mercredi 20 août 2008

What stinks?

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)

40 commentaires:

  1. Ok, now you definitely have to try Charogne.

    A thoroughly entertaining read. I didn't really understand indolic jasmine until I tried Sarrasins, and realized that it is indeed very fecal. And what you say about someone's first association sticking is quite right--you can't shake them. Every time I try MKK, I wish I were the type of person that could ignore the fecal aspect, or revel in it. But it sort of overwhelms me until I can't think of anything else. Actually, a lot of the Lutens do that to me. I think it's called synaesthesia? When that happens though, I marvel at scent's uncanny ability to obsess me.

  2. Miel de Bois discontinued?! But, but, but I haven't smelled it yet, Nooo! Is that a first from the venerable house of Lutens?
    On a more cheerful note, I loved your article (don't I always?), especially the vivid description of putas - must read Zola now :) I've found I can only tolerate tinsiest amounts of animalic skank in perfume, civet being the top nose-wrinkler for me, perhaps because I'm not that fond of the smell of shite. Musk I'm on speaking terms with and can enjoy it even when it's a bit overdone. Now cumin is another story altogether: don't know why but it never registers as sweat to me. Declaration armpitty? Gucci EDP swinky (that's sweaty-stinky :D)? No way! Are they wonderful? Delicious? Hell yeah! Ahem, wonder what that says about me...
    Note to self: try that MKK already!

  3. Just like you said, the days of traditional french perfumery are long gone. Back in his days Jean Carles was commissioned by Dana to compose a 'perfume de puta', who would do that today? Even perfumers for Frederic Malle who supposedly have complete artistic freedom come up with extremely mainstream fragrances.

    Just like everywhere else there 's a high demand in France for clean, fresh and fruity floral fragrances, they bore everybody to tears and perfume is not really selling like it used to but that 's the way things are right now, after all political correctness in France today is at its highest since 1968. I used to live in France during the 80's when Gainsbourg 's muse Bambou was dancing topless on prime time national television, this would be absolutely impossible today.
    Even Secretions Magnifiques, Miel de Bois and Muscs Koublai Khan don 't smell that naughty to me, specially when compared to vintage extraits of Le Narcisse Noir or JOY.
    And isn 't it funny that those who claim "Mitsouko exudes the sour smell of unwashed old ladies" are indeed the old hags at POL?

    PS: billy, I know I keep reading everywhere how Sarrasins is animalic but I guess I 'll never understand this; to me it 's such a clean/ripe fruity jasmine with a subtle leathery drydown but nothing animalic really like the opening jasmine of A la Nuit or as naughty and dirty as JOY vintage in parfum.

  4. Billy, I believe synaesthesia is when a perception from one sense generates a perception from another sense: you smell Mitsouko, you feel the texture of a peach, hear a booming sound, etc.
    I think there's a thin line between "weird but I think I'll try it again", and "yuck, never on my skin". I practically never get "yuck" from classics for those reasons - it's really a matter of how your perceptions are set up, I think.

  5. Dusan, you must've been on holiday when the drama unfolded. MdeB is indeed discontinued, a first with the SLs, quite probably because it sold poorly, and also, apparently, because Lutens doesn't like it any longer and Sheldrake never did.
    Like I said above to Billy, I don't get the shit smell from, say, Jicky or Shocking. And I really love cumin too.
    I think those perceptions are profoundly cultural, and if you associate cumin to cooking, you might not perceive it as sweaty, for instance.
    "Swinky" is a nice adjective!

  6. Emmanuella, about Sarrasins, I get a passing whiff of an animal cage, but all too brief: I wish it had lasted longer, I was ready for a feral jasmine.
    Of course, vintage fragrance actually have real civet/musk/indolic jasmine and orange blossom in them, and they're much more saturated, so they do smell more "shocking" than modern ones.
    As for the comments on Mitsouko, I wasn't thinking of anyone in particular, just going on memory. As I said above to Dusan, this type of reaction is very cultural, and North Americans have a much lower tolerance threshold for anything that feels remotely unhygienic -- though I was born in North America, but then I'm a bad example: I'm a little twisted! ;-)
    And, yes, France has come a long way since the days of Gainsbourg, but it's got the stinky cheese!

  7. You got to love Zola! Flaubert was also saving his lover's mittens and (used) socks to sniff, so there's a cultural aspect to the more bodily odours being well-received in France ~well, let's just say in the Old World at large ;-)

    Another interesting spin: while the Latin word for "putain" suggests uncleanliness, it is the complete opposite in Greek! The folk term since the 19th century has been "pastrikia" (pa-stree-kiA) which means..."clean"! That was of course accountable to prostitutes having to clean their privates after each client.
    It's interesting to note, both because it suggests that too much cleaning is somehow suspect (what have you been doing that you need to cleanse so much??) and because Greeks have traditionally been a people who are quite clean due to the exigencies of a warm climate which made them sweat (but they're not sanitized!).
    I am also hypothesizing that it had to do with the Christian church admonishing tending to one's body too much clashing with the Ancient Greek tradition of long baths and sensual pleasures surrounding it.
    Intriguing, no?

    I have to admit that poopy, urinous and sweaty scents almost never repel me and I have usually no qualms to wear them in mixed company. I don't think they're even perceived that way in my entourage: everyone is well familiar with the poopy indoles in jasmine, so no one picks "shit" when they can name it as "jasmine" and everyone cooks with cumin and garlic here (meatballs can't be even considered without those), so no one picks "sweat" when they can outrihgt name "cumin" ;-)
    And a certain amount of sweat is to be expected in summer, even when taking lots of showers, so no one really bothers unless the sweat is stale.

    On the other hand, the things that usually make me apprehensive for wearing in public are too-musty-smells: like I haven't washed and dried my clothes properly. That would suggest sloppiness and read as "incompetent housekeeper" which is frowned upon in this culture...
    (you can have sex and sweat a lot, but you should still tidy the house and wash those clothes afterwards! LOL)

    You see: it is indeed all cultural. :-)

  8. There was an entire mystique around those animal "dirty" smells and their origin was not known with precision until XXth century. There were so many myths surrounding the amber origin and it's not surprising it was considered "magical". Also the amount of those "notes" was greater in the classical perfumes because other notes were heavier too. If you put 5% of jasmine absolute in a modern light perfume you will feel its "dirty" power but 5% in a classical perfume with dozens of strong smell will blend it in a different way. Those animal notes were used also for their "believed" fixative power: "fix, blend, harmonize the perfume" when galaxolide was not on the market. :)
    Narcisse noir is indeed incredible in those terms.
    You can also find this particular "french touch" in many 80's florals or floral chypre.

  9. Besides loving a good dose of dirt in my 'fumes, I have to confess that there are certain types of BO that I smell on strangers that I am really interested in. I am talking fresh cumin-y sweat as opposed to unwashed clochard. There I am, standing in the tube, inhaling deeply and enjoying, which I would have never done a few years ago.
    It's interesting that some recently released scents aiming at the top market segment are quite dirty, I am thinking for example of The Party and Jubilation 25, so may be not all is lost.

  10. Beautiful and corrupt, of the night, that's how I'd like to see myself. I suppose that's why I like the Stinky Perfumes. Underneath all the beauty, there's a hint of our true selves. Thanks for the Bal a Versailles sample; I love it and actually don't even find it that skanky. I think those of us who like these notes find them less shocking over time. I'm always surprised when someone recoils in horror at MKK or Pampelune; I forget that some people want to smell clean.

  11. D, civet in Jicky doesn't bother me at all even though I can smell it, but that's because I adore Jicky. On the other hand, much as I try, I can't get past the note in Narcisse Noir. I can acknowledge its beauty (orange blossom lover that I am), but nothing beyond that I'm afraid.

    I so enjoyed the evening strolls in Kassiopi (Corfu) because there was a (lone) jasmine tree (well, a giant shrub) on our route that I would always stop to smell. Funny thing is, you could smell the sharp scent of piss from afar. I just hope the owner didn't see me steal the odd blossom...

  12. Helg, your comments are, as usual, fascinating and very relevant.
    Cleanliness and prostitution have long been associated, if not in the language, at least in history: in the Middle Ages, whores used to ply their trade in steam baths (étuves), which led to the Church pressuring to shut them down, and precipitated the West into the great unwashed.
    Then in the 18th century, when warm baths were considered both depraved and unhealthy because they mollified the body and opened up the pores, leaving the bathers open to disease-carrying miasma, courtesans were among the first to reinstate the practice of bathing, and to have large tubs in their houses.

    As for odours like jasmin and cumin, you're right: if they're associated to their proper source, they don't stink!
    And to the cleanly, Mediterranean people, fresh sweat is not disgusting.

  13. Thanks Octavian for the historical perspective! I didn't mention ambergris much but its marine odour has been associated with more intimate, feminine ones...
    I'd be curious to know which 80s scents you refer to. I'm not too familiar with that era (shame on me: I was around then, but exclusively devoted to Habanita and the Carons).

  14. Sometimes the discussions are as interesting as your articles--which are always quite so!

    I am fascinated by yet another collective example of individual reactions to scents. For example, I often recoil from the more "challenging" animalic scents, but Narcisse Noir is simply very nice to me. Especially *on* me, and not on a tester. (It has a surprising sweet aspect to its flower, but interestingly so, because it sits higher up in my nose. Maybe it's the note that is challenging to some that merely makes the composition rise higher, literally, for me?)

    BTW, am once again noting the illustrations...modest English model, indeed, while the French illustration gazes at the artist/viewer in the classic awareness of being watched.... ;)

  15. Silvia, I agree that the more you push back the limits of your olfactory culture, the more smells, including those we are brought up to consider repulsive, we find interesting... Fresh sweat can be among them.
    I haven't smelled The Party but Jubilation 25 definitely has a heady, Femme-esque (the vintage) blend of spices. Niche offerings can afford to experiment, thank God...

  16. Matt, isn't Bal à Versailles wonderful? So saturated and dense. I don't find it remotely stinky, I was even a little disappointed not to find the "used panties" note mentioned by some commenters on the Posse a while ago...

  17. Dusan, I've never smelled vintage Narcisse Noir (only have an 80s edt) so I can't comment on it, and it's entirely unaffordable now on fleabay, but I'd be dying to see what all the fuss is about!
    And jasmine on the bush, well... I'm sure the owner didn't mind missing a few blossoms.

  18. Scent Self, aren't my commenters something else? I'm happy (and flattered) that there's an actual discussion going on here, not that there aren't in other blogs...
    For Narcisse Noir, I've just answered Dusan (above).
    And as for the illustrations, it *is* the same painter: I had the "French" one saved up and looked for another painting by Von Stuck. If there's a difference in connotation, surely it's my subconscious speaking rather than a deliberate calculation!

  19. Ahh, the old memento mori. One of the things I love about SL Bois et Fruits is that the fruits smell a little over-ripe, like a Northern Renaissance still life of fruits and flowers and perhaps a fly or two. Or maybe there's a skull in the background. It's that extra touch that keeps art grounded in the physical world and helps separate it from fantasy or pornography. Maybe bringing in a little civet is the perfumer's equivalent of blending complimentary colors rather than using the pigment straight from the tube. The result is richer and offers a context in which undiluted tones can really shine.

  20. Very well put, Oblitterati! I didn't touch on the subject of over-ripe fruit, but many of the fruity chypres I love have that sort of past-their-prime, on the verge of spoiling smell. Roudnitska did it well, and so did Jacques Guerlain.
    I love your comparison with painting -- a dash of darkness or ambiguity to bring out the radiant...

  21. Carmencanada, I believe vintage extrait of Le Narcisse Noir has got to be the most animalic perfume I have of my collection. It 's expensive to find but still more affordable than most Guerlain vintage perfumes such as Ondee.

    Cultural perception is everything too. I was raised in France and never had stinky cheese, I do not believe younger french people eat that anymore. I never encountered french women not shaving their armpits yet today I still get americans (not New Yorkers thanks goodness for that LOL) who ask me every now and then why french women don 't shave their armpits.
    I 've been with all kinds of men here in New York; middle eastern, mediterraneans, latinos... well from my experience the cleanest guys were all arabs, like the japanese they always wash themselves after going and pardon my language but the dirtiest stinky assholes I 've seen were all white bred-american men.

  22. Seconding Emmanuella there on the Narcisse Noir. In my previous comment I forgot to mention what I think was relevant to my experience of this perfume: I've only tried it in extrait. That, I believe, accounts for the strong animalic/fecal whiff I get from it. I did put it on again today and sure enough it was majestic but not something I'd like my girlfriend to wear. Not that she would want to. Ever! :D

  23. Emmanuella, the clichés about Frenchwomen not shaving and about the dubious hygiene of French people are part of the folklore, I guess. I still see people buying Langres, Münster, Brie and Camembert, though -- stinky, I guess, is in the nose of the beholder, so to speak...
    As for men... There's the French expression "je ne peux pas le sentir", which means "I can't stand him", but is literally translated as "I can't smell him". I've usually trusted my nose. Except for my ex. And look where that got me -- you don't want to know ;-)

  24. Dusan, now I *really* have to smell it (not forgetting the Charogne, Billy!).

  25. Now, that was a fun and educational read -- your post and the comments! To your smell-someday list I would like to add the JAR Terme tes Yeux (and I apologize if I just spelled that wrong) which is extremely animalic. I asked the SA once whether they sold much, and he told me that older couples, husband and wife, would come in together to try on the fragrances, and quite often they picked that one. He said the men found it very sexy. It smells like a very high-end barnyard to me.

    In this month's US Vogue there is an article you might enjoy by a food writer in pursuit of stinky foods (he starts off with durian, moves on to cheeses and other items) that talks about the relationship of the smell to the taste. I hadn't thought about it, but being obsessed with smelly foods is in some ways similar to the obsession with smelly fragrances.

    I have three different versions of Bal, and the range of skank is extraordinary. I wonder why.

  26. Hi, Denyse -- thanks for the lovely article, and the fascinating discussion here in the comments. I think I must be another "skank-lover", since I have a fascination with Eau D'Hermès, Muscs Koublaï Khän, Jicky, and others. I was also just thinking tonight about the skank-factor in TDC Rose Poivrée...

  27. March, you know I've never worked up the nerve to step into that tiny JAR shop tucked away on the rue de Castiglione... I really should. Some day when I'm wearing my furs, firmly ask for Ferme tes yeux, and find out if we should add barnyard to bacon as a smell that turns men on.

    I don't buy magazines (self-enforced rules, books already occupy half the living-room) but I'll have a look at that Vogue.
    I think there might be a relationship indeed between foodie and perfumista obsessions with stink: a sort of degree of refinement/perversion.

  28. Jarvis,you've named many of my favourites. I've read some comments about Rose Poivrée having been reformulated since its launch, and de-skanked. I'd need to compare my mini to what's in the shop right now.
    I wonder if one becomes a perfume lover because of a higher threshold of tolerance to, or an active interest in, skank -- in other words, a less inhibited approach to smells -- or if it's a matter of evolving taste, of pushing back the boundaries. Possibly both.

  29. I heard about the putative reformulation of Rose Poivrée as well. I bought mine within the last few months, so if it has been reformulated, I must either have a bottle of the old stock, or it must have been even more disturbingly and insanely stinky before. Mine seems quite potent enough as it is!

  30. Insanely stinky? Only in a perfume blog would that be praise! ;-)

  31. In perfumery, somethings are love and hate, they go together and there is a thin line between them.
    I once tried a perfume that somehow smelled nicely for the first 30 minutes and than a awful fecal smell appeared.
    i think the trick is to know how to balance the raw materials.
    regards, Simone

  32. Hi, Simone, I'm so happy to be read in Brazil! I'm looking forward to going back one day...
    You're right, balance is everything in a composition. Some niche lines don't work for me for that reason, even though they're interesting at the outset.
    I've never had your experience, it must've been awful. Once you pick up an unpleasant note, it's impossible to shake the association -- hope you hadn't bought the bottle!

  33. Ah, Denyse, what a fascinating post, and great conversation! Reminds me of the heady LT Perfume Notes days. Von Stuck, what a strange painter, I saw an amazing one in Vienna and have looked for more, and an Austrian painter told me he was Hitler's favorite.

    Where does whale vomit fit into the category of stinky animal scents to you? I did my Wormwood experiment last night, and at the last moment added a few drops of Ambergris tincture to the mix, and it did that magical smoothing and enhancing thing that LT told us about when we all split some Ambergris and made tinctures from it!

    I"ll send you a sample!

  34. Thanks W.!
    Hitler's favourite painter? Wow. That would fit it with a stinky theme, wouldn't it? Though Von Stuck isn't exactly Arno Brecker, is he? A little degenerate, say?
    I'm not sure how ambergris fits into that scheme: I've never smelled an actual lump of it, just tincture, but I remember reading it's not necessarily wholly suave when you find it lying on the beach. It certainly has an unsavory origin, though, as Octavian says above, for centuries no one knew exactly where it came from.
    I accept your offer gladly! (and then watch me get hooked).

  35. Mother's Milk, to me...
    What a great article,!

    I just love the skank.
    Bring on da funk.
    Bring on da Skank.

  36. Thanks I.
    I was just re-reading what psychoanalysts, starting with Freud, have to say about the fascination with odours, and according to them, it could definitely be linked to the relationship established between mother and baby through smells... So you're pretty much on target!

  37. PS: I second March on Ferme tes Yeux!

  38. So it's "Ferme tes yeux, ouvre tes narines" for me, then...

  39. I sometimes despair when I read how all the vast areas of the world relatively new to consumerist marketing, such as Asia and Russia, have all been focus grouped to death, and now they know the result is a wish to smell "clean" most of all. I guess that means we can anticipate a lot more "clean" scents being designed for these new huge markets.

    Perfume was a luxury in the European old world, not the mass market item it is getting to be today, so there were different standards. The traditional European perfume style is geared I think especially towards women of leisure, or women who depended on men. Such a woman's most memorable scents are those of the man she is in love with. A worn shirt, horses, cigarettes, leather, the accessories of masculinity, not so perfectly clean sometimes, but having that energy or note that is a distinctive marker triggering memories. My theory, anyway.
    Maybe adding those tiny bits of sweat/leaf mold, or bloodiness into the old style perfumes was just taken for granted as being necessary to push the composition over the edge into "must have it" category for the kind of women who bought perfume...but that demographic has changed so drastically.

  40. Lucy, that's an extremely interesting take on classic French perfumery. We'll never know what went on in Jacques Guerlain or André Fraysse's minds when they composed their masterpieces -- if they deliberately, or subconsciously, added notes that would evoke maculinity to the women who wore their compositions...
    However, as far as I know, people like François Coty also aimed their fragrances to the working women, if only in the form of colognes and fragrant powders.

    But you're right, the demographics have changed, and so have consumers' aspirations.

    As for the new markets, I know that China doesn't have a tradition for personal fragrance and so Chinese consumers might want rather light compositions, but I have heard that the Russians often go for big, opulent fragrances.