Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Leather Series 10: Les Gamines

As far as leather scents are concerned, the image prevailing in the first half of the 20th century was either one of emancipation and amazonesque flair or of luxurious leather goods and upholstery of posh venues catering to the tastes of the upper classes. Little by little something emerged from the fashion and cinematic world: a new frame of mind that distanced itself from the more traditionally sexualised images of the 50s a la Marilyn, but also patently different from the emancipated flappers of the 20s. Talking this over with my friend Denyse, she suggested the Gamine term and we pondered on it in order to describe the evolving cultural sensibilities in relation to fashion, olfaction and art in general.

Generally the term Gamine (feminine to French gamin) is translated in English as "urchin" or "waif". But despite its use in the English vernacular ever since the middle of the 19th century (appearing in Thackeray) it only approximated the French equivalent in the mid-20th century gaining popularity through various strata of society. The gamine has to be sort of a tease, but good-natured; a young sprite of a woman that will wink at you and be a little mischievous. Never too sexual or femme though, never aggressive, ultimately never dangerous in the Freudian sense.

It is an accepted fact that the modern iconography of popular culture derives its idols from the matinee as well as the fashion glossies. Early exempla of gamines could be argued to go back as far as Louise Brooks or Mary Pickford, but to me the former was too restless and independent for the tag, the latter too sweet and accomodating. Maybe Paulette Goddard in Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin is closer to the notion.

The optical, if not auditory, resemblance to the word “game” alludes to playfulness and naughtiness , which is transpiring through the iconic cinamatic gamines of the 50s such as Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron or Jean Seberg (especially in her Bonjour Tristesse and À bout de souffle roles). Interestingly, the musical that made Leslie Caron famous was preceded by a stage production in which Gigi was played by none other than Audrey Hepburn; personally chosen by the author, no less, the indomitable Colette, whose Claudine series of novels also wink towards the subtly sensual gamine.

Hepburn had been described by Don Macpherson as “overpoweringly chic” citing her “naïveté which did not rule out sophistication”, such as in her role in Funny Face. Thus she inaugurated a trend and a new perception in elegance. All those women were the pioneers paving the way to the waif look of 60s British models such as Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, manifested in their “swinging London” image.

In the spirit of this new sensibility, fragrance trends followed and the piquantly feminine aldehydics and pretty, powdery florals of the early 60s attest to that seguing from the floral chypres of the 50s. Leather scents were never very popular in those days, due to reasons already discussed when revising the vogues of the 1950s, with only the most noble and suave among them denoting luxury and tradition, such as Doblis. However, there is at least one that could be classified as the arch-gamine one: Miss Balmain by Pierre Balmain, a sister scent to Jolie Madame, much younger and lighter in spirit.

Perhaps the dark Rennaisance angel that is Diorling could also crop her hair into a pixie cut and with butterfly-shaped sunglasses atop her head send you a naughty kiss across the room when no one is looking.

I contemplated long and hard whether the precursor to this phase was Cabochard by Grès, issued in 1959. In the end I decided against it, not because the fragrance is not insolent, audacious and mischievous, because it is. But because Cabochard has a certain exoticism and gravitas that seems to be dragging down the featherlight load of the gamine, imbuding it with expectations beyond its capabilities. Only a naughty and light leathery scent would fit the image I have in mind when thinking of those icons. Yet Cabochard is such an emblem in the pantheon of leather fragrances and such an utterly ruined recomposition that it merits its own obituary following this post.

Pic of Audrey Hepburn from Audrey1 fan site, pic of Jean Shrimpton from Vogue.uk


  1. donanicola16:47

    I look forward, though with sadness, to your obit for Cabochard, E. I remember it from many years back but have only the reformulation in my collection. She must have been a great beauty. I wonder if today's gamines would find Kelly Caleche to their liking?

  2. Thanks Nicola! Yes, it is regretably ruined...It had a special place in my heart for reasons to be divulged in next post...

    Today's gamines would love Kelly Caleche! ;-)

  3. Irene21:40

    WoW! You must've been watching movies all your life, you know lots about 'em!
    I didn't get the connection with leather, you mean those girls liked leather frags or you like them in those?

  4. Anonymous00:16

    I agree with you on the exoticism and gravitas of cabochard. The original was a beauty, wasn't it? Am looking forward to your review of it.
    I like the way you describe the gamine as featherlight, but with a naughty streak. The picture of Jean Seberg personifies this description perfectly.

  5. Irene,

    I meant that those "types" (if we can call them that) would fit some leather scents that are a little insolent and less serious, less agressive than previous classics such as Bandit, but less "posh" than others still such as Doblis.

    Thank you on the compliment, indeed I have.

  6. Dear Sabina,

    it certainly was! Thanks for your kind words. Jean was great, down to the pixie cut!

  7. Jean was a beauty, no doubt.
    Audrey- there'll never be another, with a soul like that.

    I am a huge fan of miss Balmain-
    and laugh madly at the notion of it being anywhere near a "Miss"...
    Like Miss Dior- young girls have little business wearing these unless they've LIVED and possess bigtime experience, sangfroid, and smoldering, confident sexuality.

    But that's easy for ME to say-
    I'm a tough old hen, LOL.
    I love my mileage, girl !

    [ Late- work seems to cut into my pleasures, damnit to hell !!!]

    Kisses to you, Hellenic sweetness-

  8. Ah....I, honey. Who can disagree?
    I have a surprise for you then on Miss Balmain tomorrow ;-)

    We do appreciate your wonderful, rich mileage, dear I! Hugs :-)


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