Gloves and perfume have gone hand in hand for centuries, so that when Jean Laporte founded Maître Parfumeur et Gantier, he was leaping back in history to the original glove-makers’ trade guild from which perfumery had sprung. It is somehow fitting that just as the house’s founder passed away, his successor Jean-Paul Millet Lage created a scent inspired by his visit to a manufacture in the town of Millau, renowned for glove-making since the 19th century.
While Cuir Fétiche’s leather note steeped in a classic jasmine, rose and iris bouquet on a smooth amber and vanilla base does, indeed, conjure lambskin scented with flowers to counteract the stench of tanning products, it certainly doesn’t live up to the kinky red corset that dresses up its bottle. Today, we envision fetish garb as giving off rougher whiffs. Still, because this cuir is offered by a gantier, it does hint at an object which espouses its wearer’s body so closely as to mimic it almost perfectly and which, like perfume, blends its smell with that of the body that bears it: the glove.
The leather glove is a perfect candidate for fetishization: because of its shape, texture and smell, it can act as a synecdoche (i.e. the part for the whole) of the object of desire. This mechanism did not escape one of the most olfactory-obsessed writers of the late 19th century, Émile Zola. The leather glove features in two strikingly erotic (and fragrant) scenes of Les Rougon Macquart, a cycle of twenty novels conceived as "The natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire".
The first is drawn from The Joy of Life (1884), in which the shiftless, weak-willed Lazare, pining for the beautiful Louise, finds an old glove she has left behind:
“The glove had retained a strong odour of the original skin of which it was made, and this was softened to a musky fragrance by Louise's favourite perfume, heliotrope. Lazare, who was very susceptible to the influence of odours, was violently agitated by that scent, and in a state of emotion had lingered with the glove pressed to his lips, draining from it a draught of sweet recollections.From that day onward he began to yearn for Louise (…). He took up the glove again, as soon as he was alone, kissed it, inhaled its scent, and fancied that he was still holding the girl in his embrace with his lips seeking hers.”
The second comes from Zola’s epic narrative of the invention of the modern department store, modelled after Le Bon Marché, The Ladies' Paradise (1883). Mme Desforges, the mistress of the store’s owner Octave Mouret, is being sold gloves by Mignot, a clerk who fancies himself a ladies’ man – department stores were among the few places where high society women would rub elbows with the lower classes.
“Half-lying on the counter, he was holding her hand, taking her fingers one by one and sliding the glove on with a long, practised and sustained caress ; and he was looking at her as if he expected to see from her face that she was swooning with voluptuous joy. But she, her elbow on the edge of the velvet, her wrist raised, gave him her fingers with the same detached air with which she would give her foot to her maid to allow her to button her boots. He was not a man; she used him for such intimate services with the familiar disdain she showed for those in her employ, without even looking at him.‘I’m not hurting you madam?’She replied in the negative, with a shake of the head.The smell of Saxon gloves, that animal smell with a touch of sweetened musk, usually excited her; and she sometimes laughed about it, confessing her love for this ambiguous perfume, like an animal in rut which has landed in a girl’s powder box.”
In the first scene, the sweetly-scented glove becomes not only a fragment of the desired body, but a substitute for it, in a textbook fetishistic shift. In The Ladies’ Paradise, the glove-fitting session is an explicit metaphor for attempted seduction that turns into a titillating domination fantasy (the disdainful high society woman treating a man like a servant). Both showcase the erotic potency of the scent of leather: a blend of feminine adornment (“a girl’s powder box”) and sexual odours (“an animal in rut”).
Intriguingly, Zola wrote these scenes in which the smell of the glove plays such a prominent erotic part at just about the same time as the perfume industry was severing the scent of leather from the actual material (in the same way as Louise’s glove is separated from/stands in for her body). The two main leather notes were reproduced in fine fragrance between the mid-1870s and the mid-1890s: Guerlain and Rimmel’s respective Cuir de Russie in 1875 and 1876; Roger & Gallet and Houbigant’s Peau d’Espagne a decade later.
1876 was also the year when the French psychiatrist Alfred Binet first applied the word “fetishism” to a sexual perversion: up to then it had designated the attribution of supernatural powers to man-made objects. The leather fetish itself was studied in the Austrian sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). Fetishism in general and leather fetishism in particular had of course existed before they were identified as such: the prolific French libertine author Restif de la Bretonne (1734-1806), for instance, was a famous shoe sniffer. But it was only when the study of sexuality became the province of psychiatrists that the attempt to understand “perversions” gave rise to their classification. Up to then, people had sexual tastes; henceforth, they would have sexual identities.
Come back tomorrow for part II of this post...
Illustration: Yvette Guilbert's Black Gloves by Toulouse-Lautrec (1894)