It was a few years ago when I was the editor of a women's pop culture website that I started writing about perfume on my blog, YesterdaysPerfume.com. Trying to be discreet in the middle of an open office, I'd pop open a tiny one-milliliter vial of the decanted perfume du jour and dab it on my wrist with its plastic wand. Then, in a ritual that has become as common as having a meal or reading a book, I'd lift my wrist to my nose, close my eyes, and sniff, like a deranged junky getting her fix.
In that work environment, it would have been appropriate for me to wear perfume in a style that has been popular since the 1990s: the office scent. Usually with citrus notes or oceanic accords that stay close to the skin — notes that project little more than "clean" — an office scent's raison d'être is to avoid being offensive. It plays well with others. By definition, it is institutional and conformist. CK One, Calvin Klein's 1994 unisex hit, is the perfect example of an office scent. "CK One," writes one commenter on a perfume forum, "prolongs that feeling of being washed and clean." Another fan says, "This is the ONE true fragrance that could just be worn by practically anyone on earth, including newborn babies."
As I became bored with office life, my rebellion took an invisible — but odoriferous — turn. I didn't want to smell clean, I didn't want to blend in, and I certainly didn't want to smell like a newborn baby. My perfume tastes began to wander over to the wrong side of the tracks, looking for the rude, the louche, and the difficult. I wanted an anti-office scent, a perfume that would flip office culture the bird and throw a smelly Molotov cocktail through the window for good measure.
I found myself drawn to Difficult Smelling Perfumes that subverted the clean perfume trend. Among them were vintage perfumes that took me to distant lands and told me stories about fur-clad, misbehaving women who smoked; "animalic," erotic perfumes that smelled like unwashed bodies; and perfumes that deliberately overturned trite and outdated gender conventions in perfume.
There were so many first loves in my honeymoon period with perfume.
Take Robert Piguet's 1944 perfume for women, Bandit. Its composer, Germaine Cellier — former model, reputed lesbian, and legendary iconoclast of scent — was the rare female perfumer, celebrated for her daring overdoses of extreme perfume notes. Her masterpiece Bandit, a bitter green leather perfume for women, was said to have been inspired by the scent of female models changing their undergarments backstage during fashions shows…
Chanel No. 19 (1971) was gentler in its seductions. Rather than slap me with a new and shocking scent, it lulled me into an opiate-like dream state. A Mute Invisible Cinema with its own mise en scène, characters, mood, and even lighting, Chanel No. 19 unfolded before me, projecting visions of a dim, damp forest, with smells of wet earth, vegetal freshness and even the occasional sunbeam intensifying the outlines of inchoate smells…
Christian Dior's 1972 perfume Diorella, with its disquieting, overripe melon note reminded me — just momentarily — of an overheated dumpster during a New York City summer, with its sweet, sweaty smell of flowers, fruit rinds and meat scraps mingling in their first, fetid blush of decay…
Not all of the subversive scents that took me to the Wild Side were vintage. Some were contemporary perfumes whose composers pushed their creations into more daring olfactory and cultural directions than the prevailing cult of clean perfumes. Serge Lutens' Muscs Koublai Khan (1998), composed by Christopher Sheldrake, emerged repeatedly in online perfume forums as the bad boy of niche perfumes, gossiped about like a dude with a bad reputation…The dirty animal to CK One's freshly washed baby, Muscs Koublai Khan smelled like wet fur, unwashed hair and bodies, combined with the faintest, softest hint of something sweet and powdery, like wild honey and pollen…This elegant brute of a perfume, like a pungent bohunk from a Harlequin Romance novel, had truly swept me off my feet. Its atavistic embrace of animal notes (albeit in synthetic form) hearkened back to vintage perfume styles and even to the 19th century Dandy's love of musk, civet and ambergris…
Once I was done sniffing Muscs Koublai Khan, I had to do what any perfumista worth her salt would do next. I got hazed at the queer, punk Parisian frat house État Libre d'Orange ("Free State of Orange") via its truly outrageous perfume Sécrétions Magnifique, a perfume whose bottle announces it contents with a charming cartoon rendition of an ejaculating penis. And inside? Sécrétions Magnifique starts off innocuously enough, with a soft, floral note. Things get weird very quickly, however, as the blood, adrenaline and semen accords — shocking biological accords never before used in perfume — arrive like an assault to the senses…
Civet. Musk. Rotten fruit. Women's underpants. Dirty ashtrays. Blood. Most people would not think this catalog of smells should have any place in a positive discussion of perfume, but all of these scents and more became metaphors for everything my modern, sterile office lacked. In the virtual, deodorized, homogenized and antiseptic world I felt I was dissolving into, these Things That Stink felt alive.
This post is an excerpt from a book titled Scent and Subversion. There are over 300 scent descriptions in the book; just a few follow here…
Habanita by Molinard (1921)
Originally marketed in 1921 to perfume cigarettes, Habanita came in two forms: scented sachets made to tuck into a pack of cigarettes, or as a liquid you coupld apply to your cigarettes with a glass rod, to "perfume the smoke with a delicious, lasting aroma." By 1924, Molinard had turned their scent into a perfume to be worn rather than smoked, but the decadent connotations remained.
Smoky, fruity, and floral notes rest on a base of vanillic, creamy benzoin and leather, making Habanita a complexly comforting scent of sweetness and warmth. A haze of tobacco smoke and the earthiness of leather tie together what starts out sharp (vetiver), gliding later into a jammy sweetness. As the perfume dries down, it smells like the foil that lines a pack of cigarettes.
What might at first sniff seem like sensuality in Habanita comes across instead as gourmand, and the tobacco smoke and leather suggest powderiness rather than roughness. So instead of being the dangerous perfume a femme fatale would wear, Habanita signifies comfort — like being stuck in a café in Paris on a cold day, comfortably trapped in a room filled with cigarette smoke, an old lady's violet-scented dusting powder, and the aroma of buttery baked goods.
Top notes: Vetiver, peach, strawberry, orange blossom
Heart notes: Rose orientale, ylang-ylang, orris, lilac
Base notes: Leather, vanilla, cedarwood, benzoin
Fracas by Robert Piguet (1948)
Perfumer: Germaine Cellier
Germain Cellier had a camp sensibility about gender and perfume, evidenced in the gender hyperbole of Bandit vs. Fracas, the butch/femme couple of the vintage perfume world.
If Bandit perfume was meant for the butch lady in leather with the sidelong glance and the cigarette dangling out of her mouth, then voluptuous Fracas pays tribute to over-the-top femininity of the Marilyn Monroe/Anita Ekberg variety. Green and bright in its top notes, followed by a deluge of white flower notes resting on a creamy, decadent bed of balsams and musk, Fracas is almost a gourmand version of white flowers. Its carnation evokes images of cloves woven into flower garlands, providing sparks of red-hot heat amidst creamy white florals.
A "fracas" is a noisy, disorderly brawl, and in French, Italian, and Latin, it means to shatter (fracasser), to break (frangere), and to make an uproar (fracasso, fracassare). In Germaine Cellier's hands, this means that the floral category, usually a proper and ladylike one, gets subverted. This quinetessential sex-bomb floral is meant to disturb and not merely to seduce, to disrupt and disquiet in addition to subduing. Fracas's beauty is not quiet and demure; it enters the stage like an attention-getting trouble-maker.
Madeleine de Madeleine, Mollie Parnis by Weil, Dior's Poison, and sheer little drugstore Jovans have quoted Fracas, but she remains the iconic diva, the Marilyn Monroe of floral perfumes. (The reformulation isn't as rich and voluptuous as the original. Like Fidji's reformulation, it lacks the depth of the original base notes.)
Top notes: Bergamot, mandarin, hyacinth, green notes
Heart notes: Tuberose, jasmine, orange blossom, lily of the valley, white iris, violet, jonquil, carnation, coriander, peach, osmanthus, pink geranium
Base notes: Musk, cedar, oak moss, sandalwood, orris, vetiver, Tolu balsam
Love's Baby Soft by Love Cosmetics (1976)
Perfumer: Ron Winnegrad
Like the Bay City Rollers and feathered hair, Love's Baby Soft's iconic pink hue and baby powderiness defined the '70s for many a teenage girl. (I can barely take a tiny whiff of this stuff without feeling like I'm about to break out in pimples.) What's fascinating in retrospect is the way that largely masculine notes of the fougère fragrance category exist at the heart of this girly fragrance.
With its combination of lavender and vanilla (standing in for the sweetness and warmth of coumarin from tonka), Love's Baby Soft transmogrifies from a hairy man getting his hair cut at a barbershop into a fourteen-year-old girl who smells like baby powder and affixes unicorn stickers to her Meade kitten spiral notebook. Even teenage girls in the '70s were able to get in their perfumes the complexity many grown women are denied in today's mainstream scents. In Love's Baby Soft's drydown, a sophisticated mix of herbaceous fougère, baby powder, and an almondy-vanillic heliotrope that was featured promininently in Guerlain's L'Heure Bleue mingle like it's not big deal.
Top notes: Syringa (a genus that includes lilac), aldehyde, lemon, lavender, rosewood
Heart notes: Heliotrope, lilac, rose, lily of the valley, orchid, carnation
Base notes: Vanilla, benzoin, musk
Giorgio by Giorgio of Beverly Hills (1981)
You know it. You may love it. But once you put it on, you won't be able to get away from it, and those around you may hate you forever. That's right — I'm talking about Giorgio. Giorgio of Beverly Hills.
In the late 1970s, Gale and Fred Hayman decided they needed an exclusive fragrance for their clothing boutique on Rodeo Drive. This exclusive fragrance, ironically (or, more likely, intentionally), ended up scenting every magazine, mall, big-haired salad eater, and Gucci bag-carrying Texas debutante in the Eighties like the "airborne toxic event" that threatens the characters in Don DeLillo's surreal fantasia on consumerism and suburbia in White Noise.
This airborne toxic event starts off with a bright hit of green, followed by a massive synthetic-smelling accord of fruit notes + orange blossom + every cloyingly sweet facet that could be wrenched from Giorgio's florals: tuberose, gardenia, ylang-ylang, and jasmine. There's something kind of pleasant about the powdery and slightly rich dry down, but you can't really experience it because the tuberose-gardenia-fruit monster stuns your nose into submission.
Giorgio doesn't really develop so much as Enter the Building and stage a sit-in demanding to be noticed: inert, bright, soapy, floral, and in-your-face sweet. It's sunny and pretty in the way an immaculately made-up face photoshopped within an inch of its life in a magazine is pretty. There is no movement, multidimensionality, or life inside.
Giorgio is always described as a "big" scent, like many Eighties scent bombs, but it's not Giorgio's bigness or boldness that bothers me. I like the perverse Poison by Christian Dior, in small doses, and what some say is Giorgio's reference scent, Robert Piguet's Fracas, is as alive as a carnivorous plant. It's Giorgio's inorganic obtrusiveness that offends…
Giorgio set the volume way up (hence all the references to "loud" scents), and other scents followed suit (among them Obsession, the aforementioned Poison, Amarige, et al). It actually makes sense that by the Nineties, our exhausted noses were proffered androgynous office scents that had wiped off all their fuschia lipstick and purple eye shadow and retired their sequined evening gowns. Improbably, Giorgio is still available, but to me, it smells as dated as Robin Leach's sign-off sounds: "Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams!"
Top notes: Green note, bergamot, fruit note, orange blossom, aldehyde
Heart notes: Tuberose, gardenia, ylang-ylang, orchid
Base notes: Sandalwood, cedarwood, musk, amber, moss, vanilla
Laundromat by Demeter (2000)
Perfumer: Christopher Brosius
Landromat doesn't just smell like detergent — it smells like clothes coming out of a dryer while they're still hot, along with static electricity and dryer sheets. In the era of clean fragrances, this witty scent took that trend to its logical conclusion.
Notes: Lily of the valley, mint, starch, slight warm/balsamic note
This post has been excerpted from Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume. Barbara Herman is a Brooklyn-based writer who left her heart in New Orleans, in spite of having also lived in San Francisco. She loves perfume, cats, and umami-laden rich food. In addition to checking out her book Scent and Subversion, you can follow her on Twitter @Parfumaniac and read her vintage perfume musings on YesterdaysPerfume.com.