The Cranky White Flowered Perfume


It’s axiomatic that flower perfumes sell.  No matter what else happens in the strange, smelly world of perfume, you know that the public will always love white flowered numbers.  There’s no point in asking why.  Maybe women understand instinctively that they share the same reproductive strategy as a flower and therefore instinctively try to mimic them.

What’s a bit harder to understand is what you might call the dry floral.  Flowers, after all, trade in nectar, and that’s a precursor to honey, so why the insistence by some perfumers on fermenting the sugar?  Maybe they feel that too much sweetness is in poor taste?  If so, they needn’t worry.  Buyers love Fracas, Amarige, La Chasse aux Papillions et al. So why do we sometimes get the paradoxically unsweet floral?

I remember smelling it first in the eighties when Guerlain released Jardins de Bagatelle.  There was some marketing copy along the lines of its being aimed at the “joyful and assertive woman” who was still feminine, for which I read : employed.

It was definitely white flowered in the heart.  Back in 1983 this may still have meant some natural components but from the smell as I remember it, there were lots of synthetic ingredients.  It supposedly contained ylang-ylang, magnolia, rose, orchid, and jasmine or its chemical stunt-double which dominated it.  The base had cedar, musk, and an abrasive vetiver that increased the nasal sensation of scratchiness.

Guerlain has always tended to be slower at discontinuing scents than most houses, but I do recall smelling Jardins de Bagatelle about.  Someone wore the stuff and even seemed to like it but the question was: who?  It wasn’t seductive, it certainly wasn’t comfortable. Possibly it was bracing.  It may have waked a gal up of a morning on her way to the office, but wouldn’t any citrus perfume have done that?

Maybe it was really a rampart of sorts, armor for the assertive woman who neither wished to be chased around the desk nor passed over for promotion.  If so, it was, in its way, offensive weaponry.  You might have thought this kind of perfume unique to the 1980’s, but you’d be wrong, it had predecessors.

Although actually Jardins de Bagatelle is most closely related to the Yves Saint Laurent blockbuster Paris, it smells more like a late fifties perfume called Le De Givenchy to me.  This supremely crotchety white flowered scent which is mostly jasmine, ylang-ylang and aldehydes has a distinctly sandpapery texture in the nose.  It’s delicate, refined, coquettish in a rickety way and the favorite of Bette Davis apparently.

How perfect.  I wonder did she wear it on the set of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”?  If it were a fabric it would have to be tulle. Again you wonder what is the purpose of such a scent?  Is it counter-intuitive chic?  I’m a flower but not a sweet one so watch your step, bub? Was it the dessicated charm of the spry and spunky old lady?

I ask, because perfumers are, after all” simply producing formulae.  Will this work with the public? No?  How about this then?  The motivation is all economic. The ones which do work, which do sell, tap into something consumers like, or want to express, even if what they want to express is a grumpy dissatisfaction with the world.

Understandably though, the crochety or – let’s be kind and say persnickety – scent isn’t a common one.  Most of the time people want less assertion and more inclusion in their lives.  So the majority of perfumes are mildly conformist; the cranky perfume at least isn’t.  It’s an individual.

The most recent example I can think off is de Nicolai’s Number One. It was: first No. 5 – or a charming variant, and you thought to yourself, well that’s clever but hardly original, and then it became Fracas, and you said to yourself, now there’s a twist, and finally it became a softer version of the white flowered cranky.  It was silk tulle at the end rather than polyester but it was a cranky alright.  No 1 was a prize winning perfume in the year after it came out and deservedly so.  It had all the marvelous exuberance of 32 fouttes on one toe.

But it still preserved that quality of fuss-pottery identifiable from both Jardins and Le De.  It was a stickler that perfume.  I could never wear it because I am not a stickler. Or at least, not enough of one to carry it off. The last time I smelt it, two years ago, it had altered and the tuberose note had eaten up the lesser notes in the formula like some kind of floral Godzilla. In other words, it was a drier Fracas.

Will there ever be any more?  I wonder.  The cranky floral requires a cranky wearer, somebody with the personality of Bette Davis or at the very least, Fran Lebowitz.  We don’t turn many of those people out, and we don’t always appreciate them when we do, so I’m not hopeful.

But you never know.  After all, we still have Simon Doonan.

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