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Zealot Crusader

Perfume Jargon: The Fougère Pt. 1

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Spend some time talking to perfume fans or collectors and you will invariably come across some terms you've never heard before being used to describe classes of perfume. Among the most frequently-cited terms is "fougère", and it is a word associated primarily with fragrances marketed to men. Not all male-market perfume is a fougère, but nearly all modern examples of the fougère are marketed either to men, or as unisex creations preferred by men. Basic "perfume collecting 101" dictates that a fougère is a fragrance with a "fern-like" accord, since the word "fougère" literally means "fern" in French, but then there is the little problem of actual ferns not really having a discernible smell. This fact creates confusion for first-timers diving into the hobby of exploring perfumes seriously, since they're told a dozen clearly disparate fragrances are considered fougères, with their only common link usually being that they're marketed to men.

Unlike the "chypre", which was another genre created some time later that actually tries to impart the smell of cypress (since "chypre" means "cypress" in French) using a similar but sharper base structure, the fougère is the romanticized abstract concept of what a fern might smell like if it had a noticeable smell at all, meaning it has never been as clearly defined when compared to other perfume genres and only evolved from its initial interpretations according to trend and taste. This compounds the confusion of understanding "what is fougère" even further, and diving into late 19th century examples when the genre was given birth will yield vastly incomparable results to smelling what is sitting on a modern-day department store counter and labelled "fougère" in the 21st century. There are also entire lines of evolution in the time between which have run their course and been phased out, or transmuted into other genres entirely.

Lastly, the very definition of a "fougère" accord will likely continue to be altered further since the primary ingredients determining what a fougère accord is have been restricted or banned out of use depending on what level of the industry we're describing, thanks to organizations like IFRA attempting to police public safety from within the perfume industry itself or lawmakers in territories like the EU making the use of various perfume ingredients illegal outright within their borders. Granted, there are plenty of niche and artisanal perfumers doing whatever the heck they want, plus territories without many if any regulation stopping perfume manufacturers from using what they please (meaning a little gray market shopping can skirt such restrictions), but the bulk of us aren't tripping over our feet to exploit any of this. Therefore, I feel it is important to sort out where one of the world's most-popular fragrance categories has come from and is going, on virtue of fact that it was the majority of what men in particular had available until only the most recent turn of the 21st century. This timeline isn't perfect, and opinions or tastes vary, but here are my thoughts on the fougère.

The earliest days of the fougère seem rooted in an earnest attempt to produce a "fern-like" accord as already stated, with precursor scents such as Trumper's Wild Fern (1877) being examples, but the name stems from one fragrance in particular: Fougère Royale by Houbigant (1882). This fragrance famously composed by one Paul Parquet is the first notable example of using chemically-isolated coumarin, which is a molecule with multiple properties traditionally sourced from tonka beans. Often the smell of coumarin is simply labelled as the note of tonka in a perfume's note pyramid, imparting an aroma of mowed hay. Parquet combined this smell with the sharp, woody, and sometimes buttery smell of oakmoss, then topped it with the spiky, crisp, and semi-sweet aroma of lavender. This lavender/tonka/oakmoss accord is said to be the heart of the "fougère" around which everything else is based, and Paul Parquet built a citric, green, floral, and mostly clean-smelling perfume around this core, making Fougère Royale a grooming standard among the men in high society of the day who took interest and could afford the stuff.

Later fougère entries like Guerlain Jicky (1889) dirtied up this formula with animalic elements like civet and musk, increasing abstraction of the accord and showing the earliest signs of branching progression within what became a genre of perfume by the 20th century (with Jicky itself being called the first truly abstract perfume), but the genre was never specifically limited to men. Other perfumes like another Guerlain composition by the name of L'Heure Bleue (1912) played around with the basic fougère accord but were far more floral and often favored by wome, but once the fougère got off its feet so to speak, it was men who ended up being the biggest market for the style, since the tonka/oakmoss/lavender heart was pleasant, clean, and loaned itself well to usage in barbershop tonics or powders. Much of the "fern-like" qualities of Parquet's eponymous example perfume would become lost during this adaptive appropriation throughout the early 20th century, with exceptions like Penhaligon's English Fern (1911) or Trumper's Eucris (1912) keeping green or mossy aspects intact, since their home market of the United Kingdom had rather taken a liking to the greener and more bitter aspects of the style.

By the end of the first World War, and a great period of following prosperity leading up to the Great Depression, interest in perfume exploded in Western developed societies, while grooming products scented with the basic fougère accord continued to grow and diversify thanks to various toiletries companies and barbershop perfumers wanting to put their own stamp on it as they had with bay rum. The powdery vanilla-rich lavender smell most associate with the barbershop came into being around the 1930's, as a style popularized by American apothecaries issuing various "Jockey Club" scents throughout the 1800's merging their powdery florals with the fougère accord. The American branch of the Ed Pinaud company with their aftershave lotion simply called "Clubman" (year unknown) did just that, and Ernest Daltroff of house Caron produced Pour Un Homme de Caron (1934) in answer to the desire for well-to-do-men to have a basic and proper fragrance exclusive to them based on this popular style and not shared by women.

Others like Skin Bracer by Mennen (1931) and Zizanie by Fragonard (1932) introduced mint or fussier dandy aspects to the accord and morphed it further, but it was finally Canoe by Dana (1936) that solidified what the fougère had become with its toned-down citrus and balance of lavender with geranium over sweeter elements like the aforementioned vanilla and heliotrope. Ironically Canoe was meant for women when composed by Jean Carles for Dana (much like Guerlain Jicky), but ended up being marketed towards men instead due to the popularity of these rounder fragrances among males at the time. World War II really halted the progression of perfume development but fougère style lost favor in the emerging post-war years of the late 1940's through to the 1950's due to the chypre and oriental genres popularized by Coty and Guerlain gaining more traction with a still mostly-female audience.

It didn't help that fougères were stuck in the rut barbershops had placed them in, with companies like Avon theming their grooming sets around the fougère accord, becoming ubiquitous and common-smelling as the scent of a man's aftershave, soap, or talc, but while colognes like Avon for Men (1949) existed to stoke more interest in perfume among men in general, the genre otherwise was just seen as old hat until the 1960's. The category then experienced the first of two huge revivals it has had thus far, with products like Brut by Fabergé (1964), Jade East by Swank (1964), and British Sterling by Speidel (1965) reintroducing the fougère with more green or floral twists but often with then-popular muskier bases, bringing it back to something closer to the original Fougère Royale, but injecting masculinity and carrying over some barbershop elements. I think it was this merging of the greener floral elements of the past with conventional tropes, a bit of musky intimidation, and cheeky marketing of the day that struck the right balance with guys at the time to give up their tart citrus and civet chypres for something like a bottle of Hai Karate (1967). To be continued.
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Loving perfume on the Internet since 2000