Monthly Archives: April 2013

Chypre Freak

I am obsessed, obsessed, obsessed with perfume right now, as only I can be – to the exclusion of everything else, like unpacking boxes, paying bills, fixing dinner.  Since I can think of little else, I’m going to rant about the world of perfume and the even more amazing world of perfume writing.  Ever been in a restaurant with a fantastic wine list, or read a poetic label and thought, “Okay, I can’t even taste these aspects of chocolate-lavender-supple tannins, but it is good,” as you poured a glass?  The world of perfume is like that, only more so.

Ever since reading Denyse Beaulieu’s The Perfume Lover, I’ve been learning about a whole new way of knowing, of linking your personal experience, body chemistry, and memories with some technical terms like “accord,”  “top notes,” and “dry down.”   It’s a form of Proustian  indulgence and expertise.  The writing is so seductive that I won’t even waste more time.  See for yourself:

“But what kept me interested were the film-noirish twists and turns of Bandit’s plot: a languid, jasmine, tuberose and gardenia heart, caught up between the earthy green galbanum and bitter artemisia of the top notes and the dark, smoky-leathery base notes  . . . a crawl through a garden, wet earth and grass sticking to her stockings; a tar-roof shed where she shares black-market American cigarettes with a hunted man ….” (Denyse Beaulieu on Robert Piguet’s 1947 Bandit perfume).

Or, Luca Turin writing about the same perfume’s reissue of the 1947 original, comparing it to a “vintage” aircraft that has lots of reconstructed parts:

“This version of the 1947 original is a bit like a reconstructed Bell X-1 supersonic aircraft: sleek, beautifully done, and a mite too clean, as if ready for a movie shoot.  But the magic is all there:  bitter, dark yet fresh, beguiling without any softness, and still several unlit streets ahead of of every other leather chypre around.” (Perfumes:  The Guide)

Film noir, mid century planes, tar . . . sign me UP!  Even without my laptop for a week, I snuck onto my dad’s computer, whipped out my credit card, and ordered my first 1.7 fluid oz of Bandit (thank god they still make it!) that has changed my life.   This is a good starter perfume for me, because its appeal explains a whole lot.   I hate girly, flowery fragrances, and  I can never find anything in a department store, or in magazine samples, that I like.  Also, I’ve always been drawn to men’s cologne more than women’s fragrances.  Bandit is unisex.  It is strong and it stinks (in a good way).  The only thing around that I can compare it to in mainstream contemporary perfume experience is Clinique’s Aromatics Elixir, a kickass, smoky stink bomb of a perfume that you would get you thrown out of your allergist’s office asap.  At age 47, with a houseful of unusual shit, years of adventure as a single woman, and questionable taste, I’ve earned the right to wear Bandit.

Perfume writing has validated some kinkiness in my sense of smell.  It’s okay to like smells of dirt, gasoline, aged cheese, and yes, that whiff of skin-and-sex that perfume writers actually do call “skank.”   The original formulation of Elsa Schiaparelli’s  1937 perfume Shocking, says the fearless Denyse Beaulieu, contains notes of unwashed panties. Good lord. I’m learning that many perfumes today are tamed down and lobotomized from their original versions.  Anything mass marketed for women nowadays has to appeal to berry smoothie- loving girls who giggle around the mall and would wrinkle their noses at anything like an unwashed XXX  (insert gross body part and  shrieks here).

Some of the scents I’ve tried lately (before my husband put a temporary stay on my experimentation) are Incense Avignon (think the smoky incense you smelled at mass if you went to Catholic school), and Vanille Absolutement  (like old Havana supposedly smelled, with notes of waterfront vanilla, tobacco, and rum).  They are not pretty, but they are compelling and interesting.  The author of these particular fragrances is Bertrand Duchaufour, a perfumer with cult status (think winemaker Dave Phinney), a mix master who extracts life essences and bottles them.  He collaborated with Denyse Beaulieu on Seville a L’Aube, a scent memory of a night she wandered the streets of Seville during a religious festival with her lover, a sensory mix of orange blossom, candle wax, and her lover’s lingering cigarettes.  Last time I checked, this new cult-favorite had mixed reviews but was sold out.  (God, people, the perfume blogs are astounding!)

I’ve also learned that many of the perfumes I’ve always been drawn to — Halston, Aromatics Elixir, Cristalle Chanel — three very different fragrances, are different faces of a common genre:  chypre.  Chypre is a citrus and oakmoss blend,  often with headier patchouli undernotes,  and it’s divided into leather chypres, green chypres, citrus chypres, fruity chypres, and more.

I am taking baby steps down a rabbit hole.  I can tell this will be a long, hard addiction for me.  Yesterday, my therapist and I spent at least a quarter of an  hour, chatting as we often do around my ADD-fueled fixations, about his favorite Creed colognes.

There are some smells that even I don’t want to smell in bottle form.  The first day that I finally broke down and got a Brevard County library card,  I was accosted by an all-too-familiar stench.  The man standing next to me browsing new books looked dapper, but he had alcohol oozing from his pores.  This is a Florida retiree smell, or a parent who drunk-drives their kid to the library right after dinner (What?! You didn’t tell me this was due tomorrow!), frustrated because they’ve been working on job applications all day and finally just say “fuck it” at 5 o’clock when the kids are home from school and they think they’re done for the day.  What would an artisan perfumer call this smell?  “Biblioteque Publiques?”   Top notes of  bracing gin-and-tonic, poignant undercurrents of sweat and Scope mouthwash, balanced by heady accords of paper and book glue, drying down to a finish of dust, and the hearty combat of air conditioning versus humidity.   Hmmmm… come to think of it,  that does sound interesting.  Go for it, Bertrand!

English: Perfume formulas 1910

English: Perfume formulas 1910 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



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Really, TJ?


I must confess crushes on dead men.  The list goes on and on.  George Gershwin, Humphrey Bogart, Sam Phillips . . . .  Maybe it’s all those black and white photos  of men with slicked back hair that would make anybody look yummy.  Maybe it’s the fact that their whole lives and accomplishments are weighed and presented in full balance, and you don’t have to see gross gut shots in People magazine as they romp in neon swim trunks in St. Tropez.   Any time in the past when I announce to my girlfriends that I have a new crush, they ask, “Alive or dead?”

So, Thomas Jefferson.  Obviously, no black and white photos of him, more’s the pity. Here’s what I like about him:  tall, rangy, red haired, great writer, musician, thinker, horseman, wine connoisseur, architect, a shy man compelled to play out his convictions in fields of law and politics, which was incredibly grating to someone with his thin skin.  His wife thought he was hot, too.  Every time he returned to Monticello from the stage of national politics, she got pregnant.  Finally,  after one childbirth too many, she weakened and died.  In 1782 on her deathbed, Martha Wayles Skelton wrote out an excerpt from Tristam Shandy:

Time wastes too fast: every letter
I trace tells me with what rapidity
life follows my pen. The days and hours
of it are flying over our heads like
clouds of windy day never to return–
more. Every thing presses on–

Thomas Jefferson finished it in his own hand:

and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!

Sigh.  Martha had suffered the dominion of a stepmother from hell, and she extracted a pretty harsh promise from TJ that he would never remarry, so their own children would never endure the same treatment.   Hence, his long relationship  — and  more children — with one of his black slaves, Sally Hemings, the only physically intimate relationship he could pursue without dishonoring his wife’s memory.  So, here’s what’s not to love about Thomas Jefferson: slaveowner.  There are exhaustive discussions that place him as a man of his times, and plenty of evidence to suggest that he truly believed slavery was wrong, that he freed some of his slaves, that he attempted to introduce anti-slavery legislation early in his career as a Virginia politician.  The reality of it, however, was that his entire way of life revolved around slavery.
Last fall, my friends Heather and Patricia and I visited Monticello.  The tour of Mulberry Row and its slave quarters is incredibly thought-provoking and sensitively presented.  I thought so, anyway.  Heather said the whole thing gave her the heebie jeebies.  We looked out over the gorgeous valley and farmland of Monticello, and I wondered things like,  “How can I have a “Sublime Men” board on Pinterest and have both Thomas Jefferson and  black jazz genius Dizzy Gillespie, for instance?”  As a southern woman with slave owning ancestors, I cannot truly even explain or excuse my own complex attitudes about interracial politics and relationships.   I asked myself if I would allow such a romantic fascination with TJ if I were black.
A few months later,  I’m driving to North Carolina, listening to Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson and the Art of Power on CD.   Discussing Jefferson’s engineering of the Louisiana Purchase and the subsequent settling of the West, Meacham indicates that Jefferson assumed Native Americans would happily assimilate into white society within a decade or so, and if they didn’t, then blast them to hell and relocate their asses (which Andrew Jackson was only too happy to do).  This wholesale trompling over Native American lands, this assumption that the entire western United States was ours to claim, is ironically echoed in the grand reception room of Monticello.  The room that greeted Jefferson’s visitors and now greets tour groups is covered with Indian artifacts — skins, attire, weapons, etc…..  Jefferson collected the trappings of their culture as an object of study.   This attitude of objectification is the indirect reason why Vail, Colorado is  now a luxury ski resort and why many Native Americans are driving around in old pickup trucks on reservations, eating government cheese, unless they’re part of a minority casino-powered elite.
As the framing author of our Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had foresight and thoughtfulness.  He knew slavery was wrong.  I just find it puzzling that he didn’t extend the same thoughtfulness to Native Americans.   He found it upsetting when people chopped down trees all around Washington, D.C., but as president, he did nothing to stop them because he respected their individual freedom to acquire, settle, and shape land as they saw fit.  What about the freedoms of the original people of America?  What about the trees that they grew and loved?
People are complex.  Many Native Americans were slave owners.  It’s unfair to judge people by the way their political maneuverings play out after their deaths.  But still.  Soon after Jefferson’s death, the Trail of Tears manifested as a tragic result of westward expansion:
In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. “To be free,” he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We … watch the expulsion … of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.
—- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America[
Would Thomas Jefferson have been affected by this scene?  Probably.  Would he have been upset that his beloved trees were used to lynch black men in the Jim Crow south?  I’m sure.  Do I excuse his attitudes?  No.  I think,  “Really, Thomas Jefferson?”  Do I still think he was brilliant and complex.  Yes.  Will I read another book about him?  Yes.
If I had one of those imaginary dinner parties where I could invite anybody from history,  I would probably
still include Jefferson.  And Dizzy Gillespie.  (Not Miles Davis, because he was just too angry, and would kick TJ’s ass.)  And Flannery O’ Conner.  And Frank Lloyd Wright (even at the risk of that know-it-all dominating the conversation).  Elsa Schiaparelli, maybe.  All these people are capable of discussing art and music without arguing politics.  And I, for one, would be eager to get TJ’s opinion of The Prisoner  and other wines under the Orin Swift label.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (Photo credit: cliff1066™)


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Night and Day or My Passion for Fashion

All right, I am here to admit that I spend at least a third of my day reading fashion blogs, pinning fashion images, and reading fashion related books.  Not so surprising from a girl who had a subscription to Vogue when she was eleven years old.  Why did I not become a fashion writer?  Who the hell knows … thin skin, lack of drive, whatever, I’m not going to bemoan that fact that I’m not front and center at shows gazing with imperious rapture at greyhound girls striding with metronomic precision to trance inducing house music.   Thanks to the Internet and YouTube, any provincial fashionista can scout the collections while eating PopTarts in her pajamas.

My life took a different turn.  Because my budget never stretched to designer pieces, I happily turned to collecting vintage and thrift store pieces like a pig to slop.  I have a vast, eccentric wardrobe that allows me to mix and match decades, fabrics, and textures at whim and will.  Every day hatches a new costume.   For years, I was a tiny size 0 to 3, and I could wear anything.  Nowadays, “the menopause” has transformed me into a chunkier, curvier size 6 to 8 and I don’t photograph thin anymore.  It sucks, but no matter.   When I look at fashion editorials and watch Fashion Week shows, my internal thinking has shifted from “how would I look in that?” to “what is the concept behind these clothes?”   My double chin is forcing me to have an “a-ha” moment with fashion, a moment I would’ve had a long time ago if I actually worked in the industry.

It’s commonplace for folks who live in the so-called “real world” outside the glass dome of the fashion industry to say “what the FUCK is that?” and ridicule the sometimes-outrageous visions they see on the runway.  It’s a concept, people, it’s a concept!  Like a prototype at an auto show, get it?!?  This is one reason why, by the time we see designer gowns on celebrities, we see the pretty, safer, watered down version of the conceptually extreme, weird, breathtaking visions that were on the runway, and woe betide the celeb who dares to wear anything unusual, or that person is ridiculed in every laundromat entertainment rag from here to China.

My a-ha moment started with images from Dries van Noten’s fall 2013 collection.  The informal tag is “the Fred and Ginger collection,” or “Night and Day,”  because DvN sent models down the runway in feather and fringe confections reminiscent of Ginger’s Rogers’  famous blue feather dress in  the movie Top Hat.  Underneath the fringe, though, were men’s trousers and clunky oxfords.  To a conventional eye, it ruins the effect.  To a fashion eye, it is about the “Night and Day,” of masculine and feminine, the crisp swagger of menswear balanced by a frothy, feminine goddess.   To me, menswear slouch is sexy, particularly on women, and many of us love to dress with both masculine and feminine elements.   I feel powerful and sexy wearing a tailored suit with men’s shoes, although I enjoy how a beautiful dress transforms my body.  Fashion is identity, and that is what Dries van Noten has captured.  We all have masculine and feminine elements.   It feels indulgent, but somehow evolved, to acknowledge both at once, in the same look!

Night and Day

Night and Day

In an interview with fashion blog star Garance Dore, Dries van Noten said he purposefully put his models in flat oxfords and watched their runway strides transform.   They mutated from the hip directed, showy slink we see each season to a a quieter, more masculine stride.  Van Noten also said something curious that I’ve never heard from a designer, and this was that he hoped his collections inspire people not only in the fashion capitals of the world, like New York and Paris, but in quieter places like his own home base of Antwerp, to encourage people who cannot even afford designer clothes to use pieces from their own wardrobes more creatively,  to make changes and combine things differently.   This seemed an incredibly generous and reality- based statement coming from a designer, who after all, creates transformative art but also must sell clothes.

Fashion notoriously and constantly changes, and keeping pace with it is just short of impossible.   In reality,  most of us wear the same white shirt for years, reiterating it under vests, tied,  or belted in different ways.  We find a pair of cowboy boots in our closet that all of a sudden, doesn’t seem so ridiculous, and we clean them up and wear them out.  We don’t spend $5,000 or $500,000 a season on new clothes.

Okay, so if you see me walking down the streets of Cocoa Village in a feathered vintage dress over trousers and Doc Martens,  go ahead and stare.  I’m just having a Dries van Noten moment, letting my inner Tomboy and Miss Priss speak in the same sentence.  Laugh if you must.  Then go to a mirror, look hard,  and ask, “Where is my imagination?”

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