Scents of the 1920s
Vintage perfumes are the perfect portal back to past eras. We're carried back to the glamour of the Jazz Age via its oriental, musky fragrances
By Lizzie Ostrom on Saturday 1st September, 2012
“I look at photos of the Bright Young Things, and find it so unsettling how close to us they look. It really is the first time in photography that you get the immediacy and directness of people dressed in a familiar way, posing informally, and being, well, like us. You see the subjects with their furs, tobacco, lacquered furniture, lipstick and hothouse flowers and you’re thinking, ‘that era must have smelled incredible'," shares Lucy Moore, historian and author of Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties.
We needn’t just wonder. Though in many ways times have changed, luckily for us many of the perfumes of the age, though somewhat altered, survive. Indeed, those wishing to transport themselves back to the Jazz Age could do worse than trying a little olfaction as their DeLorean.
But let’s not just start sniffing perfumes at random. We need a cipher, a portal to take us there. And we’re going to find it by sitting in the audience as Noel Coward’s breakthrough play, The Vortex, makes its 1924 premiere. In Act III, our central character, Florence, a vain ageing socialite, is flailing around her bedroom late at night, raging that her young lover Tom has just been poached by her son’s fiancée, the jauntily named Bunty. (Florence’s son, Nicky, is gay, the fact of which may only be hinted at.) To calm the nerves, Florence rubs her cigarette in a few drops of perfume, Narcisse Noir by Perfumerie Caron to be precise, and lights up.
Even in 2012 this strikes us as decadent (though do, next time you wear perfume, try a drop on the tongue as well as the décolletage; it gives a much more pronounced experience). But at the time the act was the height of shocking. Narcisse Noir was like the special knock that would gain you admittance to a speakeasy. Created in 1911, this nuclear bomb of orange blossom made dirty with animalic civet was code for all things deviant and reprobate. It was probably the first perfume specifically designed to shock a society more accustomed to polite colognes of a citrus or wildflower persuasion, and very well suited to the play’s piqued sexuality.
“Narcisse Noir, as my louche old friend used to say, was made to be worn by broken down old ballerinas. It was a real wicked Parisian scent, the very sort that the evil French would like and to be avoided by all decent folk”, remembers James Craven, perfume archivist at the independent fragrance emporium, Les Senteurs. ‘NN’ was sold on a clever fabrication from its creator Ernest Daltroff, one of the greatest noses of the 20th century. Daltroff told of a perilous expedition in the remote Himalayas, where he discovered the mythical Black Narcissus, the risqué inversion of the pretty and virginal white Narcissus. It was complete nonsense of course, as the perfume was composed from a cocktail of existing florals, but the public bought into the spin and Black Narcissus became an essential expression of the Jazz Age. Harry Crosby, the poet and publisher whose reckless lifestyle experiments and seedy suicide came to epitomise the era, named his whippet Narcisse Noir (the name of his other dog was Clytoris), and even his publishing house, which released the works of Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker, was titled Éditions Narcisse.
The Vortex’s Florence would have done just as well to dip her cigarette in Tabac Blond. Another Daltroff creation, Tabac Blond smelled as though a heavily-powdered waif had just tossed a bunch of unwanted and bruised flowers onto a leather chaise, before lighting up and having a smoke while ripping off the petals one by one. “You have to remember,” delights Craven, “that this was a time in which gentlemen would wear smoking jackets to protect their clothes from the smell, and when private homes would have a dedicated smoking room. Even wearing scent on the skin was risky, you'd dab it on a hankerchief instead. So to
defiantly wear the very scent of cigarettes was uniquely heady.” Whereas fragrances had traditionally taken inspiration from the outdoors, Tabac Blond was a perfume of the interior, of darkened rooms and behind closed doors. It was originally designed for men, but was quickly nicked by the girls, including Marlene Dietrich. “It’s no surprise," says Moore in Anything Goes. "A generation of men had gone off to fight in World War One, leaving the women at home, permitted to work and to have a voice. Smoking had previously been a private activity, but now it was flagrantly open as a conduit of that power, in the same way that the androgynous look and flat silhouette represented emancipation. So smelling of leather or smoke suited the mood perfectly."
But though much attention is placed on the women, perhaps the more defiant gender play came from the men. Moore reminds us: "The great silent movie stars like Rudolf Valentino had a very effeminate look, caked as they were in makeup and gold lame jackets. Harry Crosby pops up again sporting vividly painted toenails." Charlie Chaplin's favourite scent was Guerlain's Mitsouko, a difficult female chypre fragrance with a peach note nestled into a cushion of oak moss. There was a whole swathe of frankly disturbing florals, from Lanvin's Arpège to Chanel Number 5. Then, in 1925 Jacques Guerlain released the landmark perfume Shalimar. Its innocuous lemon and bergamot opening quickly becomes overrun by vanilla and musk. This was the first modern oriental perfume, and it was a runaway success.
"Society was utterly obsessed with the East," Moore says. "Mah Jong was played in drawing rooms all over the country; the discovery of Tutankamun was the event of 1922; and silent movie The Sheik was renamed 'The Shriek' due to the swooning effect it had on audiences." Was Shalimar, leading the army of exotic new fragrances, a way of gripping onto a supposedly unspoiled new world?
Or perhaps it came down to science. You can view the perfume revolution as a response to changing social attitudes, but you can also see it as perfumers and chemists having some serious fun with new molecules. For all the romanticism of the brand stories attached to perfumes, this was the age of technology and aviation, Shalimar was made possible because of a new chemical,Vanillin, and the discovery of lactones is to be thanked for Mitsouko, imparting a magical milky finish to the scent. It took synthetics (from the Greek ‘sunthetikos’ meaning 'skilled in putting together') to replicate the fragrance of those elusive natural ingredients that were otherwise impossible to capture in perfume. Funnily enough the fake peach out-peached the real thing.
But if you really want the true scent of the Jazz Age, wander over to your nearest pharmacy and buy a bottle of Ambre Solair. Legend has it that its quintessential sun tan smell was pinched from one of the most beautiful perfumes of the Jazz Age, Chaldee by Jean Patou, whose happy blend of white flowers and amber celebrated the new acceptability of basking in the sun.
Craven remembers: "It was gorgeous, but sadly discontinued. I think it was last spotted in Harrods in the early 90's. An old dancer friend of mine told me that when the marvelous Josephine Baker, 'the Bronze Venus', danced at the Folies Bergèe in Paris, the whole place absolutely reeked of Chaldee. Chaldee and sweat to be precise."
VS List: How to smell of the disreputable decade
Misouko by Guerlain, available at selected department stores.
Shalimar by Guerlain, available at selected department stores
Tabac Blond by Caron, available at Les Senteurs
Narcisse Noir by Caron, available at Les Senteurs
Chanel Number 5, widely available
Lucy Moore's book, Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties, is available online from Amazon.
Lizzie Ostrom's alter ego, Odette Toilette, is the curator of Scratch+Sniff, a monthly series of olfactory events. See the Vintage Seekers Calendar for more info or visit www.scratchandsniffevents.com