Vulgarity is a word tossed about like a live grenade by perfumers. After all, what is more intimate than scent and if (heaven forbid) other people use that word about your perfume, then it takes some major strength of character to ignore them and carry on using it.
So which of the two great French perfume houses is more vulgar, Caron or Guerlain? The answer partially supplied by Luca Turin, and subsequently reneged upon, is that Guerlain was “for cocottes and Caron for duchesses”. He did some backtracking on those belletristic tippy toes of his in order to ask the rhetorical question, which duchess, the choice being between two Proustian ones.
He needn’t have bothered. This same opinion was not an uncommon one among older ladies in the ‘70s when I was growing up in Italy. Why?
I suspect that Guerlain’s exuberant projective house style got up a lot of people’s noses. Shalimar and L’Heure Bleue were the Angels of their day. There are descriptions for instance, of the first and second generations of the Agnellis at supper where the matriarch wore Acqua di Colonia and one of the daughter in laws dined in a miasma of L’Heure Bleue, and so therefore, did everyone else.
There was never anything understated about those perfumes, you smelt them several feet away from the wearer, and you always smelt the famous guerlinade which was a kind of olfactory sandwich board. It was very effective, too. As late as the 1990’s I remember exiting a Douglas perfumery in Westport, Ct. and having a woman actually cross the road to ask what I was wearing, which as you may have guessed was a freshly spritzed Guerlain, in that instance Nahema.
Italian ladies felt that whereas Guerlain had introduced great classics, these great classics were somewhat overstated. I seldom smelt Shalimar there, nor yet any of the other Guerlain orientals. Italians steered relatively clear of the heaviest scents, preferring the colognes or maybe a little Jicky. Every once in a while I smelt Habit Rouge but by and large the Guerlains put Italians off their food and this was unforgivable.
Caron by contrast was rich but not pervasive. Their scents were close to the body and complex but not so apt to wander into their neighbor’s nostrils and therefore by Italian standards far preferable. There were some questionable numbers in the line up, suspects in the petty crime of unoriginality (Nocturnes) but even these preserved a modicum of elegance. Someone is bound to point out here that this is all based on my opinion.
Not entirely, the difference lying in the respective business plans of the two houses. Carons were built as olfactory habitations. Guerlains were more like builders’ models, each one was not only a house but an advertisement of the builder’s wares and skills to other potential buyers. In other words, Guerlains never entirely exited the world of commerce, and it was, and remains an absolutely brilliant business move. The styles were like Worth‘s couture creations versus Fortuny’s less flamboyant, but luxurious frocks.
The danger with Carons has always been that taste and daring would implode into eccentricity, and with scents like Narcisse Noir and French Cancan it nearly did. Both perfumes flirted with camp (let’s be honest – Narcisse Noir stuck out a hip and a thumb), but neither actually went home with him. Other Carons such as Fleurs de Rocaille and Nuit de Noel have always been irreproachable.
Consider the passage in Nancy Mitford’s comic novel The Pursuit of Love in which a young Englishwoman tells her would be French lover not to despise her utterly as there actually are several women of virtue in her family, her mother and her aunt as a matter of fact. What is the heroine, about to fall for a boulevardier, wearing? Why, Apres L’Ondee naturellement, because she is a romantic fallen woman about to fall even further. Meanwhile you can bet that her virtuous aunt was home wearing Nuit de Noel.
Just to muddy the waters further, I feel it incumbent upon me to point out that the firm of Jean Patou back in the day evidently felt their rivals at Caron rather vulgar themselves. Carons were their only real competitors in the field of rich and velvety fragrances meant to sink into. Apparently the House of Patou were always trying to better their business rivals on the matter of taste, and no doubt frequently wished to knock Caron’s and Guerlain’s heads together. Alas for them, Patou were always playing catch up despite the success of Joy.
They may, moreover, have been hampered in their ascension to the seventh heaven of faultless good taste by the expensive, some might say arriviste formula of Joy despite the impecable Cocktail, and Caline. There was also Joy’s price point relative to the rest of the perfume market which was high altitude robbery. It was a case of glass house dwellers hurling stones at the next door neighbors in their Phillip Johnson fish tank. “I know you are, but what am I?”
(a disclaimer - the present writer presently wears Carons, Patous and a Guerlain – though not all at once.)