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Monday, January 26, 2009

Perfumes for a Dame

By Alyssa

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.



Blogger tmp00 said...

Well, I don't know what would make me smell like a dame. I think that although I am a dame in some ways. I prefer to leave that to the real dames. I think that Onda, Tuberose Criminelle and Noir Epices could be great dame scents.

Oh, and a return to bias-cut silk would be really nice too.

12:42 AM EST  
Blogger Lucy in the Sky with Rhinestones said...

I love the way you describe the Dame but I'm struggling with the concept. I always picture that sort to be wearing a really heady rose-incense blend, or a rich amber, and to my great horror I have not yet found the right perfume that epitomizes that sensuality yet. (The closest I've come are my own concoctions made of essential oils.)

1:06 AM EST  
Blogger Beth Schreibman Gehring said...

Fabulous...absolutely fabulous! i enjoyed every morsel of your review! For my money, nothing says dame on me like Serge Lutens Datura Noir. The other would be Fracas...absolute bombshell in a bottle. But the Serge makes me feel unbelievably sexy and strong! ANd I almost forgot...if I could find the vintage Magie Noire perfume, that would do it everytime. One of the toughest dames I know, a women who single handedly built a steel empire in Cleveland and lost it all only to regain it again wore that one and I loved it so much she gave me her bottle. I wish I could find some of it...amazing!

1:57 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

This is such a great idea - I already nominated Jolie Madame, Rochas Absolu and Lelong pour Femme over at the Posse, but I also agree with Tom re: Tubereuse Criminelle and with Beth about Datura Noir - now that's one dangerous Dame! (And I would totally kill for some vintage Magie Noire, please.) You have listed some truly great Dame perfumes.

Barbara Stanwyck is also my own favorite movie dame, I totally worship her. I was surprised to discover that she had trouble finding leading parts early in her career because she wasn't "pretty" enough, which was the same problem Bette Davis had. I always thought of her as beautiful without being pretty, and she aged about as well as anyone could hope for - when she was on The Big Valley she outshone every other actor, especially poor Linda Evans, who will never, ever be a Dame.

2:37 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too worship at the altar of Barbara Stanwyck. So glad you guys did this post. Might have to spritz a little Bandit today in honor of it.

5:15 AM EST  
Blogger Marina said...

'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.'
What a great description! Bravo!

7:26 AM EST  
Blogger Alyssa said...


Well I'd have to see you to really know what would Dame you up, but surely there is *something*. Tuberose Criminelle would be a great evening Dame scent!

P.S. My ID word for you is "mench", so how about that...

9:47 AM EST  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Lucy--I find our differences in perception very interesting. Maybe it's because I associate rose-incense and ambers with my courtesan side that I have trouble imagining them on a dame. I wish you luck in finding your own sensual perfume.

9:49 AM EST  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Beth -- thanks! Magie Noir, absolutely! And I can totally see Joan Crawford in Datura Noir.

9:50 AM EST  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Flora, I wish I could love Jolie Madame. I can see Bette Davis in those violets. I've never smelled the Lelong, but would love to.

We just watched "Night Nurse," one of Stanwyck's very early, pre-code movies, and she's so funny and young in it. She hasn't fully come into her own yet, and you can see why they would think she wasn't pretty enough. It took me a long time to understand her beauty, but I never had trouble with the attitude.

9:55 AM EST  
Blogger Alyssa said...

MattS--I wish I could settle down to a Stanwyck festival with you!

9:56 AM EST  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Marina -- if anyone knows what a dame is like it is you.

9:57 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd rather feel a dame than feel like one.

10:37 AM EST  
Blogger marchlion said...

Oh, I love those wonderful photos! And I love the way you spelled out the connection between the current hard times and vintage perfumes ... honestly I hadn't thought about it, but maybe that's what's got me jonesing so hard for the red lips and vintage scents. I see we picked a fair number of the same scents!

11:07 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barbara Stanwyck is absolutely the dame ne plus ultra! I wish I had every perfume you listed in your post (although I think I'm on the way...).

11:30 AM EST  
Blogger Ducks said...

Oh, for me it is definitely Mitsouko. I feel larger than life, taut and poised and angular and competent, in Mitsouko.

Great post!

11:46 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your description of what makes a dame a dame is spot-on!

And I think it's also what is making a lot of us channel our Inner Dame now, as the world continues to shift under our feet ever 32 seconds, it seems.

I've definitely been called a dame a time or two in my life. I wear the old, big scents like Fracas and Bal and Mitsouko....current big'uns, not so much. Haven't quite found it, though two violets are creeping up on me...

11:58 AM EST  
Blogger Alyssa said...

March--yes, I think its partly historical, but it also has something to do with dame self-sufficiency, no? There is something about those vintage leathers and chypres that just says "I don't give a good goddamn what you or anyone else thinks!" And therein lies there tremendous sex appeal.

1:23 PM EST  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Lee-- Ba dum DUM!

(And you *know* it ain't true.)

1:24 PM EST  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Angela -- you mean you don't? I'm shocked! Shocked! We'll have to see what we can do about that. ;)

1:26 PM EST  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Ducks -- me too. In fact, the first time I put on vintage Mitsouko I though (shockingly) "I could wear this every day of my life."

Musette--As I wrote this I kept thinking of that photo of you on Perfume Posse in your motorcycle leathers. I'm betting you are a modern dame all the way.

1:29 PM EST  
Blogger Unknown said...

Oh, I do love Barbara Stanwyck. I imagine her in something beguiling and deceptively sweet in The Lady Eve -- Chanel 22, perhaps? -- the better to ensnare poor innocent Henry Fonda. But in Double Indemnity, it would be all straightforward dangerous seduction -- Tabac Blond, perhaps, or Molinard Habanita.

Of course, as several people in this thread have already mentioned, Mitsouko would be perfect for Stanwyck in any film -- beautiful but not pretty, difficult, and dead sexy.

12:29 AM EST  
Blogger Unknown said...

what a delight it was to read this, and what a strange feeling it is, with every great piece, that one feels it describes an important part of one's own self. I agree with tmp00 that Noir Epices could be easily added to the list, and, the day following Knize Ten, perhaps some Ombre Fauve.

6:23 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The vintage leathers and chypres (Bandit, Miss Dior, Miss Balmain which is a little more floral). Jean-Louis Scherrer 1, a big green chypre. Bal or Femme, and for a floral it would have to be a tuberose -- Fracas or Carnal Flower. All worn with attitude, as in, "If my perfume offends you, feel free to step outside."

9:23 AM EST  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Jean -- I was just thinking last night that I had left off Habanita, thanks so much for adding it to the list.

Eleven-- "the day following" -- oh my, yes. There is always that day with a dame... I'm so glad you liked the post.

Olfacta--Yes! That's the attitude exactly!

11:23 AM EST  
Blogger Tissot said...

Is it acceptable to make antisemitic remarks, or anti-muslim? It seems that anti-christian asides are acceptable in your blog. I come to read about fragrances and have to read such bigotry in the first paragraph. Why is your bigotry ok?

4:00 PM EST  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Dear Tissot,

My description was not at all intended as anti-Christian (or anti-football, though I do comment that I never understood the under-age drinking). It was an accurate, if slightly exaggerated description of the milieu of my junior high. I know lots of Christian women who are sharp as tacks, don't drink, and prefer to watch hockey. Perhaps I should have mentioned them. I'm sorry you were offended.

7:39 PM EST  
Blogger Islay said...

What a beautifully-written post, and a pleasure to read! The way you describe your growing-up year, we could have been kindred spirits; wonder how many of us are really out there? I have always loved Barbara Stanwyck, who is known to have said that she would never play a victim, though she would play a woman who was victimised - a true dame if ever there was one! Here's to all the dames out there!

6:12 AM EDT  

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