“She is a strong woman. Excuse – strength is not the word I am after. Women, pretty women at least, are never ‘strong”. I need a word that expresses energy, the quality that makes a man who speaks of ‘frail Eve’ – referring to the female sex – look like a fool!
Her neck is arched and tense. Tense also her features, her whole carriage indeed! Her demeanour is that of a duellist awaiting the attack!
Attack from whom!
From you, sir, and from me… from man, in general.”
“The Flapper – A New Type”, by Alfredo Panzini, Vanity Fair, September 1921
As the “lost generation” returned from the trenches of World War I to civilian life, they faced a new kind of war: the war of the sexes.
It’s hard to realize nowadays the utter shock it must’ve been, for men who grew up alongside women in corsets and bustles, with huge flowered hats teetering on their long upswept tresses, to see them mutating into the cocktail-swigging, cigarette-smoking, car-driving, bob-haired, short-skirted breed Americans called “flappers” and the French, “garçonnes”. This second, much more telling designation (a feminization of the word for “boy” in French, “garcon”), was popularized by the eponymous 1922 best-seller (700 000 copies) by the French author Victor Margueritte. With its liberated heroine’s sexual escapades (including a lesbian affair), La Garçonne was deemed so scandalous that Margueritte was stripped of his Légion d’Honneur…
The Bohemian classes of the Belle Époque had already engaged in some gender-bending ~ the term “garçonne” was actually coined by the decadent late 19th century novelist Huysmans ~ but what occurred in the 1920s was an out-an-out, highly symbolic raid on masculine closets. Led on by Gabrielle Chanel, garçonnes shed the corset to adopt the more strict, practical and streamlined menswear styles, including the white shirt, suit and boater. Jean Patou provided them with sportswear to ski and play tennis; Dunhill and Hermès offered them leather motoring gear to match the luxurious interiors of their new, leather-upholstered cars; Hermès even produced flight suits for the fashion-conscious aviatrix.
And, of course, they began filching men’s eau de colognes – interestingly, Jean Patou’s 1929 Le Sien (“Hers”), shown at the Paris museum of fashion Palais Galliéra in the current “Années Folles” exhibition, is explicitly marketed as a fragrance men could wear, but produced for women. The same exhibition commissioned a (non-commercialized) perfume to embody the spirit of the Jazz Age, composed by IFF’s Antoine Maisondieu. It is, of course, a leather scent (for a review, click here).
The Cuir de Russie, as we’ve seen previously, had been around since the last quarter of the 19th century. But the 1920s and 30s would be the heyday of leathers from the spectacular 1924 double feature of Ernest Beaux’s Chanel Cuir de Russie and Vincent Roubert’s Knize Ten and Jacques Guerlain’s odd Djedi in 1927 to later renditions: Caron En Avion (1929), Lanvin Scandal by André Fraysse (1932), Lancôme Révolte by Armand Petitjean (1936) and Creed Cuir de Russie (1939), initially Errol Flynn’s bespoke fragrance, and LT Piver’s Cuir de Russie the same year. At least thirty houses launched their own versions of the Cuir de Russie from the late 19th century to the late 30s (the trend continued into the 50s), which bears witness to the enduring attraction of the note.
But the real turning point came about in 1919 with Ernest Daltroff’s epoch-making Caron Tabac Blond, the first leather scent to be directly marketed to women. Is it just by chance that the first perfumer to cross the gender boundaries of the “cuir de Russie” was himself a Russian?
To be continued.....
Pic of Marie Bell in Jean de Limur’s 1936 La Garçonne, courtesy of encyclocine.com