Monday, December 17, 2007

Leather Series 7: The Garçonne Leathers of the 1920s

by guest writer Denyse Beaulieu
“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


  1. Anonymous18:52

    d. :)
    what a great article - i really enjoyed reading it!
    at university, i had several seminars about that topic & being interested in the 1920s in general, i also wrote an exam about it (about the situation of female workers in the 1920s).
    the expression "flapper" always reminds me of the novels of f. scott fitzgerald. there, this new "type" of woman plays a leading role, one could see his wife zelda as a flapper as well.
    i´m so looking forward to reading more from you!

  2. D will be thrilled with your enthusiasm, dear C. I thought it was a wonderfu subject lovingly brought to life by D, as well :-)

    And yes, Zelda strikes me as an independent woman. She also had her streak of mental unrest of course too...

  3. Thanks C.,
    Of course, the wonderful beauty, wit and sex-symbol Louise Brooks is the über-flapper -- though her work in European cinema, notably in Pabst's "Lulu", points to darker zones... To me, the contrast between the flapper and the garçonne is the same as between the dynamic, upcoming power of pre-Depression America in those days, compared with the more despairing, decadent though wildly creative climate of Europe. In 1920, American women got the right to vote. It came much later for Frenchwomen. The liberated garçonne was not a full citizen...

  4. the 20's are a very special interest of mine for a very long time. I'm a fan of the old silent films and the movie industry of this period of time. It's a period where just about anything goes and went on. Stars were made, stars were starting to do some pretty bad stuff (Wallace Reid dying of morphine overdose, the Fatty Arbuckle trial/travesty, Marion Davies torrid/illicit out in the open affair with William Randolph Hearst,etc... the list goes on). I find the scents of the era of great interest and leather was quite the rage of period I 100% agree. Tabac Blond Caron while very widely known to us fragophiles, keeps at times getting forgotten that it was actually the first true leather like scent before Chanel's more well known Cuir de Russie. I know there other "cuir de russie" scents that came before Tabac Blond Caron and even Chanel's. But it was Chanel's that really put it to the forefront though I think Tabac Blond Caron is a scent of pure genius. I do admire/own and wear Cuir de Russie Chanel. To me, it's just as genderbending a scent as Tabac Blond was.
    Le Sien Jean Patou is one scent that I really wished that Patou when they re-released their old scent line in the late 80's, would've added this to their re-launch too but did not. It's a scent that I had been so very much fixated on as to what it smelled like since there a very scant notes as to what kind of scent it was? Now to know it was a leather scent makes it all the more intriguing and now longing for unbearable. Leather to me is the height of luxury. It's something that I enjoy to wear literally, leather blazer/vest, motorcycle jacket, motorcycle boots,nice men's oxfords, etc... God, the smell of leather is almost as intoxicating as a freshly bloomed tuberose, IMO. But that's just me.
    The history discussed about the "garconne" is quite interesting and I quite enjoyed it's read.

    Louise Brooks the most enigmatic silent film actress is quite a stunner, still after almost over 80 years ago. I have both "Pandora's Box" and "Diary of a Lost Girl". Pandora's Box is a masterpiece and visually stunning with the absolute radiant timeless Miss Brooks whom had such a feisty, untamable spirit for her time, it's a travesty that she didn't allow anyone to guide her career. She was very much a woman of her own and not to anyone else. This was unfornuately to her deteriment. But the few films she did do, make her an iconic legend of the silver screen. One can't be still not enthralled by this gorgeous creature. So fragile (sort of like Marilyn Monroe was) but still tough as nails.

    God this series on leather is quite riveting. A subject near and dear to my heart.


  5. Armando, I'm happy to see we share a passion for that era in film-making. I discovered it at a young age when attending a retrospective of German expressionist movies...
    About Jean Patou "Le Sien", I didn't mean to imply that it was a leather scent, just that it was a "man's cologne" marketed to women. The current Palais Galliéra exhibition on the 1920s has both a flacon and an advertisement: when I go back I'll note whatever they say about it...
    Stand by for reviews of Tabac Blond and Knize Ten (mine) and CdR (Helg's). CdR is to me what TB is to you: the iconic leather scent!

  6. I see the Leather subject has generated much interest.

    I love your cinematic references (as you know)and dearly love Louise. Even Guido Crepax has been inspired by her, as discussed on previous instalements on Perfume Shrine ~yes, allied to perfume too! ;-)

    German Expressionism (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Metropolis): now you're talking!

    M, I suggest you search for "Meshes of the Afternoon", short film from 1943 ;-)

  7. Anonymous12:06

    This series is so stuning, thank you a lot, both!

  8. On behalf of both, you're welcome, dear N!

  9. Anonymous16:55

    Helg and Denise: I've been loving the leather series, even though I haven't commented until now (I loved the Dior series, too!). It's such great writing, fascinating history, and incisive exploration of scent. Thank you!

  10. Dear AngelaS,
    thank you for your wonderful compliment.
    I am so happy Perfume Shrine is providing such joy to our numerous readers. Especially when they're knowledgable themselves ;-)

  11. Angela, Lillie, thank you both. This series is a fascinating opportunity to delve into perfume and its historical relevance -- I love to tell myself a story when I apply a scent, and to feel linked to bygone, glamorous eras!

  12. armando: you should come to Paris to see the 1920's Fashion Exhibition running now at Galliera Museum and the German Cultural Center who organises with this occasion a session with silent movies (+ piano,of course).


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