously infra-dig these days that no one would even think to do it, and not even because the makers of ‘Carnet de Bal’ would no doubt feel obliged to advise customers to ‘enjoy perfume responsibly’ - but also because the imagery involved is far, far too masculine to launch on a market which is accustomed to bland celebrity fragrances and excessively girly themes.
Not being au fait with the workings of ebay, I’m still getting my perfume fix in department stores. Each time I go shopping I return clutching several of those little strips of card which, annoyingly, have to be kept apart so as not to contaminate each other, the result being that I then have to walk around town looking like a low-budget Edward Scissorhands. Some perfume counters will still give you actual, proper samples to take home, although these are often in those aggravating little sachets that squirt their contents in random directions when you’re trying to apply. So this morning, with some trepidation, I sliced open my latest little sachet and applied some of Givenchy’s new ‘Play for Her
’. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to like it. My heart sank when the (extremely polite and helpful) shop assistant went to the trouble of digging out samples which, after only a fleeting glance, I knew I was going to hate.
The packaging was a dead giveaway - a baby pink ipod, clear evidence that Givenchy is aiming for the youth market with this one. Compare this to the 1930s designs and the technological theme seems admirable - but why does the female version of ‘Play’ have to be pink? And why must it smell almost exclusively of sugar? This is a strong contender for the most pointless perfume in existence. It's not completely hideous, because sugar generally isn’t, but it sure as hell isn't a great perfume, or even a good one. The proliferation of perfumes such as this effectively means that complex, classic fragrances like Mitsouko or Arpège now smell almost masculine when compared with twenty first century confections.
The problem with being a perfume obsessive is that the desire to keep trying new fragrances, educating one’s nose and learning about ingredients, means that I feel obliged to, eventually, try every perfume in existence. This is both a blessing and a curse. Obviously, anything aimed at teenagers is sure to be loud, sugary pap. I feel that I really ought to try Vera Wang’s ‘Glam Princess
’ but I really, really don’t want to. (When I could be wearing a spritz of something cool and sophisticated, like Chanel ‘No 19
’? That’s a Perfume Day I won’t get back.) The naff, nauseating imagery tells me that I’m in for a bad time (or at the very least a bland one) when I finally take the plunge.
The ‘Pink Stinks’ campaign highlights this ‘pinkified’ attitude with regard to role models for little girls. What is so frustrating is that this mentality is so dominant and all-pervasive that it has now invaded the realm of women’s perfume - that’s perfume for adults, not just tweenies. Not only does it mean that the overall quality of modern perfume has declined, not least because all new releases seem to smell exactly the same, but it says worrying things about how twenty-first century women see themselves. It seems that the little girls who spent their childhoods surrounded by pink (as all little princesses should be) have grown up and none of them bears even a passing resemblance to the likes of Katherine Hepburn or Marlene Dietrich; individuality and independence are less important than appearing safe and stereotypically feminine.
Unfortunately, the perfumers aren’t going to produce garbage unless they’re pretty sure it’ll sell and clearly there’s a market for it, to the extent that it’s now flooded with identikit sickly sweet florals and cheap fruit cocktails.
The perfume industry seems to be hell bent on drowning itself in a vat of syrup - someone throw it a life belt, for goodness’ sake.
About the author:
Judith is a freelance journalist and aspiring perfumista based in the United Kingdom.