The breast-tip-coloured satin, bespoke Cadolle corset rests in its silk paper on the second shelf in my closet. I seldom take it out: when I do, it isn’t to wear it in the real world, unless I want to achieve a particularly wasp-waisted style. Corsets are odd instruments, their constriction enhancing the short, heaving breaths of pleasure, while straightening and insulating the very part of the body that should be flexible in its throes. Walking around in a corset in our contemporary world is like living with permanent, low-grade asthma: still, it is sometimes pleasant to play with a garment that is no longer compulsory; to reach beyond Poiret and Chanel into the Edwardian era and be possessed by the ghosts of the great courtesans that reigned over Maxim’s – where the original Mme Cadolle, who invented the brassiere, often went to deliver her frilly marvels…
Which is why I was so curious to try out Hasu-No-Hana, Phul-Nana and Shem-el-Nessim, three perfumes re-launched by the British house of Grossmith, founded in 1835 and back in the hands of the original owner’s family after a three-decade eclipse. How often do you get a chance to experience a fresh batch of perfumes that pull you back into the age of corsets and feathered hats? The 1888 Hasu-No-Hana predates Jicky by a year; Phul-Nana came out in 1891; the 1906 Shem-el-Nessim is the same age as Après l’Ondée and Coty’s epochal L’Origan. Yet just as Jacques Guerlain and François Coty – along with Houbigant’s Paul Parquet (Fougère Royale, Le Parfum Idéal) and Robert Bienaimé (Quelques Fleurs) -- were inventing modern perfumery, Grossmith apparently remained firmly entrenched in the 19th century.
This could give Hasu-No-Hana, Phul-Nana and Shem-el-Nessim, with their Orientalist, quasi-unmemorizable names, the charm of archaeological curios: the formulas are claimed to be authentic, and their adaptation was overseen by the-world’s-one-and-only-professeur-de-parfums, Roja Dove, who seems to have a good sideline in resurrecting bygone perfumes.
But how authentic are the scents themselves? There’s no way of knowing, really, since between the raw materials that were used back then and the ones that are available now, there may be a world of difference. Essences were extracted differently; synthetics were obtained by different processes. Any variation would upset the balance, as aficionados of reformulated perfumes well know.
The result is the olfactory equivalent of tight-lacing: a surfeit of rich notes which manages to be both as stifling as the corsets of the women who wore the perfumes back in the Belle Époque and as flaccid as their flesh when they removed it. Sensuous in an overbearing, costume-drama way that might appeal to tastes frustrated by today’s skinny juices the way a pastry cart will make a dieter drool…
Reviving Grossmith is a romantic gesture, and apparently one that is paying off in the Middle-East. But based on the three perfumes that were re-launched, at least in the form they have now, the house had already stopped being relevant before World War One.
There’s a reason why some old perfume houses die off, and why some perfumes only live on in memoirs, history books and antiques shops… Their whole charm lies in their being ghosts. I’d just rather not attend the séance.
Illustration: from the Women in the Woods series by Deborah Turbeville (1977)