mardi 21 février 2012

Cuir Fétiche and The Ladies' Paradise, part 2

(To read part one of this post, click here)

Of course, in defining perversion and classifying its manifestations, psychiatrists were echoing the shifts in perceptions and practices of Western societies. In a world where commodities were becoming increasingly available and diversified, the sex industry had started catering to “niche markets” by providing specialized services and ever more spectacular erotic scenarios. Havelock Ellis reports the case, in 1894, of a prostitute stating that “several of her clients desired the odor of new shoes in the room, and that she was accustomed to obtain the desired perfume by holding her shoes for a moment over the flame of a spirit lamp.”
Thus, leather entered the vocabulary of perfumery as a dominant note, rather than as a material to be treated by perfume, at the precise period in history in which hitherto “aristocratic” perversions trickled down to the very bourgeoisie to whom Messieurs Guerlain and Rimmel sold their Cuir de Russie.

But by that time the word “fetish” had acquired yet another meaning, “commodity fetishism”, introduced by Karl Marx as early as 1844 and developed in Das Kapital (1867). Again, this is a displacement of the initial definition of fetishism as the attribution of supernatural properties to man-made objects. In Marx’s definition, it means attributing an intrinsic, “natural” value to an object which initially has none. This ultimately leads to a personification of commodities, which come to possess quasi-magical powers; it also severs them both from their conditions of production and from the individual who owns them. For instance: the gowns of a society lady in the 19th century were made for her by a dressmaker. They had no labels. The beauty of an outfit was an outcome of the refined taste of the woman who wore it. When Charles Frederick Worth opened the first couture house in Paris in 1858, the couturier became the author: a Worth gown acquired value independently from its wearer, and indeed it bestowed value on her.

The very first steps in ready-to-wear, as depicted in Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise, offer an even more striking depiction of the rise of commodity fetishism. For the first time, women could buy clothes off-the-peg. To render his merchandise as covetable as possible, Octave Mouret, a consummate seducer, turns his department store into a glittering spectacle, a debauchery of tempting colours and textures into which women pour out their frustrated sexual energies. Zola describes shoplifting as an erotic thrill: 

“She stole for the pleasure of stealing, as one loves for the pleasure of loving, goaded on by desire, urged on by the species of kleptomania that her unsatisfied luxurious tastes had developed in her formerly at sight of the enormous and brutal temptations of the big shops.”

Perfume was born in its modern form during the very decades in which fetishism was defined by psychiatry, described by literature and sexually exploited by commerce, both directly (in the specialised brothels catering to the men of the bourgeoisie) and indirectly (in the dazzling cornucopia of consumer items offered to their mates).
But because of its invisible, quasi-immaterial nature, fragrance requires even more spectacle than clothing or accessories to become an object of desire. In the olden days of maîtres gantiers-parfumeurs, fragrance was an artisanal product, blended by master tradesmen. But only once the development of organic chemistry allowed perfumes to be manufactured industrially, perfume-makers could no longer rely on the one-to-one relationship of a favoured supplier with his clients. In The Ladies’ Paradise, their products had to speak for themselves. Or rather, perfume companies had to devise magic lanterns to transmute their industrial products into the stuff women’s dreams were made of.

In the first decades of the 20th century, the world-famous Paris couturiers would become the perfume industry’s most efficient promoters, turning “French perfume” into the ultimate consumer fetish. And so the spectacle of commodities conceived under the hyper-materialistic reign of Napoleon III would find its most accomplished expression in fragrance marketing and advertising.

So what’s it all to do with leather? Possibly not much, beyond the fact that the glove that kick-started the French perfume industry in the Renaissance has allowed me to wrap the threads of sexual and commodity fetishism around a bottle of perfume… But I suspect that many more threads could be woven into this eminently reversible object.

Apart from the quoted authors, these posts were fed by Octavian Coifan’s articles on leather notes (1000fragrances), my interview with Elisabeth de Feydeau for The Perfume Lover and Alain Corbin’s Women for Hire

Illustration: Pornokratès by Félicien-Rops (1896)

10 commentaires:

  1. WONDERFUL article and pictures, Denyse! There is so much to think about and enjoy. I adore Zola's description of Mme Desforges laughing about her love of "this ambiguous perfume, like an animal in rut which has landed in a girl’s powder box," and your "Up to then, people had sexual tastes; henceforth, they would have sexual identities." I guess sex and commerce always have gone hand in glove. ~~nozknoz

  2. Nozknoz, isn't that excerpt striking? It's fascinating that in the 19th century, some writers started paying much more intense attention to smells. I was interviewed recently for the "book special" in an English fashion magazine, which reminded me of Zola who is less frequently quoted on the matter than Baudelaire, Huysmans or Proust, so I dug up the quotes.

  3. Brava, Denyse! Love how you tied in sexual and commodity fetishism and consumerism -- I learn so much from reading your blog.

  4. Jarvis, I don't know yet what I'll do with these notes... But I'm convinced that any further reflection on perfumery will come not from reading what thinkers said about the sense of smell, but "sideways", in a kind of collage-like approach.

  5. I agree. This is a hopeful direction for the evolution of perfume criticism, I feel.

  6. Jarvis, interestingly, I've just come back from dinner with artists and art critics, and most of the talk revolved around perfume since two of the other guests had been involved in perfume-related projects... Interesting things might be coming out of it!

  7. I love how this post explores the intersection of perfume, economic and social history, power, sex, psychology and aesthetics (and probably more!). There is so much to be revealed by this "sideways" approach! ~~nozknoz

  8. Fascinating article Denyse (as ever) and a reminder of what an appetite Zola has for everything he writes about - both hunger and analysis - an intriguing combination.
    Looking forward to seeing where the crab-like approach will take you. It is bound to be to unusual places.

  9. Nozknoz, in a way this may not be any different from what fashion theorists did a while back, especially in British institutions. What's interesting is how *perfume* might shed a different, specific light on the approach.

  10. Scent of Choice, I was reading yesterday in Havelock Ellis that apparently, Zola's sense of smell had been tested and found rather less keen than the average, but that he had excellent olfactory memory. Ellis then explicitly draws the parallel with the way perfumers train theirs.