Musk and Victoria

Victorian looking soulful and wearing a sapphire. Winterhalter is the painter

Victorian looking soulful and wearing a sapphire.
Winterhalter is the painter

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.

Winterhalter again this time the subject is the Empress Eugenie

Winterhalter again this time the subject is the Empress Eugenie

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 Victorians loved beauty...

The Victorians loved beauty…

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.

They just enjoyed divorcing beauty from sensuality...

They just enjoyed divorcing beauty from sensuality…

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.

Winterhalter again and just like the pink in this painting, musk adds something to a composition.

Winterhalter again and just like the pink in this painting, musk adds something to a composition.

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
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5 thoughts on “Musk and Victoria

  1. So entertaining! I am making my way through the current Victoria miniseries, and so I am tickled to learn that the historical Victoria may have been as frisky as her dramatic characterization. For myself, I enjoy vintage musks very much, not as sure about contemporary ones. I haven’t tried Musc Intense (will try to check it out) but I’ve recently tried Musc Koublai Khan, Salome, Anubis, Kiehl’s Musk, Peau de Bête, all of the Eris perfumes, and was very underwhelmed. Salome was probably the best of the bunch, but it had a sharp tang that I didn’t enjoy. I would love to hear about good musky perfumes (not the clean detergent musks).

    • It sounds to me as if you have made a pretty good roundup of musky perfumes, but check out Patty’s lists on Perfume Posse, and I will add that floral musks like Narciso Rodriguez’s and Montale’s Ginger Musk give you a softer less furry (shall we say?) take on musks. My current fave Musc Intense is as much about Turkish rose and carnation as musk.
      And I think Victoria was a little bit frisky- don’t you think- to survive the weight of all that ceremonial?

  2. LOL about Albert appreciating Victoria’s perfume, based on the number of their offspring. I think I am neutral on musk, and nowadays tend to prefer the slightly roughed up to the clean laundry kind, though that wasn’t always the way. Favourites are Musc by Mona di Orio, Musc Nomade by Annick Goutal, and Meharees, the bargain knock off of Musc Ravageur, that is slightly easier to wear. By contrast, L’Artisan’s L’Ete en Douce I had to give away because of its surfeit of fabric cleaner musk.

    • Now Meharees is something we ran into last June on Malta at the Erbolario shop there. They were very sweet and gave us oodles of samples to use and one of them was Meharees which stuck in my mind as something you had liked but it immediately connected with my daughter, though I thought it smelled extremely nice and was about to lay claim when… “This is good,” she said while carrying off the sample. That was the last I saw of it. She smelled very pretty.

      Musc Nomade is something I should revisit. When they came out I was distracted by the Myrrhe and probably should not have been.

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