Catherine Donzel writing about national preferences in Le Parfum puts it like this: “Industrial perfumery must take into account cultural habits. Therefore in Britain detergents are often scented with patchouli: it’s a fragrance that the English have appreciated for a long time….In France it’s another matter: since forever cleanliness is associated with the odor of lavender.”
This statement surprised me somewhat since quite frankly I would have guessed it to be the other way around. That perception might have been different had I been able to visit men’s clubs. The greatest perfumes that came out of England – and there have been several – are for men. Ladies may be getting more attention these days because of niche perfumery, but in the past, the very best English perfumery was masculine.
I’m not sure why. It may be a question of fashion generally. The English, after all, invented modern tailoring. James Laver in Costume and Fashion writes: “…Frenchmen plainly accepted English dress as the law (after 1802). This was due in no small degree to the superior skill of London tailors, trained to work in wool broadcloth. Such cloth, unlike light silk and other flimsy materials, can be stretched and molded to the body…Such snug fitting was the very essence of dandyism, and George Brummel prided himself on the fact that his clothes did not show a single wrinkle….”
The dandy was the unprecedented fashion plate in Britain, for novel reasons: good taste, excellent fit, and understatement. Coco Chanel tried to emulate that sartorial equation for women, but she never solved successfully for X, because the missing variable was form. In dress, the dandy was the master of sobriety, never display or excess, because he had perfection of form, something which women with higher body fat ratios have trouble replicating.
So how did the dandy smell?
The suggestion is that he didn’t. He washed. This was a revolutionary concept for the time. Brummel felt that washing was part of a dandy’s style.Cleanliness differentiated him from the foppish, snuff dipping, bewigged and flea ridden exquisites of his father’s generation who radiated heavy perfume along with their body odor.
Still, at some point in his career, the nineteenth century dandy was going to pick up a bottle of scent. Heavy animalics with their suggestion of laisser allez personal hygeine were clearly out. The Dandy instead chose citrus scents.
For this choice we may partially thank Napoleon who was so attached to Eau de Cologne. British versions such as Trumper’s Extract of Limes were based on the limes that the British could import from the West Indies, and that fact is preserved in the name: Extract of West Indian Limes. This bracing citrus cologne has no base notes, and was ideal for the freshly shaved dandy.
Later the perfectly tailored ventured into scents with a dry down. Early versions of this sort of thing can be found in D’Orsay’s Ettiquette Bleu, a citrus floral with a sprig of rosemary in the heart notes. Although Ettiquette Bleue contains sandalwood and rosewood, the fragrance is light and has no animalic ingredients.
Blenheim Bouquet on the other hand, has been on the market for over a hundred years now and the combination of lemon, lime, fir, pepper and musk has made the bouquet a mainstay for many people over the century. This light but piquant perfume has fascinated users and
is one of the masterpieces of British perfumery. Floris 89 is another wonderful scent. These days it contains geranium and rose under the citrus veneer, but the woody dry down featuring vetiver, sandalwood , Virginia cedar and musk is wonderful. No 89 is another dandy perfume, clean, but simultaneously sophisticated and discreet. Compared to today’s dense ouds, 89 is light as well as elegant.
Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet is yet another one of the British compositions that everyone should seek out once, even older than Blenheim Bouquet (which it resembles) the perfume was composed in 1872 and contains lime and lavender over jasmine, rose and cedarwood,but the ambery sandalwood base anchored with musk is one of its glories, and Hammam is a fragrance that users seem to grow into and to be able to wear for a lifetime.
Other great British perfumes of the past seem now to be lost. Crown Perfumery’s Eau de Quinine appears to be on that list. This with is connotations of malarial postings reminds us of Britain’s once far reaching empire, and the mandatory tours of duty to places with sub tropical weather. If you once thought that denizens of Wiltshire survived these postings on Kipling, whiskey and stiff upper lips, now you know they also packed …Eau de Quinine.
Currently the British appear to be emulating everyone else out there in perfume markets. I do wish that they would not. British quirkiness is part of British chic, as George Brummel demonstrated two hundred years ago. Be yourself to the maximum of your capabilities was his style lesson. Everyone else will fall into line.