As Luca Turin said a few years ago to Chandler Burr in The Emperor of Scent, classical French perfumery always has, within its gloriously blended accords, a hint of stench. How perfumers figured out, as far back as the Renaissance (maybe even earlier), that civet, say, with its whiff of shit, could bring out other notes, lend them a velvety, rich depth, is beyond what I can fathom. A perfumer from a prominent house, to whom I put the question, answered that it might have to do with the alchemical roots of perfumery. Turn vile matter into fragrant gold, meld the ugly into the beautiful and make it divine.
The jewels of French perfumery regularly get bashed for giving off more than a hint of the baser bodily functions, sometimes in pretty funny similes (my apologies to their authors if I don’t name them or quote them accurately: I’m just going on memory). Jicky smells “like a cat crapped in a lavender patch”. Eau d’Hermès, like “Robert Mitchum’s jockstrap in Grace Kelly’s handbag”. Shalimar has been said to evoke baby diapers (used, N°2). Joy, the adult version of the excrement. Mitsouko exudes the sour smell of unwashed old ladies. Bandit is redolent of old ashtrays and soiled female undergarments. And let’s not even get started on more recent, musky offerings such as the infamous Muscs Koublaï Khan (unwashed Mongol warrior) or Miller Harris L’air de rien… Serge Lutens’ Miel de Bois, with its urinous (to some) honey note, is almost unanimously reviled (so much so that it’s recently been discontinued).
There’s no denying that once you’ve picked up a malodorous connotation in a scent, it’s almost impossible to shake the association, and thus to wear the fragrance (no matter how prestigious the fragrance, if it smells of vomit or of stale buttcrack to you, that’s the end of it). What’s interesting to me is that perfumers sought it out in the first place. Were noses so impervious, in an era when French public hygiene was somewhat laxer, to whiffs of the unwashed? Is it the famed French penchant for decaying matters – smelly cheeses, truffles, high game – a perversion of olfactory tastes?
Or might it be that perfume, far from being meant to disguise musky bodily odours, was conceived as a subtle reminder of the animal lurking under the silk and the velvet? The etymology of the Latin language words for whore, puta, is said to be derived from putida, the putrid. Prostitutes were known for their excessive use of scent: it was also believed that they gave off the emanations of the many secretions that were festering inside them. That they were rotting from the inside, and spreading the poison to their lovers: that they were walking, breathing, beautiful cadavers, the agents of corruption of society (just read Zola’s Nana for a particularly hysterical portrayal of that fear-fascination).
Somehow, classical French perfumery bears the echo of this mixture of corruption and beauty. It may have become unbearable to a large part of the public. The old-fashioned idea that fragrance is applied to cover dubious hygienic habits is still well-rooted in Puritan lands. And in cultures obsessed with cleanliness – the idea of female intimate deodorant is greeted with shudders in most countries – anything that can remind the nose of our mammalian nature is disgusting. Some perfume lovers revel in indolic jasmine or sweaty cumin, with the delicious frisson of overcome aversion (but hesitate to wear such scents in public). The very marketing –savvy Tom Ford knew just what he was doing when he (reportedly) stated that he wanted one of his fragrances to smell like a man’s crotch: appealing to the gross-out-factor.
But the market says otherwise, and for one sperm-and-blood smelling Sécrétions Magnifiques, hundreds of new scents are increasingly fresh-from-the-showerized. The French perfumer who I refer to above was actually quite sombre about the future of mainstream perfumery if it goes on in its present, cleaned-up state. To him, the slightly dubious hints given off by the greatest compositions are precisely what give them profundity, and push them from prettiness to beauty. Perhaps perfumes, those graveyards of blossoms (how many killed for one bottle of Joy?), are fragrant memento mori of our pleasurable, corruptible flesh.
After all, even flowers rot.
Image: Franz von Stuck, Susanna Bathing (1913)