Sometimes the Victorians are good fun. Not intentionally fun, you understand because they took themselves pretty seriously. They’re fun in the sense that they are always jostling one another to take home first prize in the propriety contest. That competition was such a feature of the 19th century, “I’m really much more respectable than you dear.” The losers were not respectable, and their behavior was not in good taste, or “not for common consumption”, as my mother used to say.
Well it seems that Victoria herself came in for some criticism from those dreaded taste doyennes of the 19th century: parisiennes. You see the queen had musk in her perfume. The flap occurred in 1855 during a state visit to France that Victoria and Albert made and although Victoria passed muster on most of the tricky parts of being judged a great lady (which was a potholed parade ground if ever there was one) her perfume did not.
In the first place she- shudder- wore one. ” A good-mannered woman does not wear any perfume. She leaves them to women of easy virtue, for whom they are the exclusive prerogative.” * this set the chaperones and matrons cackling into their fans to begin with, but then things got worse. Someone with a perceptive nose detected the odor of musk buried deep in the bouquet the queen wore. Scandale!
Their own recently acquired empress Eugenie was to help the fortunes of the Guerlains by adopting Eau de Cologne Imperiale. She had received the scent in 1853 as a wedding gift and liked the formula so much that Guerlain acquired the cachet of supplying the Imperial couple, and could call the stuff Imperiale; but the point not to lose sight of was that the empress wore cologne. The fragrance was light, lemony, fugitive and there was no musk.
The tastes of the day followed fashions just as much as they do now and spurned musk. ” It is fashionable to say you do not like musk…” wrote a perfumer about his clients and their taste in 1850s Paris. The savvy businessman would always say that his product did not contain musk, However, “Any perfume that will contain some musk will always be what the public prefers.” *
So what you had to do was stay on the down low about perfume ingredients and that sounds a great deal like what perfumers are apt to do these days for a large number of reasons. Also I notice some striking similarities to the present day when perfume wearing is often considered tasteless, inconsiderate, and is even sometimes forbidden in schools and offices.
What I want to know is which perfume Victoria wore to cause such commentary from the Paris press corps? Possibly she wore one of the Grossmith perfumes, since that house dates to 1835 and she was known to patronize them, but no one can be sure.
All I can say is that I hope Albert enjoyed the perfume, whatever it was, and considering how many children that pair had, he probably did.
As for the fate of musk, it is still out there in its several- mostly synthetic- forms today, and many critics, collectors, and enthusiasts, still like to say that they don’t like musk.
You know, I’d like to say the same. But I happen to know that I wear Parfums de Nicolai’s Musc Intense quite often, and so like Queen Victoria, can’t really duck under the velvet rope of good taste.
What’s your feeling on musk? Do you like it? Do you hate it? Or do you find it overused currently?
- Baronne Staffe, Regles de Savoir Vivre p.334
- Fashion Sprayed and Displayed, F. Briot p.4