Perfumes for a Dame
My junior high school was ruled by perky blondes who believed in Jesus, football, and serious underage drinking. They figured out very early in life that the way to get ahead with the right boys was to play dumb. I will never forget the day I saw the smartest and meanest of these girls, my sworn enemy since the third grade, stop dead in the middle of an elaborate sharp-tongued insult to turn away from me and giggle shyly with one of these boys as he passed her in the hallway. Seconds before, she had been a lean, pointed thing, full of fierce energy. And then, without pause or effort, her face went empty, her body grew soft and round, and her voice went high and whispery sweet, as though to apologize for having anything to say at all.
I didn’t understand the drinking, and I wasn’t capable of shutting up which meant that I was incapable of playing dumb. I wanted to be with boys who could argue with me, and I valued a snappy comeback far more than good looks or popularity. I wasn’t sure what kind of girl that made me. I was too bad at sports and too good at flirting to be a tomboy, and while I had more than a dash of nerd I was way too bossy to be a real geek. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I stumbled into the world of classic Hollywood cinema and found out that what I’d wanted to be all along was a dame.
Specifically, I wanted to be Barbara Stanwyck. Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, Rosalind Russell, Jean Harlow, Tallulah Bankhead and Rita Hayworth are all fine dames and the indomitable Mae West belongs in her very own category, but for my money Barbara rules them all. (I stole the fine photo of her above—check out those lips!—from an excellent piece by Mark Feeney of the Boston Globe. Do check it out.) What these ladies have in common is a tough, unromantic view of the world and of men combined with a shining intelligence and a fearless, ferocious sex appeal built from the ground up, the hard way. In fact, everything about dames is built from the ground up, the hard way. The real life Stanwyck, like Crawford and a few others in my list, started out as a chorus girl, and while she could work a formal gown like nobody’s business she never lost her street smarts. Watching her, you have the feeling that if she woke up the next morning with all of her money gone she would be just fine. She’s been there before, and expected to be there again.
All of which makes Stanwyck and her compatriots excellent company for our current hard times. I’ve recently descended into the world of vintage perfumes. March from Perfume Posse has been posting on her yen for vintage Rochas’ Femme and red lipstick for awhile now, and it was her comment on Angela’s article on Perfumes for the New Year over on Now Smell This that got this party started. It can’t be an accident that all three of us are feeling the need for a little dame attitude, so I suspect that some of you are, too. We all know nothing captures an attitude like perfume. Well, my friends, what does a dame smell like?
The obvious place to start is with vintage leathers and chypres (and the glorious places they overlap) either in their original splendor or, when not totally decimated, their modern versions. Mitsouko and Femme head my list, along with Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, Caron’s Tabac Blond, Gres’ Cabochard, Piguet’s Bandit and Lanvin’s Scandal. A dame in a softer mood might try on a little Vol de Nuit. On the other hand, a dame in evening wear might just go for a room clearing, take-no-prisoners white floral. The photo of Stanwyck and Henry Fonda is a scene from The Lady Eve in which card shark Jean seduces the hapless Hopsy, a millionaire just back from two years up the Amazon without women. She is speaking to him about common sense matters, but for some reason he can’t concentrate. He keeps murmuring “That perfume…” and I can’t help thinking that she’s wearing Fracas.
It’s true the past ten years have favored perfumes for girls who play dumb but we can’t just live in the past. How about some less obvious scents for the modern dame? The earthy snap of a good vetiver, a bit of rough patchouli or some smoke might be an excellent replacement for the lost leathers of old. I’ll nominate Paloma Picasso’s Mon Parfum for the dame who needs a good discount on her perfume, and how about Vero Kern’s Onda for the dame who is temporarily flush and Jasmin et Cigarette for the dame who is midway up the ladder? Bulgari Black might work on a slightly intellectual dame, a dame in cool horn-rimmed glasses and a black turtleneck, say. Reaching across the aisle, I think a dame on her day off might enjoy a little Knize Ten or Terre d’Hermes.
I could go on like this all day, but I’d rather hear what you think. What perfumes make you feel like a real dame?
And when you’re done telling me, go check out Angela’s post on dame perfumes over at Now Smell This and March’s post on Perfume Posse.