In the beginning was Fougere Royale.
That’s fougere pre-history to you and me. We live in CW era, to be specific, the post Cool Water era. Cool Water was such a tsunami in the world of fougeres (the fragrance based on the fantasy fern accord of lavender and coumarin) that nothing has been the same ever since it crested. We can’t really recall a time when fougeres weren’t classified as masculines. I mean, Cool Water was certainly aimed at men, rather like a cool water canon, and hit them, square in the wallet, with the first dihydro-myrcenol powered aromatic fougere in 1988. The result was that fougeres, which already appeared to be a masculine preserve, effectively became a masculine perfume cliche.
The interesting point here, though, is that the fougere was not originally a masculine type of fragrance, any more than the chypres or the leathers were, and the early examples of the genre tend to bear that assessment out.
Consider the perfume house of Dana. In the US it is associated now with pharmacies and big box stores. Dana wasn’t, however, always down market. In the 1930s Dana produced popular mid- market fragrances such as the sweet amber Tabu (1931) so beloved of my mother.
But Dana also seems to have specialized in the fougere for women, like 20 Carats (1933) produced in a bottle containing gold leaf, and then the better known Canoe (1935). They were both bought and loved by one or two generations of women before someone started associating fougeres with men, and then Canoe was systematically shelved in the after shave section of drugstores in the US. 20 Carats disappeared, and Canoe was gender typed, a fate it didn’t deserve.
The female fougere also seems to have been popular with Spanish and South American women. The Spanish firm of Myrugia was already in on the game with Maja (1925) and Flor de Blason (1927). Everyone knows Maja because of the nearly ubiquitous soap, and the formula is still a great strategy against summer heat. Something about its sprightly dry florals seems to cool you and dry you simultaneously. Flor de Blason, meaning The Flower on the Coat of Arms, is rare now, though I did once see a bottle or two on Ebay.
Here is a genre so far out of fashion that it is just begging to come back. Canoe, which I know from the- ahem- deodorant, is still pretty terrific smelling. The deodorant costs about five dollars over at Harmon Drugs, and is much, much nicer than any number of fancy scents that I have sampled from niche perfumers. You can smell Canoe all the way through, it never goes dead or sour, and is perfectly wearable by women. If you can wear Chypre or Mitsouko, you can wear Canoe.
Still skeptical? Here is Luca Turin on the subject of said Canoe in his original Guide from 1994:
“The real poison is not the neon fruit compote of the same name that Dior inflicts upon us, it’s this vivacious creamy, scent of a poisonous flower head that the perfumery has chosen to call by the flattering name of ‘fougere’ to hide its synthetic origin. The descendant, they say, of the legendary Fougere Royale (Houbigant) and the ancestor of Brut (Faberge), Canoe is as bony and nervous as an Art Deco Pegasus. The pennants on the line that spell out its name (on the label) flap in the blue, electric atmosphere of a regatta held during the season of the Mistral. A perfume to wear with white flannel.”
See what I mean? And yet no one wears and no one comments on this perfume.
Then too, 20 Carats is back. The last time I heard of that scent, it had been briefly revived by a man whose mother had used the fragrance in the thirties and missed it, so he had a new batch made up for her, and I found out about it by reading that how-to manual for codgers, The Vermont Country Store Catalog. Subsequently, I stumbled across the Dana Classics site (nope, not affiliated) and found out about the re-issue. 20 Carats is thirty dollars for the bottle, which is just like the original one, and has little flakes of gold leaf floating in the perfume like wistful bits of social and economic aspiration in liquid suspension.
According to the company, it is a proper attempt at reconstruction with head-notes, heart-notes and a dry down. I’ve smelled a lot less than that many times in recent perfumes.
Perhaps we ought to stop being so gender specific, and so label conscious, and become a bit more intent on value for money. Anyway, my money is on one or another of these old formulas making a come back. I mean to say, if such Depression era fixtures as Fiestaware plates are back, why not fougeres for females?