Nina and the Arpege Monster

My husband’s grandmother Nina was a pioneer.  She was unfailingly chic long before Anna Wintour had been born to make the rest of us feel fat and blowsy, she was anorexic in the days before that disorder had been recognized, and she was a perfectionist long before the rest of us had developed OCD.  She was also a killer raconteur, a dresser of effortless style, and briefly, a concert pianist.  If you could come up with a word to sum up Nina, it probably was “impeccable”.  Her perfume was Arpege,  of course.

Why of course?  Well, back in the day there were perfumes that smelt cheap and that smelt expensive and Arpege was one of the ones that unfailingly smelled expensive, that is, on the right person. If you’re reading perfume blogs there’s an excellent chance you already know Arpege well from one or another of its incarnations, and therefore are already acquainted, if so, disregard the description.In the 1930’s, Arpege was an amber/floral bouquet with an aldehydic overture.  It was delicate and always appropriate, and it certainly wasn’t something that the help might put on of an evening off. (This stands in stark contrast to my Mom’s favorite Tabu which, of course, in the fifties, the help could, and did, put on.) The fifties were the days in which the advertising for Arpege in magazines was along the lines of “Mommy loves Arpege” scrawled in chalk on a sidewalk, or the more alluring: “Promise her anything, but give her Arpege.

No matter what her husband had promised her, Nina was in fact faithful to Arpege, for decades.  There was only one impediment to this longstanding union.  Arpege smelled – awful – on Nina. Not defcon  5 , but defcon 2 or 3 for sure, the dirty gym socks, or you-haven’t-taken-a shower-in-three-days sort of alarm, that level of olfactory distress.

Now this gets me into the choppy waters of skin chemistry.  Industry experts have been known to say that it doesn’t exist as a problem, while at the same time employing skin models to detect how well various perfumes perform on human skin.  I (for one) am a believer and partially because of the experiences of Nina, or at any rate, Nina’s near and dear.

This whole story was repeated to me because I had tried to wear Arpege soon after my honeymoon and Guts, usually the soul of tolerance, said, “Please, no more Arpege.”

So I gave up the Arpege.  It was too sophisticated for me anyway, and assumed that my husband found the memory of the lovely scent he associated with his deceased grandmother too melancholy to smell on his wife.  Well, one part of this assumption was correct.  He did find it painful, but not because it reminded him of his grandmother.  It was the combination of his grandmother’s skin and Arpege that was painful and any echo of Arpege replayed the whole unpleasant tune for him.

My husband’s aunt filled me in finally.  She said that Nina had always worn Arpege, and when I asked why the memory wasn’t a good one since, after all, isn’t Arpege always beautiful?  She rocked back on her heels, her hands in her pockets, and said, “Not. On. Her!”

So I suppose the moral of this story is that skin chemistry does in fact exist,and it pays to recognize the fact.  If you think that a lovely formula that smelled wonderful on your sister in law or friend does not smell so nice on you, you are probably correct and furthermore you should NOT use it.

The nose never lies.  It can for brief periods of time be misled to be sure, but on average your nose will always tell you the truth.  Don’t blame it, the truthfulness of your nose has saved you from eating spoiled food, and buying that house with the mold in the basement.  Your nose is far more honest than any girlfriend, employer, in-law or lover you will ever know.  If your nose tells you to stay away from a perfume, do so. Nina’s tragedy was that whether because of smoking, or prejudice, she felt information coming her way from such a source as a mere nose was unreliable.  It was a low, vulgar organ, occupying valuable real estate in the middle of her face and frankly, what did it know about fine French perfume?

Everything, it turns out.


All stories have two sides, and I should have run this one by my mother-in-law before writing it out.  She says not a bit of it, Arpege smelled just fine on Nina, and that the aunt’s notions were perhaps thrown off a bit by her own excessive smoking.  There could be something to that.  Said aunt was, I now recall, incapable of standing any perfume, so it is hardly surprising that this prejudice should extend to Arpege.

Still not sure what my husband’s problem with it is….


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10 thoughts on “Nina and the Arpege Monster

  1. Good lord. Could it have been something she regularly ate that metabolized, came out on her skin, and tussled with Arpege like a playground bully? (I had a colleague once who had a strong hankering for seafood– fresh, finned, shelled, canned, you name it, eaten every day without fail “to feed the brain”. No matter what lovely ‘fume she wore, it all smelled like fish after a while.)

    1. This would normally be a good point, but in this case, Nina, eat something? That happened as seldom as possible. But I have known people who turned fragrances pretty badly, a housemate in college did a number on Oscar de la Renta! Oh that was bad, and it took me ages to realize that it didn’t really smell like that. Skin I tells ya, that’s what it is.

  2. I’ve long thought that skin matters. For example, why does Coco Mademoiselle smell so harsh on most of the people who wear it, and so truly lovely on my sister? To be more specific, on her, CM smells a lot like modern Arpege does on *me.* Which is odd, because I wouldn’t have said the two had much in common at all.

    1. It certainly matters but what beats me is that Industry execs so often say it doesn’t. Take for instance an interview I once saw with that outspoken character JP Guerlain, and he said , “No, no the skin makes no difference if the perfume is properly made,” or words to that effect. But by now you and I know that just ain’t so, Joe. Contrast that with Guerlain trunk shows now, and the Guerlain reps will say, “No, no Madame must not wear that perfume.” For why, if skin makes no difference? All I know is that whenever Guerlain and I interface, the conversation always begins with “NO,NO.”

      1. Are you familiar with DelRae Bois de Paradis? I thought I’d like that one, but on my skin it’s a horrendous mishmash of turpentine and floor cleaner, followed by blueberry pancakes with maple syrup. Heeeeedious. “Madame must not wear that perfume.” No duh, Sherlock.

        1. Yeah, and oh boy did I have a reaction to that! Still living in CT at the time, I was driving my daughter home from pre-school and I’d previously stopped off at one of the boutiques in Westport that stocked the Deraes and dum de dum de dum, absent mindedly sprayed this little bottle of Bois de Paradis. Then I forgot about it and woah! it hit me in the car and I nearly drove off the road. Industrial strength blackberry jam and something so sweet that it made all my teeth ache at once. Never again! Other people however, love that stuff.

  3. Well, naturally I have to pipe up and say that Nina, my grandmother, probably smelled just fine in Arpege. My mother did indeed hate all perfume, though it’s a wonder she could smell anything, given her cigarette habit.

    1. Hiya Angie, Yes other family members including Barbara have made this same point. Once actually did have a perfume conversation with your mother and according to her (as I recall it) she was very sensitive to perfume and only liked two smells: Yardley’s Lavender and Love’s Lemon Soft. But I did wonder at the time how well she could smell, smoking as much as she did.

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