Blue Grass Flower Mist Vintage Eau de Cologne (Elizabeth Arden)

Last night, I went to bed with a sore throat and upset stomach-- both mild, nothing to cause concern. Around three o'clock this morning, I woke up ablaze with fever. Every joint ached; every swallow scorched my esophagus; my abdomen felt as though it were filled with concrete. For a moment, I experienced the strange thought that I was back in the hospital with peritonitis; any minute now, the night nurse would be along to cluck her tongue and confiscate my blanket...

I've spent today sequestered at home in my pajamas, sipping ginger ale, sucking on honey-lemon zinc lozenges-- and cooling my febrile pulse points with spritzes of Elizabeth Arden Blue Grass Flower Mist.

I should probably state right away that I'm not a fan of Elizabeth Arden, either as a person or as a brand. Having read both Lindy Woodhead's War Paint and Kathy Piess' Hope in a Jar, I find myself disinclined to view the haughty, vindictive, and anti-Semitic Arden with much charity. I never really liked any of the Arden fragrances or flankers I came across; in each was evident one (or all) of the three S's -- sour, strident, shrill -- which herald an less-than-enthusing fragrance experience. With the rare exceptions of Grey Flannel and Badgely Mischka, Arden's acquired product lines emphatically turn me off.

So why does Blue Grass Flower Mist get in under the wire?

First, there's the molded-glass bottle, encircled by a handsome bas-relief parade of horses, who alternately rear or graze in placid pairs-- very nice.

Second, there the EdC, which opens with a tart green bergamot, moves on to a vague, powdery-pale, coumarinic floral, and vanishes very quickly on skin. All these points may sound like negatives, but when one feels unwell, words like 'bland' and 'sterile' suddenly gain cache, as do fragrances that last for the exact duration of your tolerance for them.

Elizabeth Arden may not have been the nicest person, but occasionally it's worth remembering that the real given name of this nursing school dropout was 'Florence Nightingale'.

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, bergamot, neroli, lavender, geranium, lily, rose, jasmine, tuberose, carnation, bay leaf, cedar, sandalwood, tonka bean, benzoin, musk

Shocking de Schiaparelli (Elsa Schiaparelli)

Are you familiar with the poem "Warning" by Jenny Joseph? You know, the one that begins "When I am an old woman..." and proceeds to list all the gleeful hijinks the narrator plans to take up in her dotage?

Written in 1961, "Warning" became a rallying cry for a cohort of women wedged uneasily between old-wave etiquette and new-wave feminism. It also inspired the Red Hat Society-- a global movement dedicated to exploring the revitalizing effect of age on women's self-esteem. Dressed in flamboyant scarlet and purple (or paler pink and lavender if under the age of 50), members gather to partake in high-spirited mass meet-ups known as "hoots", where Joseph's poem receives communal loving tribute.

Here's the thing: Joseph was twenty-nine when she wrote "Warning"-- and like the outré feather boas worn by RHS revelers, her fond view of old age was largely masquerade. Reading between the lines reveals a good deal of ambivalence towards older female role models, who stifled the narrator with their Victorian conventions, leaving her resentful and unable to engage in honest self-expression. She's not saying she admires them, respects them, or can't wait to become one of them-- only that when she is, she will never be anything like them. As for being herself, the freedom to do so will only come when she is elderly, "dotty", and past all accountability for sticky feelings like bitterness or rage.

As much as I would like to accept the myth that "Warning" sounded the starting gun of an amazing societal transformation, a voice deep within me cries foul. Did NONE of their mothers wear Schiaparelli Shocking? it demands to know.

Breathing in the heady, horny honey-and-civet of this extraordinary fragrance, I cannot imagine its proponents being so fusty and rule-bound as Joseph paints them. To be frank, any woman willing to smell like pussy would be hard-pressed to play Miss Manners-- or to bring up daughters who resent her. Such daughters, I imagine, would do more than worry about their slips showing. They never wore slips in the first place, studied economics and biophysics on an equal footing with home economics, fucked who and where and when they wanted, wrote rock songs about it, stormed barricades, and raised their own children to be questing independents. If invited to Red Hat Society meetings, I imagine them wearing Shocking - both the pink and the perfume -- and no hats at all to hide the grey.

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, bergamot, tarragon, jasmine, ylang-ylang, narcissus, rose, honey, patchouli, clove, labdanum, oakmoss, sandalwood, musk, civet

Mystère de Rochas Vintage Eau de Parfum (Rochas)

In the first edition of The Perfume Handbook (1992), Nigel Groom tells us that Mystère de Rochas is a "quality woody-chypre perfume brought out by Rochas in 1978. It was created by Nicolas Mamounas and contains nearly 200 ingredients." These (he says) include honeysuckle, magnolia, gardenia, jasmine, cedar, and juniper, all in featured roles. (It's strange that Groom doesn't mention galbanum, as this is such a prominent note in the composition.)

Whatever its complexity, I see nothing especially 'mysterious' about Mystère. It's a fairly straightforward green chypre of the type popular in the mid-to-late 1970s. If I choose the other, more colloquial translation of mystère -- 'dark horse, underdog' -- the choice of name becomes easier to understand. It's possible to imagine this graceful garden-party of a fragrance standing out from the late-1970s, disco-going herd. I'd pair it with a Laura Ashley prairie dress any day, but I simply can't imagine it teamed up with a Halston evening dress or an Yves Saint Laurent pantsuit.

Still, there really is something slightly dark and shadowy about Mystère which I find hard to place. If I could reach deep within to tap into memories of leafy green bowers where a child can hide, I might find the key to understanding. But some secrets are sweet and enduring precisely because they remain just out of reach.

Scent Elements: Galbanum, coriander, citrus, honeysuckle, hyacinth, rosemary, carnation, violet, iris, tuberose, magnolia, gardenia, frangipani, jasmine, ylang-ylang, lily-of-the-valley, narcissus, styrax, cypress, patchouli, musk, civet, oakmoss, cedar

Miss Dior Vintage Eau de Toilette (Dior)

Her name -- I kid you not -- was Bitsy. She had the posture of a dancer, a Mona Lisa smile, and the sort of humorless dignity that killed social banter like an unpredicted frost. For a girl no bigger than a minute, she could take down an entire homecoming fête with one disapproving glance. You could tell she'd make a terrific schoolteacher-- but the life of a party? Never.

It's not that Bitsy wasn't pretty. Nor did she fail at what the women's weeklies called "dress sense". She knew as well as anyone that her future as a wife, mother, and hostess depended upon how well she navigated an Olympian round of luncheons, charity functions, tea dances, and cotillions, all the while looking like a fashion plate straight out of Mlle. For formal occasions, a dreamy, full-skirted ballerina gown was de rigueur-- worn, of course, over the requisite multi-tiered crinoline petticoat. For many, the thought of a deflated dress provoked a chill of horror. A girl might as well appear in public wearing a burlap gunny sack!

These were the thoughts that raced through Bitsy's mind when she realized she'd left her crinoline at her friend Evelyn's house clear across town. The Fall Mixer was just hours away; with no car at her disposal, what else could she do but panic? It took a flurry of telephone calls and tears to secure Evelyn's solemn promise that the all-important garment would be in her hands by suppertime. "Cross my heart and hope to die," Evelyn had said-- but now, as blue dusk crept across the sorority house lawn, Bitsy paced and wrung her hands. For the sake of a pile of tulle weighing less than a feather, her boat was about to sink.

She idly picked up the fluted bottle of Miss Dior from the dresser top and sprayed her wrists and neck. It usually reassured her, cooled her nerves, but now it made her even more conscious that everything was ruined. Three spritzes! As usual, she'd overdone it. Now she'd have to take another bath, but when? Evelyn (oh, why, why always so late?) might be here any minute. She'd enter laughing, poking scornful fun at Bitsy's inability to Just Relax -- and she'd be right. People think me dry, off-putting; they can't guess how badly I want to do everything right--

A car door slammed. The sound of footsteps on the front walk! Slipping out onto the front porch (she never hurried, even when inwardly frantic), Bitsy raised her eyes in expectation of a contrite Evelyn. Instead, she beheld Apollo. Tall, broad-shouldered, handsome, almost ludicrously self-confident, Evelyn's older brother (alumna; Class of '54) loped towards her with a clothes hanger casually swinging from one hand. Pinned to the hanger was Bitsy's crinoline, its layers of snow-white netting billowing like a knight-errant's banner.

What ought to have scandalized its recipient (My petticoat! In PUBLIC!) only served to heighten Bitsy's sense of unreality. Breath pent, she stood very, very still; quite without knowing it, she'd already begun to cast a spell.

At the sight of this tiny, intense little lady looking down at him so sternly, the golden god stopped short at the foot of the steps and blushed geranium red. She merely remained silent; he was the one left speechless. As she reached her hand out for the clothes hanger, the scent of her perfume -- dry, austere, utterly sophisticated -- reached him, and he found himself staring at the tender underside of her wrist, her small-yet-square hand with its nails bitten down to the quick.

Before he could think straight, his hand was in hers.

"I'm-- I'm--" he stammered, swallowed.

She raised one severe eyebrow.


Scent Elements: Aldehydes, bergamot, gardenia, carnation, iris, jasmine, neroli, lily-of-the-valley, rose, narcissus, clary sage, galbanum, patchouli, oakmoss, vetiver, labdanum, leather, sandalwood, amber

Tailspin Vintage Casual Perfume (Lucien Lelong)

A light, heady fragrance to start your beloved's head whirling dizzily... High voltage, come-hither... A new powerful dimension for the outdoors, casual life you lead!... Bottled beautifully, and so generously, you can use it daytime, nighttime-- lavishly, casually!... You'll marvel at the giant size... the staying power... There's never been so much for so little! So much fragrance, so much luxury, so much pleasure!
In Spring of 1955, a flurry of advertisements appeared in newspapers across the nation, waxing eloquent about Lucien Lelong Casual Perfumes. For five dollars, a lady could visit a department store (or town pharmacy; we're not fancy) and choose one of four classic fragrances (Indiscret, Sirocco, Tailspin, Orgueil) in "a giant flacon of two ounces". This slim glass tower of modern cubic design fit neatly into a woman's handbag; its shaker top (reminiscent of an old-fashioned bottle of hair tonic) not-so-subtly encouraged extravagant use.

If the aforementioned lady chose Tailspin to fulfill her giant flacon needs, she'd smell of heady patchouli, spicy flowers, and sharp greens-- in short, halfway between Tabu and Ma Griffe. This is no figure of speech. All three fragrances were composed by the great Jean Carles; launched in 1940, Tailspin might mark a midway point along the creative continuum Carles traversed to get from down-and-dirty Tabu (1932) to verdant Ma Griffe (1946).

I can see why the marketers of the Casual Perfume series advocated for lavish use: this stuff doesn't last long, but it smells pretty darned good. Decant a few milliliters into a modest-sized refillable sprayer, and you could happily while away the time, spritzing again and again to enjoy anew the spicy-fresh appeal of Tailspin. It may not be as profound as Tabu, nor as memorable as Ma Griffe. But it's willing to meet you halfway.

Scent Elements: Fragrantica suggests green and floral notes with gardenia and spices, but since the photograph is that of the modern Tailspin EDC, I'm not sure if this applies to the vintage. Gaia the Non-Blonde detects spicy-soapy greens (cilantro?), muguet, and hyacinth from Tailspin. My nose reads galbanum, patchouli, rose, carnation, oakmoss, and possibly a smidge apiece of cumin and coriander. Whatever's in here, it does a very nice job.

Zen (Shiseido)

There are many who doubt the veracity of memories acquired before the age of four. But my god, I remember. Women of all walks of life used to smell like this-- and I, as a child, would be forever influenced by it.

I've written before about the women of my childhood and their distinctive fragrances-- undefinable to me at that time, but sparking a covetous curiosity that proved enduring. Throughout my scent education, they have stepped forward one by one to identify themselves: Jolie Madame (1953), Youth Dew (1953), Cabochard (1959), Shiseido Zen (1965), Fidji (1966), Norell (1968), Azurée (1969), and Private Collection (1973). What do these scents have in common? How do their similarities intersect? (Cue the guessing games and drawing of Venn diagrams!)

Half of them, first of all, contain bitter green galbanum as a dominant note. Half of them were authored by a single person, and a woman besides: Josephine Catapano (1918-2012). ALL of them speak to me of a modern femininity that was extraordinary for its time.

It may sound far-fetched to assign a scent to second-wave feminism. But when I breathe these bold and singular fragrances, I understand better the women who came before me. They were singular, intelligent, uncompromisingly modern, progressive in their choices of life and love. They ascribed to alternative definitions of gender-- and when they did not find what they were looking for in the prevailing culture, they rolled up their sleeves and created it.

Would it be presumptuous to suggest that this description also applies to Josephine Catapano? After all, because of her, womankind wrested itself from an age of boneless, milky, passive florals and struck out for more rugged territories. Adopting galbanum's bittersweet crispness as a sort of lingua franca, these intrepid explorers went forth bearing Catapano's lifework as a banner, signalling: I am not what you're used to dealing with. Don't mistake me for a soft touch.

The original Zen by Shiseido makes the same authoritative statement, but in a remarkably dispassionate tone. Its sense of restraint is most apparent in the way it presents galbanum-- using powdery, incense-like florals to frame and tame that famously aggressive green note, converting it into a model of self-contained elegance.  If you are used to galbanum slapping you in the face, prepare to be struck here too--by the resounding stillness and spareness of this masterful fragrance. No one could ever accuse it of drama for drama's sake.

The Japanese aesthetic called shibui -- deliberate understatement -- takes as its traditional symbol an unripe persimmon, whose tart astringency causes the mouth to pucker tightly shut. Likewise, the proponent of shibui feels much but elects to say little-- a practice which requires incredible strength of character. "We lock infinity into a square-foot of silk:/ pour a deluge from the inch-space of the heart," wrote the 17th century poet Bashō; I am sure he was talking about shibui. I cannot think of another word which describes more beautifully the women who shaped me-- and the scents they wore, like Shiseido Zen.

Scent Elements: Orange blossom, galbanum, hyacinth, bergamot, mimosa, carnation, violet, orris, jasmine, rose, narcissus, sandalwood, amber, musk, oakmoss, cedar

White Christmas Vintage Perfume (Saravel)

Really? This little off-brand dimestore 'fume makes the grade and merits its own review?  Yes, I say-- a resounding yes!

Launched by NYC outfit Saravel in 1943 (obviously for the holidays, what-what?) and discontinued a scant decade later, White Christmas is a sunny lemon-creme fragrance with an affinity for wintry weather. Laden with shimmering aldehydes and graced with a warm vanilla-balsam drydown, it manages to be sexy, luxe and cuddly all at once-- like a fuzzy white angora shrug worn to keep out the chill that a strapless gown and pearls can't deter. It's a fragrance any snow bunny worth her fluff would want to sport all winter long-- and maybe all summer, too. What does it have to do with the holiday whose name it bears? Absolutely nothing. But White Christmas brings me comfort, joy, and good cheer... and for those, there's no set season.

Scent Elements: My guesses are aldehydes, lemon, orange, bergamot, opoponax, styrax, vanilla, amber, and musk.

Amour Amour Parfum Cologne (Jean Patou)

The old cinematic fallback known as the "meet cute" is a rock-solid method of launching two contentious characters on the fast track to romance. At face value, it doesn't look hopeful: They hate each other! All they do is argue! This is never going to work! But eventually meaningful glances are exchanged, tart turns to tender, and Cupid's ambition is achieved.

If you're like me, you prefer the contest of love before it turns its competitors all mushy from mutual bliss. I especially prefer the "before" to the "after" where the heroine is concerned. A girl who sparkles with intelligent scorn and articulates a stinging wit fills me with delight-- but only humiliation earns her the right to be seen through soft-focus. She must be brought to heel. Romance deprives her of both personality and voice, and all the audience can say is Aaaaaawwwww!

Me, I sit scowling and sucking my teeth. I've seen this flick before.

Composed in 1927 by Henri Alméras for Jean Patou, Amour Amour (at least the 'Parfum Cologne' version that I picked up on an antique-store sortie) opens with a salvo of sass and backtalk. Fresh lemon, zesty green bergamot... zing! Even when a touch of wild strawberry peeks in, it's just barely sweet enough to alkalize that concentration of acid. At this moment, I admire Amour Amour not despite but because of its sharpness. It's L'Interdit before finishing school-- "all elbows" as it were, and more likable for NOT being a lady.

But then it happens.

If Amour Amour were an adolescent girl, she'd just now be entering that stage of brutal self-consciousness which descends the instant that boys start to matter. Craving appraisal, fearing judgement, she suddenly halts in her tracks; that voice, once so assertive, goes silent. A furious, embarrassed blush lights up her cheeks; you can almost hear her inwardly berating herself for being so loud, so forward. When will I ever learn? she thinks. Behind a veil of temperate floral notes, she ruthlessly composes herself to emerge mute and perfect, the paragon of feminine charm.

Now she is a woman... and I miss her already.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, neroli, lemon, strawberry, carnation, lily, lilac, iris, narcissus, jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, heliotrope, vetiver, honey, civet, musk

Voyage d'Hermès (Hermès)

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming
That can sing both high and low;
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting—
Every wise man’s son doth know.

--William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene 3
There are places we go, and there are places we merely pass through to get there. The latter locations are not our destination, the home of our heart's desire. But oftentimes they (and not the goal) are the places we cannot forget. We leave them. They do not leave us.

I recall lonely snow fields illuminated by the full moon as seen from the back seat of my parents' car. I remember crossing over the north Georgia border in my beat-up VW Beetle to find sap dripping from the honey locust trees like heavenly manna. There was a Tennessee mountain gap I traversed with my best friend, and a mysterious quiet voice which whispered from the stones what I could not yet admit: our friendship was over. And there was the airplane window from which I spied the preposterous emerald-green wastewater pools of North Jersey, only then to be convinced that I was really, truly, finally home-- my wanderings ended at last.

A voyage implies long and questing passage over wide water or through deep, empty space-- perhaps knowing nothing of what we will find on the other side. Other, more targeted, less arduous types of movement bear short, snappy names: walk, hike, jaunt, jet, trip, tour. These we can accomplish with minimal preparation, sometimes even on foot. But a voyage requires a vessel-- an exoskeleton designed to enclose and protect. Without it,we cannot fly or float, but only fall... and fail.

Voyage d'Hermès' vessel is a strange apparatus, a bright silver stirrup designed to securely cradle the heel of a sturdy glass flacon, which is filled with the palest yellow-green elixir. Its scent is that of the unknown-- or so its creator intended. According to Robin at NowSmellThis, Jean-Claude Ellena wished Voyage d'Hermès to suggest abstract possibilities ("it is calling to me") rather than concrete realities ("it reminds me"). Even several years after its launch, Hermès continues to refer to Voyage in the vaguest of terms, calling it a "woody fresh amber scent" and demurely gazing upward when asked for a list of scent notes. (Even the bottle seems to tip its head quizzically at the thought.)

But isn't a guessing game always more fun than a direct answer? Various perfume reviewers have already taken up the challenge, detecting notes of lemon, citron, bergamot, grapefruit, cardamom, coriander, black pepper, ginger, artemisia, angelica, juniper berry, tea, wintergreen, sandalwood, cedar, amber, ambergris, white musk, and Iso E Super within this bottle. All are perfectly plausible, but when I first encountered this fragrance, Angelica archangelica leapt immediately to mind. Every part of this towering herb -- its roots, its seeds, its succulent hollow stalks -- exudes a complicated green scent, bittersweet and anisic. It lends Voyage d'Hermès a thrilling, expansive quality, suggesting miles and miles of glittering fallen snow and pure ice-blue sky in every direction. Such a scene can't help but summon hope to my heart. It IS calling to me, yes.

Now, I know what you're thinking. In frozen February, with one hell of a snowstorm raging towards the East Coast, isn't it insane to wear so arctic a scent? Wouldn't Voyage d'Hermès be better held in reserve until the return of sultry summer? I say no. I may be alone in this, but I'm loyal to the idea that this crisp, cold, lively fragrance is what I need to keep me moving. I feel awake wearing it, alert to everything that surrounds me. It takes my breath away and gives me back clarity in return. The air seems more crystalline; through it, I see promise shining in the distance.

Scent Elements: Hermès declines to say exactly, but does so with a mischievous wink. The result being so lovely, their dumb insolence is forgiven.

Opium Vapeurs de Parfum Eau de Toilette Légère (Yves Saint Laurent)

This past week, my friend Mary had reported the arrival of a fragrance stash at a local church thrift store. She scored me some great minis for my birthday (Guerlain Shalimar Parfum de Toilette, Van Cleef & Arpels First, Eau de Givenchy, Cacharel Lou Lou, and Davidoff Cool Water) and urged me to go check out the rest. I did so yesterday, while the sun shone and before the snow started.

Amid the usual Avons, White Shoulders, and the inevitable Trésor, I spied a slightly depleted bottle of Jennifer Lopez' Deseo sitting next to cheap boxed cologne from some Jamaican duty-free trap. For some reason, they had Ms. Lopez priced at $3, but the tourist swill was going for FIFTEEN DOLLARS. ("Because it's never been opened," the church volunteer proudly explained. Lady, there is a REASON for that.) A mini of Paloma Picasso Minotaure Pour Homme interested me briefly until I opened it for a critical sniff; again, it didn't seem worth the overinflated price ticket ($8). The whole trip looked as though it would turn out to be a bust.

Then a pale glimmer caught my eye... subtle gold foil in a distinctive bamboo motif on a copper-colored box.

I miss Opium. The reformulated version now sold at perfume counters is an unforgivably cheap parody of a fragrance I truly loved. Does YSL really expect us to believe that they saved Opium from IFRA by turning it into that? One could just as easily preserve the Sistine Chapel ceiling by reducing it to a laser-printed postcard! After smelling the Body Snatcher version of Opium, I flatly refused to go anywhere near its creepy little sister, Belle d'Opium. (Note to whoever choreographed that ridiculous Bd'O commercial: opiates generally make a person nod out passively on the floor, not flail about expressively like a 'shroomer at a Phish concert.)

Needless to say, skepticism was high as I hefted this apparently-untouched bottle of Opium Vapeurs de Parfum EdT in my hand. As I slid out the bottle to view the pink liquid so typical of the modern eau légère, I believe I actually snorted.

Can I take it back?  (The snort, I mean... not the perfume.)

YSL calls Opium Vapeur de Parfum a "delicate and light reinterpretation of the mythical fragrance" from which it borrows its name. So long as you know it has absolutely nothing to do with Opium proper, you're in the clear. Instead of the dense spice monster we associate with the brand name, this is a shimmering, sun-touched orange-vanilla affair devoid of the cloying heavy amber that made Givenchy's Organza Indecence seem so high-calorie. Citrus peel and benzoin are the twin stars here, warm and expansive, with all the other notes playing highly harmonious supporting roles. Yet Opium Vapeurs de Parfum is never cluttered; it smells very simple. If the steam rising from a cup of Mandarin Orange Spice tea could be captured by a chromatograph, this eau would be its fascimile, minus the spoon.

Though every scent element contained within is one that I might claim is "not my thing" (pink pepper, jasmine, orange blossom), there's some type of gentle, unifying beam of light that runs through Opium Vapeurs de Parfum and wins me over to its side. From the first spray (clandestine, on the inner lid of the box, so as not to annoy fellow shoppers) to the last (three hours ago, nape and wrists), Opium VdP has been lovely, just lovely... and I've been apologizing in my mind for the irrational prejudice that nearly made me pass this pretty thing up. Thank goodness I listened to my nose, the wisest of all.

And anyway, it was way cheaper than that stuff from Sandals™ Montego Bay.

PS: Today (February 3rd) is Parfümieren's 3rd Blogoversary, and I didn't mention Breath of God ONCE-- oh. Dammit.

Scent Elements: Mandarin orange zest, pink pepper, jasmine sambac, orange blossom, benzoin, nutmeg, amber, vanilla, patchouli, woods