Most of us are very clean. I’ve never met anyone interested in perfume who was not something of a clean freak. Maybe we don’t take three baths a day a la Tom Ford but we are very fussy about hygiene. So why do most of us just not like soap in our perfume?
Possibly the note seems old fashioned to us now. Back at the turn of the century though J Lo did have that hit of hers Glow. The whole idea there was freshness and something similar happened with Narciso Rodriguez’ Essence. I thought that the scents were nice enough and had the advantage of wearability in public places. However, both were modern soaps, and understated.
If you paddle further up the sudsy stream of soapy fragrances, past the eighties with such commonly noted soapies as Ivoire and as far as White Linen, you get slightly more emphatic soaps. These perfumes insist that you have remembered to scrub behind your ears. They are not merely clean, they are starched, especially in the case of White Linen, a perfume that almost crackles like sheets left too long on the line.
Starchier and more spotless still is Caron’s old Fleurs de Rocaille (note the plural, Fleur is different). This is a matronly perfume with a distinctly aldehydic clean overture to its springtime symphony of lilacs and roses. Older bottles begin to explain the perfume’s longtime hold on the public, but these days probably Fleurs is one of the Carons hardest to understand. It’s a bit like photos of the greatest 19th century beauties with their chubby faces and corset bisected bodies bursting out of sepia print. Difficult to detect beauty there, what did their customers see in them? The same gap exists between some of these old soapy numbers and current tastes.
Another superb soap fragrance now discontinued, is the green chypre Caline. This is the Jean Patou Caline by the way, not the Gres perfume of the same name. Caline was another one of those Patous that went on and on in the most fascinating way, like a perfume parade. But the introduction to everything else in the little circus march of Caline on skin, was a large arobatic soap note that summer-salted into the air and stayed up there for far too long.
I happen to love old Caline (which translates as Cuddly in French) but even I recoil slightly at all the soap. Particularly as Caline over time gets more and more well…dirty. After the soap you get a bouquet of fresh flowers and herbs: neroli, mimosa, basil and jasmine, unexpectedly coriander and iris, then a myrrh interim, before you are lost among tall patchouli grasses, woods and oakmoss. The perfume is still not finished because the woods are followed by an expansive earthy, musky amber.
Caline is a distant cousin of Coty’s L’Aimant, but the ladylike-ness of Caline’s beginning has worn off by the time the perfume ends. All of this, please notice, for teenaged girls back in 1964! The same girls who buy Paris Amour in plastic bottles from Bath and Bodyworks these days. Nothing so complex ever gets produced now, bar some efforts of Bertrand Duchaufour’s.
I thought frankly that soapy perfume was gone for good until I tried Cruel Gardenia again the other day and wore the scent for five hours or so. The beginning was soap alright. My daughter confirmed this, and I had to concur. Camay soap was my best guess. The perfume bubbled into a creamy mass of florals but eventually did harden into a gardenia mold; a lathery gardenia, perhaps a gardenia bath bar.
The initial impression though was with me for good, and that impression was: soap. I should have disliked it, but you know, maybe that soap was charming. Maybe I could live with that much cleanliness, although I suspect CG requires two showers a day.