Friday, May 02, 2008

Perfume History: Colette Advises Women

From the pages of Perfume: Joy, Obsession, Scandal, Sin by Richard Stamelman comes an interesting vignette about Colette, a legendary woman who opened her own boutique, Société Colette, in 1932 - quite a feat if you ask me! Following the opening of the boutique in June of that year, which drew the most elite of Paris society, she continued her ongoing interest in fragrance, makeup, skincare, fashion and writing. When a critic labeled her as an "olfactory novelist" she graciously accepted the idea, claiming "I have followed my nose, and it has always led me to what is best and worst."

She was quite passionate about fragrance and it came through in her glorious writing. Most interesting, however is her suggestion of one signature fragrance. The following is from page 257 of the book mentioned above:

Colette favored floral fragrances for herself and for the women readers to whom she offered advice. "Any perfume that does not have a vegetal origin," she counsels, "can be nothing more than a passing fancy of fashion." There are scents around "that could kill a bull. In a restaurant, at the theater, women leave fragrances in their wake that cut one's appetite or detract from what is happening on the screen or the stage"("Parfums," Paysages, 150).* Women with "nez fins," like Colette, are too sensitive to embrace perfumes that are not conservative, classic or what she calls "eternal like the flower that is their inspiration." It is vital that women not flutter like "drunken bees" ("Parfums," Paysages, 151, 153) from one perfume to another: "Madame, you who read my words, I hope you never have ... a 'new' perfume." A woman must practice a certain self-denial by remaining faithful "to a well-chosen perfume, linked to your moral person, to your physical charms, a perfume your friends love and recognize, one that surprises people you meet for the first time and that makes them dream" ("Parfums," Paysages, 152).

In addition, Colette was a particular fan of "white" fragrances including notes such as jasmine, gardenia, tuberose and white tobacco. Oh, would she be aghast at the state of the perfume industry today! The quest to launch new and ultimately mediocre fragrances, the plethora of different genres of scent and the deviation from truly beautiful white florals. I think she would be quite pleased, however, with Estee Lauder's Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia and even Guerlain's Cruel Gardenia. I have a difficult time with her idea of loyalty to one scent although I see the value in finding one stunningly stellar scent that defines me, or that I define. There is a certain fun and whimsy in the "drunken bee" analogy that aptly fits my attitude toward fragrance. Yet, it certainly would simplify my life to settle down with just one. My question is, "Why?" when there are so many beautiful scents to be tried and discovered - scents that tomes are written about. Sniffapalooza is devoted to people of the "drunken bee" type and we certainly have no qualms about it! So today dear reader, please comment on your thoughts of claiming one fragrance as your own. According to Colette's criteria, if you had to pick just one, which would it be and why?

My possibilities:

Chanel No. 5, Chanel Cristalle or Molinard Nirmali

Chanel No. 5 is a fragrance I could wear for the rest of my life. It is close to the skin, classic and sparkling. Yet sometimes it feels too mature for me. Chanel Cristalle is again a classic, much younger in feel and greener than No. 5 and it would suit my positive outlook on life. Molinard Nirmali is perhaps the best fit with fruity and floral notes that would probably never bore me. It has curves and sex appeal and in my best moments I have the former and would love to possess the latter!

*Precisely the reason Divina and I have developed "Fragrance for the Occasion!"

Image of bee courtesy of


Anita said...

Chanel #19 is a scent that has never failed me. It feels utterly right, I've worn it longer than almost any other scent I know (except for Arpege & Norell.) #19 is appropriate for almost any occasion, but it's not a fragrance that I think of as sexy, which is why I must have Coco as well. Now, I could indeed be quite happy with both, but it's so limiting! I love Mozart and the Beatles, too, but there's so much more to listen to, and man cannot live by bread alone, after all. Diversity in scents is a good thing. Fascinating read, thanks!

TMH256 said...

Great point, Anita!! Why limit ourselves when we have so many great choices!! I'm glad you enjoyed this. I thought the topic was fascinating myself. :-)

Anonymous said...

I would pick No 5 - it has been a long time favourite since my teens. If you include the Elixir version and the body creme and soap, in various combinations with the parfum or the edp, you get quite a bit of variety out of just one perfume. Sigh, I do love No 5! Interesting quote "there are scents around that could kill a bull." I had a good chuckle thinking of how current that is even today. LOL! Kim

TMH256 said...

Oh, Kim such great points! I happen to own everything you mentioned and I think it's about time I pulled them all out and started using them more! Colette certainly had a great sense of humor. It really is true, especially with how liberally some people apply scent - a shame to the art if you ask me! Have a great day! :-)

Vida said...

GASP! Just ONE? But, pray tell Colette, how would one discover which ONE without trying ALL of them?

Anonymous said...

Just one? Well, I can narrow it down to three: Jardan sur le Nil, Eau d' Hadrien, and En Evion. Two for day, one for night. Fewer than three makes me feel panic ctriken!

I do love the concept of a signature fragrance, but I could not discipline myself to have just one.

I like to think of myself as an open minded lover of perfume. Also of dessert!

Wonderful post!



TMH256 said...

Excellent point! :-)

TMH256 said...

Hello Carole,

It certainly would take an incredible amount of discipline and restraint to wear just one, wouldn't it? I like your three!

Morticia Addams said...

I am thrilled to have found these comments on perfume by Colette. She is one of my most admired authors.

I I can understand why someone might desire an olfactory signature. I wish I could follow Colette's advice but I like to smell around. LOL