A few weeks ago I took a friend to my local “palace” of fragrance, The Perfume House. She was in search of a new perfume suitable for colder weather. Knowing some of her preferences from sharing samples with her, I made a master list of classics for her to try as a baseline and I threw in a few others in the styles I thought she would like. We went through Mitsouko, Femme, Indiscret and many other time-tested scents as well as the newer Serge Lutens and Montale perfumes. My friend prefers woody, mossy and green notes, so my selections included plenty of those, and in fact she ended up liking on of my own favorites best: Jean Louis Scherrer’s original scent, a gorgeously deep woody chypre which I had actually worn a lot many years ago and which I still love. However, one of her other “finalists” was Bal á Versailles, the legendary 1962 scent from Jean Desprez. I fell in love with it all over again myself in the course of nearly four hours of trying on scents. Well, the perfume gods were smiling on me, because I just had a birthday, and my friend surprised me with a bottle of it – have I mentioned that she is a very good friend?
In our family we have a jokingly vulgar tradition of teasing whoever has just put on perfume to go out by saying “You smell like a French wh**e!” Well, in the case of Bal á Versailles, I really do smell somewhat like an, ahem, courtesan, hetaera, gentleman’s companion, or whatever you want to call it. (In a good way, of course.) When I first tried it out of the bottle, it had been many years since I sniffed it, and in the interim I had discovered Balmain’s Jolie Madame. The first thing I thought of was: Wow, this is Jolie Madame’s naughty sister! BIG hit of “grown-up perfume” right off the bat; an impressively indolic jasmine and orange blossom opening paired with a rather sticky rose, a deliciously dirty animalic base note combination of civet, musk and ambergris and lots of sweet spicy amber. I was too young to handle this when I first sampled it years ago – and now is the time for me to embrace the authority of this big, powerful iconic perfume. Oddly, considering the notes involved, once it develops on me it never gets really huge sillage like say, Fracas, but rather it stays closer to the skin. It is very strong, yes, but it does not operate in attack mode, it just smolders and simmers and keeps it up for hours. (Mine is only the EDT and I can’t imagine what need I would have for a stronger formulation, though EDP and Parfum are available.)
This is one of those bold Floral-Oriental style scents that walks the fine edge between classy and a bit too much, and I think it does that perfectly. Naturally, one must choose a scent carefully as the occasion warrants, and I would not personally wear it to a job interview. However, though it is clearly intended to be an evening perfume, I have worn it for day and I did not feel that it was too much. I would refrain from wearing it if I were going to be in a very small room with other people, unless that room happened to contain candlelight and wine and a dark-eyed handsome man.
Bal à Versailles is also one of those perfumes that brings back a lost world for those old enough to recall it, a world of where going out at night for a special event meant putting on red lipstick and jewelry and your best dress, and your man wore black tie or at least a really nice suit, and perhaps opera gloves were even involved. (Am I the only one who wishes that the latter were not relegated mostly to the realm of stage costumes or dominatrix porn these days?) Putting on a strong “statement scent” like this that makes you feel more than a little bit dramatic can almost make you think those days never went away. Of course, there is really no such thing as “the good old days”, but parts of them were worth keeping. I have been to gala concerts in very nice halls where people in the audience wore flannel shirts and jeans and even brought in boxed pizza. Is it really that hard to make an effort to look nice, or behave as though something special is worth one’s complete attention? For me, wearing a perfume of this deeply womanly style makes me want to live up to it somehow. Yes, I wear fragrance for myself, and I frequently wear it even when I am home alone, but when I am getting dressed for battle, so to speak, it helps to have the right armor. Bal à Versailles fills this role to perfection – slinky yet elegant, highly civilized yet with a feral undertone, it’s for women who know who they are and what they want, and if that includes vamping it up in a sexy dress and your very best come-get-me shoes, so much the better. Okay, so I don’t actually own a pair of shoes like that, but wearing this perfume makes me feel as though I do.
Bal à Versailles is widely available in better perfume shops and on the Internet, and comes in Eau de Toilette, Eau de Parfum, Parfum, shower gel, soap and more. It can easily be had for a discounted price. Its exact list notes seems to be a closely guarded secret, though many of them are quite obvious.
Image credits: Bottle from beautique.com. Undated photo of supermodel Yasmeen Ghauri from For The Love of Opera Gloves.