What makes up the woman? Her shoes, her dress, her way of walking? I say all, but above all and in a league of its own is her perfume. It says more than all those attributes that she may think is what people will note and remember her for.
Perfumes, like music, has an almost nostalgic property difficult to be surpassed or supplanted.
In my early 20’s, when I was time rich but dirt poor, I would scramble together whatever Guilders I had left to buy myself a copy of Elle. It was the most luxurious item I could afford in the bat of an eyelid. These esteemed copies of fashion reading provided much entertainment as I would make sure I read them from cover to cover savouring all the fashion trends and beauty tips.
But one Elle stood out and I have never let go of this prized possession ever since. This was the Elle that laid the Grunge trend to rest and paid homage to Glamour. Those grunge years had been like the dark ages for a girl like me, and so I was delighted to see the back of it.
Towards the end of my reading, an article called “Scents of desire” appeared. It started off intriguingly with a scene from Belle de Jour. The accompanied picture made the scene all complete. I was lost, and for the next 20 or so minutes I was consumed to this article. I dare to say it change me forever, as it became the turning point from being a young girl to entering the life of adulthood.
And so, as I decided to dedicate this blog to the life that inspires me vastly, the people, the style, the films, the cities, the books, and of course the perfumes, I shall quote the whole article for you. In fact you are very lucky to come across this as I am sure if not it would be lost to mankind forever….
~Scents of Desire~ Elle, December 1996
Severine is always immaculately dressed – chocolate-brown shifts, fine leather gloves, fur-trimmed coats. Her face is flawlessly made-up and framed by a mane of perfectly blond hair. She is married to a young, improbably good-looking surgeon, but they sleep in separate beds. She lives in the sort of elegant Parisian apartment you see in the pages of Maison & Jardin. In the mornings she drifts around the boutiques of the 7th arrondissement. Her afternoons are rather different. Between the hours of two and five, she goes to a seedy building on the wrong side of town and lies in the arms of men she doesn’t know – traveling salesman, a Japanese businessman, small-time gangsters. They all pay her, even though she doesn’t need the money. The perfume she wears is Guerlain’s Mitsouko. I know this because before she embarks on her double life, she breaks a huge bottle of it on her bathroom floor. Accident or symbol? Probably the latter – after all, this is the film ‘Belle du Jour’ and its director, Luis Bunuel, was fond of symbols. The bottle Severine shattered had to be full of Mitsouko because Bunuel understood what Mitsouko is: the consummate dark-side scent.
Dark side scents. These are the perfumes that get a girl into trouble. They’re not about lightness, freshness and high spirits: they are an opportunity to be sensuous, voluptuous – greedy for satin and lace. Dark-side scents are always compelling and often overpowering. Some, like Narcisse Noir, are even slightly sinister. Above all, dark-side scents are complex. ‘It’s this complexity that makes dark-side scents what they are,’ says Roja Dove, Guerlain’s proffeseur des parfums. “The best ones give you the idea that the perfume is on one level, but have an enormous hidden ‘base’ – the base is the sensual bit, the carnal bit. Dark-side scents are like black widow spiders – they lure people in, make them feel safe, then get them hooked on this voluptuous base. You get drunk on it, lost in it – it is like falling into a bottomless pit. But, the important thing is, you don’t care. All you want to do is get close to the person wearing it.!”
Each of the fragrance families – oriental, floral and chypre – can produce dark-side scents, but the best belong to the oriental and chypre groups. Of the chypres, Cuir de Russie, Tabac Blond, Shocking and, of course, Mitsouko, are all wonderfully dark. As are heavy-lidded orientals, such as Opium, Vol de Nuit and Narcisse Noir. Floral perfumes, by their very nature, are rarely dark. “After all what’s sexy about a bunch of violets or a little possy of lily of the valley,” says Dove. But some exceptional florals qualify: the narcotic L’Heure Bleue; Bellodgia, with its thick, spicy knot of carnations; and tuberose-laced Fracas.
Few of these perfumes are less than 20 years old, in fact, most would be described as “classics”, but being a classic doesn’t automatically make a perfume dark. Take Chanel No 5. Yes, it is classic. Yes, it smells extraordinarily beautiful. But, no, it’s not dark – it’s far too well-behaved, far too upbeat. In the “Fear of God” Irish novelist Derry Quinn pinpoints the difference perfectly: ‘He thought, in about 30 seconds she will get up and leave the room. A few minutes later, she will come back wearing a chiffon negligee, smelling faintly of Chanel No 5. In about 30 seconds, she left the room. She came back a few minutes later, naked and wearing Shocking. He was on his feet.’
~ The dark-side notes ~
“The French are very anti “clean” smells, they like a bit of rottenness – they call it pudeur.” Says Susan Irvine, author of fascinating Perfume – The Creation and Allure of Classic Fragrances. “In the 18th century, they even put children’s feces in their floral scents to give the pudeur.” The perfumes behind the great dark-side scents might not go to such extremes, but dark perfumes just aren’t dark enough without a certain pudeur – so they are laced with ingredients like civet, which comes from the anal glands pf the civet cat, and smells, in the raw, like a sewer.
Other dark-side ingredients? Amber, which according to Irvine “is close to the smell of sun-warmed skin”. Orris or Iris root: woody and soft, a mix of flesh, flower and earth. Then musk: intense, erogenous, narcotic and chemically very close to human testosterone – not surprising when you realize that the natural form (most musk used now is synthetic) comes from the penile sheath of the musk deer. Chinese courtesans were fed on food flavoured with musk so that when their skin was stroked or squeezed they would sweat pure scent. Added to perfume, it gives enormous warmth and sensuality. “Why mince words – it smells like sex,” – says Roja Dove. “But what’s important is that these notes are so stable and stay so close to the skin, that they end up becoming part of your own personal odour”.
If these ingredients give dark-side scents their sweaty, animal kick, it’s the dark-side flower notes that give them their naggingly erotic smell. Jasmine and tuberose, what perfumes call the ‘carnal flowers’, both have their smooth, white scents spiked with indole, a molecule that’s also found in human faeces. “Good jasmine is so overtly sexual, you can hardly believe it’s a flower,” says Dove. Carnation, which smells like cloves, adds an unbelievable warmth – “like two naked bodies pressed together,” he says.
Then there is narcissus: sweet, spring flower in the garden; pure mantrap in a scent. French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck wrote of her experience of wearing a narcissus absolu, “It was so concentrated that just a drop on each wrist and two in the bath were enough to send silver running down the walls, to blot out the sun…it set the world throbbing out of control when I wore it. I became a little weird, it was only years later that I read in a Caifornian herbal book that Narcissus Tazette is a lovely flower with a delightful scent, but it is thought that inhaling too much of it can make you go mad.”
~ Dark-side women ~
Not surprisingly, dark-side scents can be difficult to wear. Some find them strange, others overwhelming or even a little scary – but dark-side insiders would say this ad more to do with the wearer than the scent itself. “I think dark-side scents frighten a lot of people,” says Roja Dove. “If a woman wears this type of perfume, it says a lot about her – she is not frightened of her sex, she is not frightened of her womanhood. She has too much character to be the perfume equivalent of a Stepford wife. A lot of women – and a lot of men, find this intimidating.”
So, like the fragrances themselves, the women who wear dark-side scents tend to be strong and complex; adventuresses and non-conformists who want more from a perfume than a quick olfactory fix. “You’re looking at the fragrance that expresses the inner you, your alter ego – the dark side of your personality and sexuality,” says Susan Irvine. Not such a tall order – our sense of smell is a hotline to the limbic system, the part of human brain which is most closely linked to the hormonal and reproductive systems that control basic human drives like sex, hunger and fear.
Even the stories of how these women discovered their dark-side scents are spiced with more than a little romance and intrigue. “I smelt it first on an ex-girlfriend of my husband. She was extremely rich, extremely spoilt and extremely neurotic. I disliked everything about her except her perfume, which I was mad for. Much later, I discovered it was Fracas,” says Paula Reed, charismatic fashion director of The Sunday Times, who has worn the fragrance for eight years.
“It goes back to my first kiss,” laughs Irvine. “I was 14 and wearing Coriandre by Jean Couturier, which smelt like a young girl’s cleavage – musky and warm. A real Lolita perfume. My mother gave it to me because I wanted something that made me feel womanly. It worked!”
And Joan Juliet Buck writes: “At 17, I bought a teal-blue velour hat and cracked open a bottle of L’Heure Bleue. A screenwriter who had been one of the Hollywood Ten told me I looked like Hedy Lamarr, but I only think I smelled like Hedy Lamarr. Or smelled the way Hedy Lamarr looked.”
~ Dark-side dressing ~
How do you wear a dark-side scent? First and foremost, buy the perfume, or at least, eau de parfum. “With many of these perfumes, what makes them ‘dark’ – the base – hardly exists in eau de toilette,” says Roja Dove. If you buy the perfume, you need to use less and you can fully experience what perfumers call the ‘dry-down’: the extraordinary sultry scent of those base notes that will cling to your clothes and hair – and linger in the memory of everyone else…the morning after…and days after that. Think, too, about where you’re applying it. Pulse points, where the veins are close to the surface of the skin, are perfect; so is the dip of the collarbone. Don’t, however, put it behind your ears – the oil from the sebaceous glands there may alter the perfume. Finally, think about when you wear them. To weave their magic dark-side scents have to be lived-up to. Wear then when you’re vulnerable, and you’re lost. Wear them when you’re strong, and the effect is nothing short of devastating. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
~ Dark-side directory ~
MITSOUKO by Guerlain. Probably the closest thing you can get to the scent of a woman. Contains oakmoss, patchouli and extraordinary amounts of amber.
CUIR DE RUSSIE by Chanel. Sex in the back of an Aston Martin – all leather and jasmine. Easily Chanel’s naughtiest perfume.
TABAC BLOND by Caron. A unique mix of tobacco. Leather, musk and civet. Perfume expert Dr. Luca Turin calls it ‘perfumed darkness’.
JOLIE MADAME by Balmain. Another perfect ‘Belle du Jour’ scent: elegant on the outside with a sexy underside of leather.
SHOCKING by Schiaparelli (no longer available in the UK, but no dark-side list is complete without it). “One of the rudest perfumes ever made – it smelt like the inside of women’s underwear,” laughs Dove. Contained lots of rose without smelling rosy.
DJEDI by Guerlain. “One of the driest, duskiest perfumes I’ve ever smelt. Unbelievably strange,” says Roja Dove.
VOL DE NUIT by Guerlain. “So smooth and so suave – it just exudes sex and sophistication,” says Dove.
CHAOS by Donna Karan. Ms Karan’s latest scent is an earthy mix of incense, amber and musk with a suitably dark-side name.
NARCISSE NOIR by Caron. A real ‘femme fatale’ perfume. With a true narcissus note and a slightly sinister reputation. “I knew someone who used to say that when you smelt it, it was almost as if there was someone behind you, looking over your shoulder,” says Dove.
COUP DE FOUET by Caron. Pungent and spicy. The name translates as ‘crack of the whip’ – what more is there to say?
OPIUM by Yves Saint Laurent. Famously scandalous oriental. Officials attempted to ban it when it was launched in 1977 (things could have been worse – according to legend, Saint Laurent was planning to call it ‘Hashish’).
MAGIE NOIRE by Lancome. The bad-girl oriental from an otherwise well-behaved perfume house – rose corrupted by incense, sandalwood and amber.
L’HEURE BLEUE by Guerlain. Named after the ‘blue hour’ – twilight. “L’Heure Bleue is a cheat,” says Dove. “It gives you the idea that it is a shy, timid, powdery floral, but it is so overtly sexual, it’s like a drug.”
FRACAS by Robert Piguet. “Its enormous tuberose note makes it incredibly sultry,” says Dove. Wearers can become quite fanatical about it.
BELLODGIA by Caron. A thick knot of carnations on an animal, musky base.