lundi 20 février 2012

Cuir Fétiche (Maître Parfume et Gantier): A Glove in the Ladies' Paradise

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) 

8 commentaires:

  1. Interesting detour from perfume reviews today!

    This is the reason I have a certain amount of contempt for psychology. Because ultimately as a theory and as a practice it establishes an oppressive notion of "normality", according to which one's personality is judged and then a treatment is devised to "fix" it. As taught by modern linguistics, the moment things are named (the term fetishism), they are handed over to the public opinion for judgment. In other words it is as if suddenly everyone gains access to your bedroom. Who would have imagined that language can have intolerance as a side effect?

  2. Kostas, I've always considered that perfume, and perfume notes, are part of culture, that they carry a culture with them. It's not just about what's in the bottle! And gloves are most decidedly part of the perfume culture for historical reasons...
    I'm fairly sure my stance springs from some half-forgotten reading of Foucault: definitely, labeling a set of behaviours is defining our society's reaction to it.

  3. Lovely post, Denyse. I agree, I think perhaps what's fascinating and a touch alarming about the fetish IS that it's synecdoche on its way to metonymy -- not just the part standing in for the whole, but the part overtaking the whole, substituting for the whole, even devouring the whole, until the whole is no longer needed. The object of fetish becomes imbued with all that erotic energy through that repeated process of cathexis (over and over again, the caressing of the leather, the smell of the leather, the taste of the leather) until the body that occupied the leather is no longer needed, the glove itself is enough elicit that same flood of desire. Perhaps in a way erotic desire does the same to us: it is, at times, just one of many likes within us, but when in the presence of the object of desire/fetish, it overtakes us, devours us, substitutes for us, until all we are is that desire.

  4. Jarvis, I hesitated between the two rhetorical devices before opting for synecdoche, which seemed more relevant to the two scenes I quote. From what I've read (and seen), there are degrees in fetishism, from the stage, where, say, a gloved hand will boost desire without being its pre-condition, to the stage where the glove is all that's needed.
    And, yes, I know what you mean by your last sentence -- it's a form of madness, isn't it?

  5. Oh, Denyse, this is wonderful. Totally satisfying for me as a perfume fan and also as a [failed former] academic who still flirts with Foucault and other theorists... looking forward to the second half.

  6. Susan, I could say I'm also a former academic -- at least that's what I was meant to become, but back then I thought journalism would be a whole lot more fun. I've always thought perfume was an object rich enough to serve as an entry point to think through most aspects of culture. And perfume itself *does* carry a culture, of course.

  7. Great Post. Think you might find this series of etchings from 1881 by Max Klinger interesting…

  8. M.W., thank you very much indeed for this reference, which dovetails perfectly with my own montage of references, down to the dates.