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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Leather Series 6: Kinky whiffs


By guest writer Denyse Beaulieu

“The glove (…) had retained a strong odour, this distinctive musky odour which the girl’s favourite perfume, heliotrope, sweetened with a touch of vanilla; (…) violently aroused by this blend of flower and flesh, he was overcome, with the glove on his mouth, drinking in the voluptuous pleasure of his memories. (….) When he was alone, he would pick up the glove, breathe it in, kiss it, thinking he still held her in his arms, his mouth on the nape of her neck.”

In Émile Zola’s 1884 La Joie de vivre (« The Joy of Living »), the sweetly-scented glove that sheathed the hands of aristocrats has ceased to be a prophylactic adornment to become a fragment of the desired body; indeed, it seems to be desired in itself… J.K. Huysmans’ A Rebours, which dedicates a whole chapter to the art of perfumery as olfactory fetishism practiced by his decadent anti-hero Des Esseintes, would be published the same year. Within its visionary pages, perfumery wrenches itself free from the representation of nature to evoke man-made environments in unheard-of blends…

The leather note, of course, is one such artificial scent, a hybrid of “flower and flesh” created by industry. It is strangely redolent of the human skin which leather approaches, both by its texture and by its proximity to the body of the wearer whose shape it retains…
Can it possibly be a coincidence, then, that leather scents and leather fetishism are strictly contemporary, born in the same decade of the late 19th century?
Check the dates: quinolines, which lend their characteristic smoky-tarry notes to most leather perfumes, were synthesized around 1880. The first recorded Cuir de Russie was composed by Aimé Guerlain in 1875; Eugène Rimmel launched his the following year.

Now, it was precisely in 1876 that French psychiatrist Alfred Binet coined the term “fetishism”; the leather fetish itself is studied in Austrian sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886).
Fetishism in general and leather fetishism in particular had of course existed before they were identified as such: the prolific French libertine author Restif de la Bretonne (1734-1806), for instance, was a famous shoe sniffer. But it was only when the study of sexuality became the province of psychiatrists that an attempt to understand “perversions” gave rise to their classification. Up to then, people had sexual tastes; henceforth, they would have sexual identities.

Of course, scientists only reflected the changing perceptions and practices of Western societies. In a world where commodities were becoming increasingly available and diversified, the sex industry had followed suit by catering to “niche markets”. From 1867 to 1864, the first kinky magazine, the sedately entitled The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, devoted its pages to the charms of corsets and high heels. Brothels offered specialized services, costumes and scenarios. In Sexual Selection in Man, British sexologist Havelock Ellis reports the case, in 1894, of a prostitute saying that “several of her clients desired the odor of new shoes in the room, and that she was accustomed to obtain the desired perfume by holding her shoes for a moment over the flame of a spirit lamp.”

Thus, leather entered the vocabulary of perfumery as a dominant note, rather than as a material to be treated by perfume, at the precise period in history in which “trickle-down perversions” – to reprise the term coined by French historian Alain Corbin – pervaded the very bourgeoisie to whom Messieurs Guerlain and Rimmel sold their Cuir de Russie. The name may have referred to the Cossacks who rubbed their boots with birch, and certainly bore a virile, military or equestrian connation. But the scents themselves alluded to more private passions.




Pic: by Félicien Rops, "Pornokratès" (1878), itself a scent-inspired painting:
“I did this in four days in a small blue satin room, in an overheated apartment, full of smells, where opoponax and cyclamen gave me a fever salutary for production and even reproduction.”
Courtesy Agoravox.fr

Denyse is the author of "Sex Game Book: a Cultural Dictionary of Sexuality" (Assouline, 2007)



Leather Series will continue, along with a couple of other exciting things besides...Stay tuned!

13 comments:

  1. lillie13:57

    Denyse, interesting as always! I seem to remember also leather bits from "Venus in Furs" but i cannot recall them en détail right now. Interestingly there are soft leathers i really don't sense as 'dominant' per se but extremely sensual. One could now discuss about that, again. :-)
    Greetings and thank you!

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  2. Lillie,
    Riffling through my copy of Sacher-Masoch's "Venus in Furs", I find no particular reference to leather -- the character, and indeed the author's fetish resides more in the spectacular "mise en scène" of his stern mistress, complete with a generally Slavic-inspired costume. Furs, of course, play a role but it doesn't seem specifically tactile or olfactory.
    As for "non-dominant", or rather "non-dominatix" leather notes, this underlines the material's ambiguity: pliant, soft and skin-like; luxurious (a later connotation, when synthetic leathers came into existence); and virile-equestrian-military.

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  3. Malena17:40

    d.,
    i didn´t know that there were kinky magazines in the middle of the 19th century!
    surely i knew that sadomachism & such isn´t an invention of the 20th century, but i thoought it was somehow more "hidden" not that obvious = puplished in magazines.
    perhaps people back then (or to put it more precise: especially the upper class) were more openminded than nowadays? or more decadent...

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  4. Malena: Actually, the "kinkiness" of those magazines was well disguised under fictitious reader "testimonies": it was meant to be taken straight, and many historians studying the corset, for instance, did think these readers' exagerated claims reflected reality, as fashion historian Valerie Steele explains in her book "Fetish: Fashion, Sex, Power".
    But the Victorian era was indeed more powerfully interested in sex than commonly imagined.

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  5. I really love this leather series..especially because I *still* find leather such a capricious note, sometimes magnetizing and yet other times nausea-inducing.. I don't know why I react so strongly to it, but it is precisely this dichotomy that keeps me coming back to try, try once again. Thanks for the beautiful writing.

    x,
    Divina

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  6. Dear Lillie,
    leather is strange for me too. Some I love, some I hate. It all has to do with the context. From what I recall about Venus in Furs it had a lot to do with getting glimpses from a closed closet (yup, dear readers I am not making this up!) and with visions/fantasies about Apollo and Marsyas. Which is kind of extreme ;-)

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  7. Dear Malena,

    you should see some of the public sexual vices of the ancients. Your hair might stand on end. Or if you're a bit seasoned, it might not...

    I direct you to Lucianus of Samosata, especially his courtesan dialogues (for Greek) and Ovid, especially Metamorphoses (for Latin).

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  8. Dear D,

    thank you for the compliment on the series. I am very happy that it provides such enjoyement. I agree with your assesment on the note: it's a harsh mistress to paraphrase.
    Denyse wrote a beautiful piece, to be sure.

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  9. Very interesting theory! And I think there is a lot of truth inside. I also think to fragrances of end 30's and their fur note (obtained with Costus, Animalis SP base, civet over jasmin). This theory could be developped further.

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  10. And there is also some "unsaid" aspects of the life of Jacques Guerlain that could bring more proofs to what Denyse said. But, as I didn't verify all info I had, I prefer not to make statements yet.

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  11. It is highly intiguing what you say dear Octavian there! {C'est a dire le passion anglais?}
    I am looking forward to what you may come up with ;-)

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  12. Very, very intrigued as well... This leather angle definitely must be pursued!

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  13. Wooooo, what a blog. Even I am 'educated', and I read the Latin writers, but not as a scholar. Our readings must have been 'selected.' I have got to read this in more alert and absorbent times. You have about 30 blogs for me to catch up on, but I am still mining the old ones for anything encased in amber. And, if the Ovid wrote about it it is magic in amber. Oh, wait, I did read Metamorphosis outside of high school, but I was stunned with his description of a woman turning to stone, the purest description of PTSD, and a mind going frozen to protect itself that I have ever read. I must reread to learn more of life and love. I will post it on the phone. Thanks, coach!

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