lundi 28 janvier 2013

On perfume, jewels and a German sociologist: Prologue to Chanel 1932

One is invisible, liquid and ephemeral, its very enjoyment requiring its annihilation. The other is glittering and so hard it is virtually indestructible.

As forms of adornment, jewels and perfumes seem to be polar opposites, their only common points being the places where they are worn (wrists, neck, ears) and the fact that they are one-size-fits-all.

But the pioneering German sociologist Georg Simmel (1858-1918) held another view. Simmel was keenly interested in fashion – in fact, he could be considered one of the founding fathers of fashion theory – inasmuch as its mechanisms and language produced social relationships. 

Intriguingly, he defines adornment as both “egoistic” and “altruistic”: though it enhances the wearer’s personality at the expense of others who appear less distinguished by contrast, “its pleasure is designed for the others, since its owner can enjoy it only insofar as he mirrors himself in them; he renders the adornment valuable only through the reflection of this gift of his.”

Simmel rates types of adornment “
in terms of (…) closeness to the physical body”, from what can literally not be separated from it, the tattoo, on to clothing which can be further split between the well-worn that has taken on the kinks of its wearer’s body, and the brand-new which retains its impersonality. On this scale, jewelry is the furthest thing from a tattoo: hard and therefore un-modifiable by the wearer’s body, and whose very elegance lies in its impersonality”. 

What is really elegant avoids pointing to the specifically individual; it always lays a more general, stylized, almost abstract sphere around man which, of course, prevents no finesse from connecting the general with the personality.”

 For Simmel, jewelry’s powerful social effect is due not only to its impersonality but to the way “radiates” from its wearer:  

 “By virtue of this brilliance, its wearer appears as the center of a circle of radiation in which every close-by person, every seeing eye is caught. (…) The radii of this sphere mark the distance which jewelry creates between men "I have something which you do not have." But, on the other hand, these radii not only let the other participate: they shine in his direction; in fact, they exist only for his sake. By virtue of their material, jewels signify, in one and the same act, an increase in distance and a favor.”
 Surely, then, perfume is the absolute opposite of jewelry? To enjoy it, its wearer doesn’t need a mirror – whether an actual looking-glass or the gaze of others. Unlike jewelry, it changes on the body. And what could be more personal than the choice of a scent?

Not so for Simmel, clearly no great believer
in “personal chemistry”, who classes perfume squarely with jewels on his “impersonality” scale of adornment:
“It adds something entirely impersonal to personality, something that comes from the exterior but incorporates itself so well to it that it seems to radiate from it. It increases the personal sphere by producing an impression similar to the fire of diamonds or the shine of gold. Anyone who comes near it plunges into this atmosphere and is somehow caught in the sphere of the personality.
Like clothing, perfume covers (…) the personal atmosphere, replacing it with an objective atmosphere while drawing attention towards it. One supposes that the perfume created by this fictitious atmosphere will be pleasant to all, that it is a social value like jewels, adornment. It must please independently from the wearer, subjectively be enjoyed by his entourage, while enhancing his value as a personality at the same time.”

Now, if anyone could rival Simmel in his sociological observations on adornment, it would be Coco Chanel, who almost singlehandedly scrambled the codes of 20th century elegance. With N°5, she carried out the program inscribed in perfume as an “impersonal”, “radiant” adornment –the “stylized, almost abstract sphere” Simmel posited as true elegance. She also turned her N°5 into a value as absolute as the gold standard.  N°5 isn’t a perfume: it stands for perfume in itself. Witness last December’s “Europe wants to ban N°5” media flare-up: N°5 isn’t the only one threatened, but its symbolic value is so universal nothing could have raised the alarm more efficiently.

Conversely, Chanel’s first foray into diamond jewelry in 1932 turned out to be the very opposite: an esthetic experience almost as fleeting as a drop of fragrance, as we’ll see in Thursday’s review of the new Exclusive, 1932. 

Be sure to check back in for a draw of a sample!

Quotes are drawn from a 1950 translation of Georg Simmel’s Sociology, except for the last one, which I translated into English from a French translation in Georg Simmel, Sociologie et Épistemologie, Paris, PUF, 1981. Illustration by Robert Bresson, from the 1932 exhibition catalogue of “Bijoux de Diamant créés par Chanel”, courtesy Chanel.

14 commentaires:

  1. Mmmm, lots of food for thought there.

  2. Barry, that's why I didn't draw any conclusions, I'm still mulling it over!

  3. Thanks for the article. I love the high content level, even if I can't follow it all. And of course I am looking forward to a draw. I love so many exclusifs so I am happy to see a new one.

  4. Shelly, it's not easy language to follow. I find the 1950 translation really clunky, and the last quote I translated myself is from German to French to English... Maybe it's that way in German too, mind you. I always found reading German philosophers a pretty rough going.

  5. I'm interested in the idea that perfume 'must please independently from the wearer, subjectively be enjoyed by his entourage'.

    Can you wear a perfume you love but which you know or suspect other people won't like? I won't wear Mon Parfum Cherie par Camille outside the house after someone wondered aloud where that smell of fertiliser was coming from. Of course I was embarrassed, but my reluctance to wear it is also because I truly don't want to annoy my friends and colleagues. Heavy hitters like Aromatics Elixir, Angel, Obsession, Youth Dew and so on really do revolt some people.

    Secretions Magnifiques may smell mild and pleasant to a minority of people. Which is nice for them - but what about the rest of us?

    I guess the answer is that you make your own judgement and apply with a light hand. But I do dread the thought that someone hates my one of my old fashioned favourites, like 24 Faubourg, or Femme, or Dioressence or Miss Dior.

  6. Annemarie, that must have been a pretty mortifying moment. I do agree using a light hand can be a good idea with heavy hitters in certain contexts.
    Simmel was writing in Berlin before WWI, so not sure what scents he could have been exposed to. But I suppose he was speaking of perfume in general: except for a few niche brands nowadays, no one makes perfume with the deliberate intent of producing an unpleasant smell. Certainly not in the 1900s, though obviously there would have been class and cultural distinctions as to what smelled good and what didn't even then.

  7. Have to read a 3rd time as while I am enjoying the concepts I haven't grasped them. A contrary opinion remains unformed. Will be back later, possibly a month later to comment. I like it when you make me think.

  8. Jordan, this only grazes Simmel's work, and obviously quotes taken somewhat out of context are unsastisfactory. I just thought it was interesting to look back on the very infancy of fashion theory in order to think through perfume.

  9. Lovely review! Having worn 1932 for about two weeks now, I find this description closely dovetails with my own experience. While I also found the sillage moderate, for some reason the longevity on me is extraordinary, lasting a full 24 hours. I love the way the aldehydes seem to be in the background sort of tying everything together, rather than up front like in No5.

    I have a number of Les Exclusifs, my favourites so far being Beige and Cuir de Russie, and 1932 became quickly added to those. For some reason our local Chanel boutique got it early. In mid-January I called to inquire when it was arriving and they already had it! I went down the next morning to test it and bought it on the spot.


  10. Hi J.! Glad to learn you've got no longevity issues with 1932 -- it may be one of those "your mileage may vary" compositions. I agree the aldehydes play a very different role here. When we first discussed the Exclusives, Jacques Polge told me there was no point in doing another aldehydic floral when the line already feature N°22. Which is why I didn't highlight the note in my review since to me it's more technical than olfactory per se.
    I also had a "coup de foudre" for 1932 at first sniff, by the way!

  11. Carmencanada, my above comment was actually intended for your 1932 review and ended up here by mistake. However, reading this article makes me feel like raising my hand and saying "I can identify with that!" (that is if I rightly understand the concept). I love both perfume and jewelry. My relationships with both have been lifelong quests to find a signature that "is" me but I have to admit it's close to impossible to shake the innate objectivity of a product one applies.

    That said, wearing a jewel or perfume long enough may succeed in having it become a part of one, if not physically, in people's minds. The only problem is the search requires the testing and use of many different jewelry pieces and fragrances, which may be taking the seeker farther away from a signature than closer to it.


  12. FiveOaks, my own idea is that adornment -- particularly perfume -- is not only aspirational in the sociological way Simmel seems to allude to, but that it also expresses subconscious aspirations. A dialectic between what you aspire to become and what your choice *makes* you become. And that's usually a lot of different people, at the same time or successively.

    What I find interesting in Simmel as well is the way he sees adornment not only as narcissistic, or as a way of showing others you're somehow "better" than them, but also as a gift, because they get to enjoy the beauty.

  13. I like the gift idea. It does feel like a gift when you're walking down the street and get a whiff of someone's wonderful perfume!


  14. And when you think that most people don't even smell their own signature scent, it's even more altruistic! Actually, back in the Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder was already griping that perfume was a waste, among other things because its owner enjoys it less than lots of random strangers...