lundi 26 mai 2008

The Corruption of White Flowers (I): Tubéreuse by Le Galion and Fracas by Robert Piguet

Jasmine, orange blossom, gardenia, narcissus, lily, tuberose… The velvety flesh of white flowers feels like a woman’s skin; their smell pulls them halfway into the animal kingdom. Even at their freshest, a hint of corruption wafts from their sweet fragrances. One of their compounds, indole, is also found in excrement and corpses – although in its pure state, the smell of indole is rather reminiscent of mothballs.
This vague whiff of death, which reminds of the destiny of all living things, even the most radiant, is associated to the aphrodisiac reputation of white flowers. In the 19th century, maidens were advised to avoid wearing scents based on these seemingly innocent but intoxicatingly louche flowers. If brides were allowed a crown of chaste orange blossoms worn by brides, it was as a prelude to their imminent deflowering…

Perfumers have long acknowledged the brazen nature of white flowers. The most narcotic of them all, the tuberose – compared by the French writer Colette to “the tip of a young breast” – has inspired a number of provocatively-named compositions: Fracas, Tubéreuse Criminelle, Carnal Flower

But the peculiar odour of tuberose extract can be treated in different ways, according to the aesthetics of the period or to the style of the perfumer…

The stunning Le Galion Tubéreuse, composed in 1939 by Paul Vacher (who would go on to sign Miss Dior with Jean Carles, as well as Diorling), comes nine years before Germaine Cellier’s epochal Fracas for Robert Piguet, and predates Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake’s shocking Tubéreuse Criminelle, which it closely resembles, by a full eighty years. Though the Le Galion doesn’t exaggerate the minty and camphory top notes of tuberose extract quite to the same extent as the later composition, it does nothing to tone them down: the first whiff, redolent with eucalyptus and hyacinth, is fresh, green, and stunningly modern (for a more detailed analysis of the scent, please see Octavian Coifan’s 1000fragrances).

Germaine Cellier’s 1948 composition would treat tuberose in a totally different way. The aptly-named Fracas – which means “roar”, “din” or “great sensation” in French – ups the shameless exuberance of the tuberose until it reaches the shrill peaks of a soprano coloratura. This is the scent of the Enchanted Flute’s Queen of the Night, with her dramatic entrance and near-hysteric trills. Theatrical, temperamental and wildly gay, Fracas is an in-your-face anthem to hyper-femininity.

But just as orange blossom sweetens it up, the rubbery facet of tuberose and the gasoline whiffs of jasmine extract (more obvious in the extrait, while the orange blossom tends to be more prominent in the eau de toilette), issue their warnings: this diva is a tough customer under her frills. The haughty note of iris and the astringent oakmoss hint further at the darker side of what could’ve been a cloyingly sweet fragrance, if it weren’t for the genius of Germaine Cellier, who was probably the ballsiest perfumer in history.

Fracas’ sensational sillage is sometimes muted in the drydown on certain skins. Its clean, powdery base may account for its enduring popularity in the American market. On other skins, its voluptuousness evokes the radiant flesh of Hollywood stars on the silver screen. Retro in any case, and definitely femme fatale.

Image: Rita Hayworth in Orson Welles' The Lady fromShanghai (1948)

9 commentaires:

  1. "Hysterical": indeed there is a reference to that and not in the funny sense of the word either.

    Funny that some people pick up the clean aspect.

  2. I think, as we've often remarked, that "clean" equals "powdery" especially in the "Johnson's baby powder" culture. And Fracas does have a slightly powdery feel to it in the drydown.
    As for hysteria, I get this high frequency vibe from Fracas, like she might throw a tantrum any minute. Part of her charm, but also the reason why I wear her only when I'm in a particularly exhilarated mood.

  3. I find there's a darkness in the Fracas extrait's drydown, like slipping out of a jet black satin duchesse gown.

  4. You're right, the extrait has more depth and darkness. I have a vintage version of the parfum (looks like the 70s) and I've only tested the current edt, but as I said, the edt gives more prominence to the orange blossom while the jasmine and tuberose come forward in the extrait.

  5. I think it's remarkable that it sells so well in the U.S.

    Fracas certainly doesn't fit the stereotype for Sephora , lol.

    like you, I have the much earlier versions- which are, frankly, less sanitized...
    Just the way we prefer them.

  6. As the forebear of best-selling, überfeminine florals like Ysatis, Amarige or Poison, the enduring success of Fracas makes sense. The fact that it has a cult status, and is/was worn by directional celebrities like Sofia Coppola, the late Isabella Blow and, I believe, Sophie Dahl, makes it almost a celebrity fragrance in itself...

  7. Perhaps it's time once again for me to revisit Fracas, but it has never, ever worked for me. I keep waiting for my nose to get smart enough to love it, but it keeps not happening. Never heard of the Le Galion, and now I'm absolutely dying to, especially when you throw around adjectives like "stunning"! Where to get?

  8. Tubéreuse Le Galion is a long-gone fragrance. I've never even seen it on auction sites (I got mine in a set of various Le Galion perfumes). But if you've got Tubéreuse Criminelle, you need have no regrets: it's not the same, but it's similar enough.