Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mistress Balmain

There are few images from the history of this particular art that are more memorable than those of perfumer Germaine Cellier sniffing the crotches of recently removed runway models’ knickers in order to commit their essence to her memory. This reportedly took place at Robert Piguet’s 1944 couture show, in which the models also brandished accoutrements of war, like pistols and knives. Cellier’s resulting composition was "Bandit," one of the benchmarks of the leather family.

What exactly constitutes “leather” in perfume is sometimes mysterious. It’s everything from birch tar to castoreum to the synthetic isobutyl quinoline. Identifying a “leather” fragrance reminds me of that senator’s statement about porn: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Leather fragrances are like that. I know ‘em when I smell ‘em. Oh, and one more thing about leather: it’s not something you wear to the eighth grade prom. Leather scents are now and always have been made for assured and grown-up women.

This makes "Miss Balmain" a little odder and more interesting than I thought it would be.

First, there was Balmain’s “Jolie Madame,” Gertrude Stein’s signature scent, also from Cellier. The scent of the EDT I have, which is of some vintage, is parabolic: the butchest, darkest leather base imaginable, topped off with violets so sweet a little girl could wear them at Easter, and not much in the middle. That this scent was released in 1953, when American media was mounting its Herculean effort to return WWII factory women to their kitchens, is remarkable. (Consider Donna Reed, who won an Oscar playing a cynical whore in 1953’s “From Here to Eternity” and ended up spending the Fifties behind a stove on television.) It seems so symbolic of its time.

And then there’s “Miss Balmain.” This perfume was released in 1967, at the height of what Diana Vreeland called the “Youthquake.” (It was composed by one Harry Cutler, about whom there is no other information I can find.) In a way, this perfume could be Jolie Madame’s hip little sister, but in no way does it resemble the drugstore florals that generally characterize the late Sixties.

If Jean Shrimpton wore English Lavender, I suppose Faye Dunaway (as Bonnie Parker from 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde”) could have carried off “Miss Balmain.” It is more floral and lighter than Jolie Madame, but, according to Ozmoz, the basenotes are the same. The most glaring difference in the two is the use of aldehydes. Perhaps those were added to give the scent some Sixties effervescence, and they did. Miss Balmain is Jolie Madame without the violets, but with its era’s flowers and fizz.

I appreciate Bandit – even reformulated, who doesn’t appreciate Bandit? – but find the violets in Jolie Madame to be cloying. For actual wearing, I prefer “Miss Balmain.” Even in modern formulation, it’s all about the leather, but approachable, too, more available than some of the older leathers, and much more reasonably priced.

And, best of all, it’s impossible to imagine Paris Hilton wearing it.

According to Perfume Shrine’s “Scents Famous People Wear” Faye Dunaway actually wears Norell.

Notes for “Bandit” include galbanum, artemisia, neroli, ylang-ylang, jasmine, rose, tuberose, carnation, leather, vetiver, oakmoss, musk and patchouli.

Notes for “Jolie Madame” include gardenia, artemesia, bergamot, coriander, neroli, jasmine, tuberose, rose, jonquil, orris, patchouli, oakmoss, vetiver, musk, castoreum, leather and civet. (Oddly enough, these do not include "violet," although the scent, which is usually synthetic, is obvious and is commonly listed as a note in Jolie Madame.)

Notes for “Miss Balmain” include gardenia, thiyone (whatever that is), coriander, aldehydes, jasmine, narcissus, orris, carnation, patchouli, castoreum, leather and vetiver.


Perfumeshrine said...

I agree with most of your assesments, only I do wear Jolie Madame from time to time (when the mood strikes).

I think it's thujone, which had me occupied in my wormwood and anise series about a year ago. At least I think it might, judging by the smell which is...well, wormwoody.

Olfacta said...

Hi E! I wear the JM from time to time also but it is, to me anyway, definitely a concept scent.

Isn't wormwood related to artemesia? Will definitely read your series on wormwood. I grow artemesia as an ornamental, and while it has an intriging scent, I'm not sure I'd ever want to wear it solo!

Alexis J. Lomakin said...

Hmmm... "Balmain’s “Jolie Madame,” Gertrude Stein’s signature scent, also from Cellier."
If you are talking about Gertrude Stein who was a noted American art collector and an experimental writer of novels, poetry and plays. She died in 1946. Balmain's Jolie Madame was issued in 1953. How could Jolie Madame be Gertrude Stein's signature scent?