Some chap must have got sick of his wife stealing his razor to scrape her legs, because one day many years ago, someone in a laboratory invented a hair-remover called “Veet”. It was very effective. You spread a thick layer of paste from a tube on your legs, waited ten minutes, then washed it off.
“Silky smooth!” Promised the box. And indeed your legs were silky smooth - even though a most disgusting scum filled the wash-basin and an even more disgusting stink filled the air. Nevertheless, it was true; your arms and armpits were silky smooth.
Responding to public revulsion, the manufacturers did their absolute best to mask this appalling smell, hastily bringing out a rose-scented version, which, perversely, just seemed to make matters worse. Somehow, attempting to cover that appalling stench with a veneer of roses succeeded only in emphasising it.
Now of course, that same gut-churning smell is all around us, and far from being a mere depilatory paste in a humble tube, it comes in fancy bottles and sells for hundreds of pounds, dollars and yen: they call it “perfume”.
Nobody in their right mind would consider using a fly-spray or insect killer as a perfume, because no matter how pleasantly scented, the chemical base always wins through in the end. That “base” is, for the most part, composed of pyrethrum – a particularly evil smelling plant hailing from Australia which makes anything with six or more legs throw up its feelers and drop dead.
We however, do not throw up our feelers, we spray, dab, and splash it on our pulse-points to choke fellow travellers on public transport: we call it “perfume”.
Anti-perspirants and deodorants perform an essential function, and most of us – thankfully - use them. We recognise that beneath that pleasant “top note”, there is a considerably less pleasant smelling chemical which gets on with the business of eliminating body odour.
Up to now, we were happy to consign such potions to the recesses of our pits – these days, however, we are dousing ourselves top to tail with them: we call it “perfume”.
More recently, with the discovery of an intriguing chemical called “kalone” which has engendered a number of “oceanic” scents, we have been moving away from the pyrethrum based genre. The most notable of these new “sea” scents would have to be Calvin Klein’s Escape, closely followed by Issey Miyake and Estée Lauder’s New West. At the time of writing, the latest addition is Elizabeth Arden’s Sunflowers.
However, the pyrethrum pongs are still going strong; Yves Saint Laurent’s Champagne and Jean-Paul Gaultier have enjoyed considerable and enduring success. The mere name Champagne was all it took for YSL, whilst the famous Madonna’s basque-inspired bottle was enough to rock it for JPG (and never mind that that bottle had been done before by Elsa Schiaparelli with Shocking in 1937. Well, who would remember, right...?)
So, who will win? The oceanics or the fly-spray?
The short answer is nobody wins. We have all lost.
As an Art, perfume died in 1953.
As an industry, perfume is set to stay in the wilderness for at least another 10 years, and possibly very much longer.
The men in white coats have indeed come to take it away. Cynics in laboratories mixing up ever more repugnant and traffic stopping “scents” have killed it with greed, and like the Emperor’s New Clothes, “perfume” companies with their massive advertising budgets spend more and more on advertising to convince us, and indeed themselves, that these modern “fragrances” smell good – and they succeed. Year after year.
A “good” smell does not, or rather should not, have the same effect on the stomach as an emetic. For more than 5000 years, perfume has been an indefinable skill, wrapped in mystique and magic.
Although the venerable firm of Guerlain remain the one, single, shining beacon in the present perfume world - “the Vatican of Perfume” - as they are affectionately known, it has to be said that their founder, Jacques Guerlain would, without a doubt, reel back on his heels should anyone wearing Guerlain’s grandest of latter successes, Samsara, waft past him on the Metro.
Samsara set the trend for sandalwood perfumes to contain more than 20% of the essence, where hitherto, a mere 2% had been the norm. It was immediately copied by Dior with Dune, which succeeded, quite brilliantly, in cornering world sales.
“Tread carefully, for you are treading on my dreams...” wrote William Butler Yeats. Perhaps more than anything else, perfume was the stuff of dreams. The artful perfumer could mix up a magic carpet ride out of the ordinary and into a world of glamour and seduction, illusion and delusion.
Before 1953, perfume was elusive; - one brief whiff would weave a silken web that had to be chased along an arm or up a neck – if you could get close enough. Now it is the perfume that does the chasing, and one longs only to escape from it whenever trapped in any confined space with it.
Here, however, it is the forgotten fragrances that shall be the subject of this exercise. To place on record, whilst there are still some people left who can remember them, old friends that were sold over counters in little glass phials. Indeed, this is an unashamed exercise in nostalgia, and nostalgia is all we have, because the art of perfume is dead; it’s gone, it no longer exists.
My aim is solely to take a glance through crystal glass doors at how perfume used to be, before “Big Business” killed it.
All around me on shelves, in cupboards, on trolleys, under beds, in drawers; in fact, on any available surface, are long-gone scents: discontinued perfumes breathing their last, evaporating into memory, emptying their sweetness into the desert air of a Regent’s Park flat.
I can do nothing to prevent this happening. Once they have gone, there will be nothing to prove they ever existed. I have as much chance of preserving them as I have of catching a moonbeam and putting it in a jar.
Would to God, I had chosen to collect stamps.
So, to begin at the beginning...