Wednesday, November 30, 2011

He Who Smelt It, Delt It - Further Elaborations of Perfume and What to do with It.

I think I might have an olfactory obsession, as this is my second post on fragrance, and I didn't think I'd ever really be writing about this subject.  But, rather than telling you how and what to buy, I'm going to tell you all the kinky and creative ways people scented themselves in days gone by.  Some methods are quite romantic, others, well, let's just say you'll never look at bacon fat the same way again. 

A Tomb painting depicting maids with perfumed cones
atop their wigs.  Also popular was the Blue Lotus, but
it was prizes for its narcotic properties rather than
it's perfume alone.
Neanderthals were known to adorn themselves with flowers to surround themselves with pleasant aromas, but our first ingenious deodorizing diatribe takes us to Ancient Egypt.  To combat the arid environment, the Egyptians (men and women a like) shaved themselves from head to toe.  For formal ceremonies, both sexes donned ornamental wigs (thus negating the effects of the previously mentioned full body wax) and if they were feeling frisky, false beards. To scent the air around them, Egyptians donned scented cones that sat on top of their wigs.  The cones were made of solid animal fat (tallow) fragranced with myrrh and would melt in the desert heat.  I'm not sure if this was also some sort of moisturizing treatment or round-about sunscreen protection, know, when in Rome.    

Gloves dating to 1603 from the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Trimmed with silver lace, pearls and spangles, scenting
them was gilding the Lily.
Zooming forward in time we find ourselves in the Renaissance, when, despite being condemned by the clergy (no doubt because of it's association with prostitution and an all around good time), the perfume trade flourished during the Renaissance, so much so that Perfumers developed their own guild.  During this period, it was thought that the putrid scents which filled the air from plague, pollution, and general illness also carried contagious disease.  As a result, personal accessories began to be designed with compartments to house solid perfumes that would cancel out the foul smells and protect against infection.  Doctors walking sticks were made with decorative heads or handles that emitted a fragrance through perforated metal which masked the odors found in slums, hospitals, and mortuaries.  A solid perfume scented with herbs was contained within the hollow handle.

Gold, enamel and pearl pomander circa 1620-1640.
Victoria and Albert Museum.
In the 16th Century, the Marquis do Frangipani was the first to perfume kidskin gloves as other Nobles of Venice and Florence adorned garments and gloves with spherical scented buttons designed to be filled with a fragrant potpourri or solid perfume; its scent emitted though a filigree fretwork of silver.  Also popular during the Renaissance, and well beyond for that matter, was the Pomander.  A spherical charm worn suspended on a chain from the waist, when unlocked it opens into wedged segments like an orange, with each wedge compartment housing a different scented solid perfume.  As a note, while marvelously long-lasting, solid perfumes were historically made from Ambergris; a wax-like substance coveted by the cosmetic industry used not only for perfume but also pomades, powders, and cough drops. The fact that it is derived from Whale vomit or feces (either would do) was gleefully overlooked by the buying public.  We of course have synthetics for today's market.

A partial gilt silver pomander dating to 1350 from the Victoria
and Albert Museum.  A pin screw holds the hinged segments

This may have been a love token, which a woman would wear
hanging from a chain at her waist.
The segments refer to the Judgement of Paris,
when he had to decide which of the goddesses Juno, Venus and Minerva
was the most beautiful. Paris chose Venus, here given the words:
"Venus is the loveliest, her claim is clearly just".
A 1778 painting of Marie Antoinette in a riding costume
with her scented gloves in hand.  Antoine Vestier.
Private Collection.
Galloping forward another 200 years, we land in pre-revolutionary France in the Court of Louis XVI and his number one schnitzel, Marie Antoinette.  Contrary to our notions about the French and their bathing habits, Marie, an Austrian by birth, reveled in her beauty regime and bathed daily.  Her baths were scented with floating sachets filled with blanched almonds, pine nuts, linseed, lily, and herbs.  Other sachets included bran, used as an exfoliant.  She scented her water with essence of Lavender and Lemon, and also used these oils to purify the air in her apartment at Versailles.  Marie adored her cosmetics and creams, and adorned herself with custom curated fragrances by court perfumer Jean-Louis Fargeon containing rose, violet, jonquil, tuberose, musk, and amber.  Fargeon also provided her with scented kidskin riding gloves treated with almond oil, white wax and eau de rose.  They were laid on a fresh bed of roses to dry after treatments, and kept her hands moisturized and smelling, well, like a bed of roses.  She was known to wear these when not riding as well.  Scented gloves and fans were the rage at court, not just because Marie wore them, but because of their practical use in warding of the remnants of whiffy Frenchmen in drafty palace halls. 
- Ian

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Men's Cologne and Other Disasters

One of many fragrance counters at Nordstrom.
Last Christmas, I was at Nordstrom, standing in line to purchase a pair of driving gloves (I admit, they were for me.  Charity starts at home.) and while I waited my turn, I watched as a casual inquiry at the men's fragrance counter degenerated into a desperate transaction between buyer and salesperson.  From the look of it, an IRS audit would have been a more pleasant and beneficial experience.

From what I could infer, and I love to infer, a woman had stopped in to pick up something for her brother/father/grandfather (I'm assuming it was for a family member.  Usually, if it's for a boyfriend or husband, the decision on just how they should smell is rarely put to debate.) and things were not going well.  The woman was dumbstruck by variety and the salesman was being less than helpful by squirting strips of paper and passing them off to her like some sideshow card trick.  If he pulled a rabbit out of his pants I wouldn't have been surprised.  He did have a ponytail, after all. You know how ponytailed men are. 

Joan Crawford hawks 'Summer Rain' perfume to
Rosalind Russell in MGM's 1939 hit  The Woman.
The mushroom cloud of Dolce & Gabbana, Lacoste and Armani generated by the eager man with the trigger finger soon made its way to me and I found myself somewhere between a contact high and a migraine.  The pile of scented paper grew as he wove between the displays and I assume he had sptrized every sample they had on the floor, and possibly dipped into the bathroom air freshener, yet still our young heroine had made no headway in whether to buy Ralph Lauren Black or Guilty by Gucci.  I yearned to intervene, and tell her to just buy something by Burberry because you can't go wrong with Burberry, but I was unwilling to sacrifice my spot in line and I didn't want to interrupt.  Out of desperation, she eventually purchased a gift set the salesman was pushing and left. 

This is just here for Reference.  This is the
Perfume Hall at the old Bullock's Wilshire.
Look at all that floor space!  You can actually
walk in a straight line!
As a general rule, I never buy fragrance for others.  Scent is one of the most personal aspects of our identity, so unless I have a direct request to drag home a 5 piece gift set of Viva La Juicy, I'm not going to consider buying anyone anything that smells.  My primary reason for this is body chemistry; everyone is different, so just because it smells good in the bottle or on the salesgirl, it doesn't mean it will smell good on your loved one.  There's also allergies to consider, as well as personal taste; I have a good friend who just flat out doesn't like perfume, and on the flip side of the coin, I have a box on my Bathroom vanity that is crammed with cologne, because I love scent and how it can shape or reflect you mood.  So, maybe save yourself a headache and heartbreak and opt for a nice gift card.

Should you opt to go against my advice and insist on buying fragrance even though i told you not to, here's how to avoid the pitfalls.  Don't go in blind; know what your giftee already wears.  Steal the bottle or spray some on a card and bring it in with you.  Either buy more of the same (they can always return it or add it to the stockpile) or if you're feeling frisky, ask the salesperson what is similar to it and they should be able to find something along the same lines.  If even that fails you, then just ask the salesperson what is popular and safe and buy what smells the most conservative.  Gift giving should be a pleasure, not a terrifying experience or a Sisyphean task that will make you take up smoking again.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Holidays en Fuego

Laura Mercier's Warm Roasted Chestnut Candle
is heavenly with Vanilla, Clove, & Spiced Berries.

I am a candle junkie.  I have ones I have yet to light, from last years after Christmas sales (Ralph Lauren's Holiday candles!!!), and yet I have also purchased new ones in new scents for this season (Bath and Body Works Fall Candles!!!).  I may have an issue, then again I may be a genius; who am I to judge?  I have tried to cut back, and really I think I have, but how can I resist the temptation of beautiful scented candles that promise to make my home smell like I cook all day and don't have dogs on the sofa?

The new Laura Mercier Holiday candles are not going to help my situation.  I just got an ad from Neiman's in my inbox advertising her new holiday gift collection.  I clicked it and up popped my old friends.  I first bought the Mercier candles, in all three scents, on sale from Nordstrom last Christmas.  I was not disappointed and while I secreted them away, I wanted to use them before the scent faded (a risk for candle hoarders; scents don't last forever).  Of course they're packaged as gifts; pretty metallic brown boxes with satin ribbons that open to reveal frosted glass cylinders the size of a Progresso can, but charity starts at home, right?

Creme Brulee is rich with Caramel, Vanilla Bean, and Sugar.

Mercier has two scents from last season, a Creme Brulee that is to die for, and a Roasted Chestnut that makes me was to drink the molten wax because it smells so good, and the new Tarte au Citron.  I'm going to go out on a limb and say it smells fantastic.  The unique scents are long lasting and just seasonal enough to convey that holiday feeling without bringing to mine disinfectant floor cleaner.  Frankly anything that doesn't smell like a cinnamon broom or scotch pine is perfect in my book. 

At $42.00 a crack, they make a classy hostess gift, a beautiful 'just because we're friends' gift, or maybe something for a frenemy you're trying to guilt or intimidate.  Personally, I'm going to wait until after Christmas when they'll be on sale, then indulge.  I'll be scouring the .com's to find them, and when I do, I'll pray for a happy new year, and free shipping.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Beach Blanket, Bingo!

I do not go to the beach.  I like the sea and the tingle-ly feeling it gives me when I smell the ocean air, but I won't go in something I can't drain.  I also don't like being wet.  It's not one of my better looks.  However, wonderful witty little trinkets like the beach towel I'm about to plotz over could change my mind and actually get me on the sand.

I was thumbing though the Neiman Marcus Gift Catalog and saw this adorable and quite generously size beach towel, shaped like a Zebra pelt and rendered in White with Navy stripes.  I almost can't stand it!  I love the little carry straps that it comes with, and I love that this doesn't just have to be at the beach.  How eye catching to drape it over your pool side chase in Palm Springs?  Or even the one in your own back yard?  Or use it for a pic-nic pr fun patio side table cloth.  So sexy and fun, and best of all, machine washable!

The towels are made by the Australian Maslin & Co (, and sold in the states through Neiman Marcus and Opening Ceremony.  Retails at $225.00.

- Ian