The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘1966’

Sex and scentsibility

Are you man enough to wear Chanel No. 5? Or woman enough to splash on Azzaro Pour Homme? I have to admit that I’ve never been a great fan of cross-dressing, but it makes about as much sense to talk about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ fragrances as it does to talk about ‘male’ or ‘female’ art, music or food. The fact that we divide perfumes into men’s or women’s fragrances has less to do with logic than it has to do with marketing, packaging and conventional thinking – and if you look back it’s not even that old a distinction.

Once upon a time, perfumes were perfumes, and there appears to have been little in terms of a gender divide until the early twentieth century. Men wore fragrances which today we’d regard as outrageously effete: both Napoleon and Wagner were famous for drenching themselves in scent, and Victorian gentlemen favoured sweetly scented floral perfumes alongside the ubiquitous eau de cologne. Even the words themselves – fragrance, perfume, scent – are genderless: the daft male-only term ‘after-shave’ appears only to have been dreamed up in the 1920s as a marketing wheeze. Though the expression may have made perfume sound a bit more butch and manly, all too often (in the days before male moisturiser became acceptable) it also left the more literal-minded chap with a burning face and peeling skin.

I’m not suggesting that male readers should rush out and purchase the olfactory equivalent of a pair of pink frilly knickers. Some scents (naming no names) are so insanely sweet and girly that it would be hard for even the most rugged male to get away with wearing them, but then they also tend to be the kind of perfume that smell as terrible on a grown woman as they would on any self-respecting man.

Beyond those parodies of perfume, there are remarkably few fragrances that, if you trust your nose and can brace yourself to ignore everything you’ve been told by breathless adverts and terrifyingly made-up sales assistants, are so incontrovertibly feminine or masculine as to be completely unwearable by either sex. Take one famous example. Christian Dior’s Eau Sauvage was launched in 1966 and quickly established itself as a hugely popular men’s fragrance. It’s stayed on the best-seller lists ever since, and I think most men would agree that there are few more bracing, fresh and (above all) masculine fragrances around.

I couldn’t agree more, but if you’re a fan of Eau Sauvage, next time you’re in a well-stocked perfume store, wander over to the women’s-perfume counter and have a smell of Diorella, launched just six years later and designed by the same perfumer, the legendary Edmond Roudnitska. The first time I smelled it I thought, ‘But this is Eau Sauvage!’ And it is, give or take some extra fruitiness which, you could say, gives it a slightly more girly character – though perfume guru Luca Turin regards it as ‘a perfected Eau Sauvage and one of the best masculines money can buy’.

In many ways it’s even easier the other way around, and women seem always to have been less inhibited about adopting fragrances that were originally intended to be for the opposite sex. Eau Sauvage is a classic example: whether they smelled it on their boyfriends or discovered it for themselves, women quickly recognised it as the masterpiece it is, and those in the know have been wearing it ever since. Guerlain’s superb Vetiver is, to my mind, one of the most archetypically masculine perfumes in existence, yet it, too, has long been a female favourite – the olfactory equivalent of an Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo.

More striking still are those fragrances that have crossed the gender divide more or less entirely. When Aimé Guerlain launched Jicky in 1889, it was initially bought by men; at the time its sharp, slightly catty smell was considered too overtly sexual in character for respectable women to risk wearing it. By the 1920s, though, liberated by the rise of female emancipation, women started using Jicky too, and gradually it became a ‘female’ fragrance – though a few self-confident men (Sean Connery being the most often-cited example) continue to wear it today. Chanel’s super-plush Cuir de Russie followed a similar trajectory, though it would be hard, even now, to define it as either masculine or feminine in character.

Visit the standard-issue perfume store and you’d be forgiven for thinking that we were still stuck in a world where men were men and women were women and never the twain should meet, as if history – in the world of perfume at least – had got stuck around 1955 and all the social and sexual revolutions since then had never actually happened. But society, of course, has changed, and there are encouraging signs that at least parts of the perfume industry have begun to realise that dividing fragrance along crude gender lines is a weirdly outdated thing to do. A handful of future-looking perfume brands, such as Byredo, Comme des Garçons and Escentric Molecule, already offer ‘genderless’ fragrances, and there is a growing trend for imaginative retailers to follow their lead, stocking perfumes by brand instead of dividing them into men’s and women’s scents.

Perfume customers are changing too. The majority of people may continue (for the moment at least) to accept the status quo, but for the small but growing band of perfume-lovers who are happy to think for themselves, choosing perfume on the basis of its supposed masculinity or femininity has come to seem increasingly outmoded. The trick is simply to follow your nose: to choose the perfumes you love, like the people you love, regardless of what other people might say.

Christian Dior

Eau Sauvage

Eau SauvageHow did I get this far without reviewing Eau Sauvage? And now that I’ve finally got round to reviewing it, how am I going to do justice to such an iconic perfume? OK, I’ve covered Eau Sauvage Extrême, but that’s a dreary spin-off and bears little relation to the glorious real thing. So, deep breath now, and here we go.

Created by the legendary perfumer Edmond Roudnitska, Eau Sauvage was launched in 1966, and it’s deservedly regarded as one of the greatest men’s perfumes of all. Roudnitska’s took the idea of a classic men’s cologne, packing it full of fresh, zingy, clean-smelling bergamot-orange oil from southern Italy, but then he did a brilliant thing, by blending it with an equally strong dose of a recently patented chemical called Hedione.

Hedione smells of jasmine – as well it might, since it was discovered by chemists during the process of deconstructing the molecular bits and bobs that, collectively, create natural jasmine’s heady, narcotic scent. Hedione’s real name is methyl dihydrojasmonate, and it was first isolated in 1958 by Dr Edouard Demole, who worked for the giant Swiss perfume company Firmenich.

Methyl dihydrojasmonate has a light jasmine smell but also something citrusy about it, giving Edmond Roudnitska a jigsaw piece that fitted into both the bergamot orange of a man’s cologne, and also had something – but crucially not too much – of natural jasmine’s sumptuous, powerfully floral scent, which most men would have considered far too feminine to wear.

To this Roudnitska added lavender – another floral scent, though this time one whose herby, faintly sweaty character had made it a long-standing male favourite – as well as a range of other, less pronounced ingredients including oakmoss (originally extracted from a lichen that smells of forests after rain) and patchouli, which in small amounts, I’m guessing, enhances the dandified character of Eau Sauvage without pushing it over into full-on let-it-all-hang-out hippiness.

A great perfume is one thing, and an all-too-rare thing at that, but it’s rarer still for a brilliant perfume to be supported by great marketing and presented in a great bottle. And here Eau Sauvage struck lucky again. Christian Dior died in 1957 of a heart attack, but under Yves Saint Laurent and then Marc Bohan, the company commissioned a series of sexy, tongue-in-cheek yet effortlessly elegant posters from René Gruau, arguably the greatest fashion illustrator of the 20th century. They certainly added to Eau Sauvage’s masculine appeal.

Few of us think a great deal about the bottles that contain the perfume we use, though they do have their collectors (most of whom, oddly, seem to have lost interest in the perfumes they contain). But some bottles repay a second glance, and Eau Sauvage is one of them. It was designed by Pierre Camin, who worked for Baccarat and created many of the bottles for the perfumer François Coty, and its chic silver cap, embossed with a pattern of tiny overlapping scales like a freshly-caught mackerel, is said to have been inspired by the silver thimble that Christian Dior always had to hand. The diagonally ridged sides of the bottle itself, meanwhile, are supposed to resemble the regular pleats of a Dior dress, though that seems a bit of a stretch to me.

I could go on, but in the unlikely event that you’ve never smelled Eau Sauvage, or think of it as a tired old dinosaur, I’d rather you headed out and tried it for yourself. Just be careful, though, as Dior have experimented with different versions over the years, and what’s now called Eau Sauvage Extrême (which you’d think would just be a stronger version, as indeed it used to be) is now a completely different fragrance, pleasant enough in a dull way but far less exciting than the original.

My last words, though, go to Edmond Roudnitska, not only because he was a perfumer of genius, but also because he also had something so important to say about marketing that it should be tattooed on the forehead of every perfume-company PR.

‘The choice of a perfume,’ he said, ‘can only rest on the competence acquired by education of olfactive taste, by intelligent curiosity and by a desire to understand the WHY and the HOW of perfume. Instead, the public [is] given inexactitudes and banalities. The proper role of publicity is to assist in the formation of connoisseurs, who are the only worthwhile propagandists for perfume, and it is up to the perfumers to enlighten, orient and direct the publicity agents.’

Here’s to the day his dream comes true.

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