Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Vetiver Series 4: the Secret of Gender in Vetiver

Have you ever watched a conjurer put a volunteer from the audience into one of those contraptions that open and close via those ornamented Chinese doors? He enters as a man, next thing you see is the magician's attractive female assistant emerge from the same little door all decked out in sequins and feathers. What happened to the man? Who knows. He doesn't disappear, unless we're into a Woody Allen film, but the change is dramatic and surprising. The same thing that sometimes happens upon setting eyes on a beautiful woman who has a little too wide shoulders, a little too large hands and you catch yourself trying to discern if she's hiding an Adam's apple under that dainty diamanté necklace and the shimmer of a thousand crushed pearls in her Nars eyeshadow.

Olfactory perceptions can be like that. First you think you have a good, solid, traditional feminine or masculine "note". Then the artist takes the material and spins it on its axon rendering it the bearer of news in the drama that unfolds in the stage of your olfactory adventure.
Vetiver is just one of those materials. Although traditionally thought of as masculine, as far back as in the 1910s-1920s, vetiver, without its masculine accoutrement, was starring in very feminine fragrances playing the liberated card of the garçonne, just hinting at a subversive undercurrent. Some of the unabashedly feminine fragrances featuring vetiver do so with the gusto of a painter who puts a touch of black on the milkiest white to create the enigmatic imperceptibly greyish pallor of a romantic heroine.

Besides, vetiver along with orris contributed to the famous powdery base Vetyrisia, featured in many classic products that evoke seemingly long-forgotten times.

Ernest Beaux with Chanel No.5 (1921) put the defining touch in the aldehydic, abstract creations that defined the new femininity: foregoing the usual flower bouquets, he infused the composition with a woody note of vetiver that creates disturbing arpegios under the super feminine ylang-ylang and the catty musk of a fur coat. The result très célèbre remains a perfect evocation of sohpsticated feminity that changed the world of fragrance for ever: "a woman should not smell like a flower patch", Coco Chanel quipped.
Jeanne Lanvin went one better in this particular field by having André Fraysse make vetiver an even more pronounced note in Arpège, a dark green glove that engulfs the flowers in forest tranquility. Crepe de Chine by Millot and Djedi by Guerlain were other fragrances featuring its chic aura.
Perfumer Maurice Blanchet worked with Charles Frederick Worth's son, Jean Charles, to create Parfums Worth in an era when couturiers came up with fragrances inspired by the paradigms of Chanel and Jean Patou. In 1932 he introduced Je Reviens to the world ~a fragrance masterminded around narcissus and anchored by the serene touch of vetiver. Completely changed now to the point of non recognition, Je Reviens serves as a landmark of Art-Deco style and the romantic inclinations of the times.
Indiscret by Lucien Lelong was created in 1935 (revamped and completely changed in 1997 by Mane) in a Surrealist-inspired bottle reminiscent of half-drawn curtains. Reportedly one of the staples of Marlen Dietrich, it evoked the ambience of a cabaret with its daring use of decadent flowers of corruption and woody notes in which vetiver played a significant part.
Its polar opposite could be Blue Grass by Elizabeth Arden came in 1936 by perfumer George Fuchs, from old Grasseois house of Fragonard. Unapologetically sporty and carefree, not cosmopolitan in the least, it was named for the Kentucky "blue grass" in honour of Arden's horses. "You'll never sell it with that name, it will remind people of manure" one of Arden's managers complained, but history proved him wrong as it became one of Arden's bestsellers.
In the 30s unisex was quite popular in a light hesperidic and vetiver-woody composition bearing the name Aqua di Parma. Their classic Colonia was reportedly favoured by both men and women, some of them famous like Ava Gardner and Cary Grant, as a valued pick-me-up.

The classic emancipated chypres around and after WWII found their predictable ally in the aloof stance of vetiver. The dangerous Bandit (1944) for Piguet, created by Germaine Cellier for dykes, managed to combine the tweed feel of vetiver with bitter green quinolines evoking leather in what was an outlaw's uniform. Ma Griffe used to be assertively powdery and frosty with the spicy touch of styrax and vetiver that providing the cooling background of a confident and world-savvy woman singing an emerald song atop a Parisian terrace. And of course the ultra-green, ultra classy dry Y by Yves Saint Laurent (1964) which should be sampled if only to see what a true classy chypre smells like.

But its most surprising use came into the aldehydics of the 60s and 70s. The Yves Saint Laurent iconic creation, Rive Gauche (1971), utilised vetiver to provide the cool background on which frosty, sparkling flowers rest silently, as did Calandre by Paco Rabanne, two years its senior and arguably the prototype of a metallic rose smothered in frost. The impeccable taste of Calèche was furthered through not only aldehydes, but also the quietly woody tonality of vetiver, which is the dominand impression of its base notes.
Clinique's Aromatics Elixir (1969), by nose Bernand Chant, took that gigantic rose and buried it under a whole forest floor of patchouli and vetiver to render it the most memorable sillage one can encounter on a stranger. It's interesting to note that Chant worked on both Cabochard with the drydown of which there is kinship as well as the classic masculine Aramis by Lauder.

Chanel No.19 is perhaps the best example of vetiver shinning through a starched cotton shirt that is meant to clad a woman of pedigree. Unassuming, prim, beautiful in its orris richness, it looks upon you with the severe eye of a lady to the manor born who never dons pearls but opts for cool silver bangles.
The echoes can be heard both in Chanel's other cool composition, Cristalle (Eau de toilette 1974 by Henri Robert; Eau de parfum 1992 by Jacques Polge), as well as the enigmatic green fruity chypre of Diorella by Edmond Roudnitska.
White Linen (1978) by Estee Lauder and Ivoire (1979) by Balmain both play upon the clean, soapy facets of feminine traditionality with a distinct touch of serene vetiver that is treated in a cool and soothing, powdery way.

The 80s saw a return to chypres, this time more professional and cerebral, less animalic than before, fit for the office heroines of a brave shoulder-pad era. A plethora of them use vetiver: the emphatically powdery with a pittosporum heart Knowing (1988) by Lauder and the exhuberant and projective rose of Diva by Ungaro. Interspersed there came the naughty, assertive dissenters who had other plans after the boardroom meetings and always kept a pair of spare lingerie in their crocodile clutches: Paloma Picasso and Parfum de Peau by Montana.

Even in the loud florals of the 80s, such as Giorgio Beverly Hills (1981), vetiver is the one saving grace that might have kept the strident, overachievers from becoming the gripe of death. A case in point was evident in the older version of Beautiful (1986) by Estee Lauder that kept the extravagance of intense white florals under check by copious amounts of the earthy grass root. Possibly it was a knowing nod to the successful turn that Sophia Grojsman had interjected in the brand's White Linen almost a decade before and in the fruity "grapefruit impression" of Calyx for Prescriptives in 1986.
The trick of containing white florals with vetiver was repeated two years later in Carolina Herrera's eponymous fragrance for women: a scent full of the indolic smell of jasmine and tuberose that would risk being caricatures of womanhood had it not been the discreet underscore of vetiver.
The experienced Jean Kérleo was aware of this true marriage by utilizing it in both his shadowy chyprish floral 1000 (1972) and the sunny, hearty smile of Sublime (1992), both for Jean Patou.
Could it then be that ommiting vetiver is the fault of loud white floral fragrances that bombard our nostrils with all the force of a WWII London air-raid? We can but assume.

As years and trends progressed vetiver along with patchouli became de rigeur: restrictions on the amount of oakmoss used in fragrances necessitated a turn into its earthy and re-assuring timbre.
Some surprising examples show just how magical its effect can be in the most unexpected ways. Le Baiser du Dragon by Cartier is full of vetiver in the base beneath the amaretto notes of its heart. Agent Provocateur uses it to render that troubling, earthy chyprish nuance to rose and saffron. Even Lush, a brand famous for their "homemade" looking skincare came up with a solid perfume inspired by the soothing attributes of vetiver, combined with the ultra-feminine jasmine for good measure: Silky Underwear, first released as a powder.

And then again the opening of the "niche" sector saw the tremendous potential for fragrances aimed at both sexes which made use of the note in unique ways, away from the establishment classic, rendering it very popular with women of unconventional tastes: from the fresh, young and chic hermaphrodite of Chanel Sycomore and the nutty, bittersweet delicacy of Vetiver Tonka in the Hermessences to the licorice-laced Vétiver Oriental by Lutens and the sexy darkness of an unusual brunette beauty of Vetiver Bourbon by Miller Harris.

But we will return with seperate reviews later on.
To be continued!

Autoportrait by Tamara de Lempicka (1925) via art.com. Bandit ad originally uploaded at MUA. Knowing ad via Parfum de Pub. Pic of Elena Bonham Carter smoking from "Fight Club"


  1. Hi, E -- what a whirlwind survey of vetiver in women's fragrance that was. It belies the idea that vetiver is always so dominant in a fragrance that most fragrances that include are named after it. Interesting to see the complex qualities it can tribute to an overall composition when blended skillfully and carefully.

  2. Thanks J for your kind words.
    Well, let's just say that aphorisms are made to be proven innacurate ;-)

    It's not always been the case that fragrances were named Vetiver this and Vetiver that (or Material this and Material that anyway like the plethora of Ambers and Cuirs). I think this came with the advent of niche which focused on the juice instead of the evocative, poetic or sexy names and on the consumer's desire to focus on something particular (many niche customers like that approach: the dominant force being included in the actual name).
    Of course there are classic exceptions like Guerlain Vetiver or Carven or Givenchy Vetyver. But I think those were aiming at something else: classicism, no frills in the name.

    You might disagree of course, I'm responsive to counter-arguments :-)

  3. Hi, E. I agree with you, absolutely, about the current tendency towards "Material this" and "Material that" names, along with niche perfumery. I have thought that this is in part because niche audiences value legibility of notes in their perfumes (they [we] want to be able to identify what we are smelling; related to what we were talking about on graindemusc about the "pleasures of decoding"). Whereas with some of the classic compositions of French perfumery, value is placed on seemless blending of complex accords. Would you agree?

  4. Of course I would. In fact I heard the opinion of a Swedish perfume lover who put this into words: "I like to be able to pinpoint exactly where the composition is going, helps me when sampling" (not verbatim, but that's the gist).

    I believe the decoding is most interesting when there is no set of notes or any evocation through the name: eaxmples ~how wrong would we be to think that Mona di Orio's Carnation is supposed to smell like carnations (it doesn't aim to, it evokes "complexion")or Patchouli24 by Le Labo is supposed to smell of Pathouli (no relation whatsoever) or how tough it is to escape the romantic inclinations of L'Heure Bleue? (apart from its smell the name plays a very significant part in its allure).

    Maybe it would be best if perfumers and houses never issued all those "imaginative" notes and the press releases which direct us into a set path of thinking. I believe in more freedom of associations and imagining while decoding something artistic. If I am told "this is a Surrealist painter" I tend to compare and contrast with what I already know, whereas when not, I am free to discover nuances that are outside the genre and make the painting unique. Am I making any sense?

  5. Yes, E! Isn't it interesting, though, that when lists of those imaginative notes are not forthcoming, it can be a little anxiety provoking? I notice that very few people review the Nasomotto scents, and think this is related to the fact that they refuse to issue list of notes. On the rare occasions that bloggers talk about them, there's always a moment of, "I'm going to go out on a limb, and say that I smell ____."

    Sometimes I wish I could test fragrances blind (but this would mean I would need an assistant to prepare the blotters without my seeing them).

  6. LOL, J, I couldn't agree more!!

    The Nasomatto line is a perfect example actually. Apart from their -let's admit it- rather outre manifesto, the scents are not worse than most niche lines today; in fact I liked some a lot and reviewed them with pleasure. And I actually enjoyed the liberated feeling of not being dictated what I am smelling enough to point it out in my 2007 recapitulation.
    I guess I am different than many bloggers in this regard: I like to be able to be free of ties and free-associate. I try not to give too much credence to the notes, not feel obligated to "find" what I am supposed to find.

    Personally the kind of review of "watch me tick off listed notes one by one" leaves me rather cold. I enjoy those who interpolate personal impressions and talk about things that might not be listed but are thought to be smelled. Even if one disagrees when actually testing the fragrance, the experience of seeing a perfume tied to specific images/memories/associations of another is always fascinating (as a study of human behaviour as well as fragrant exploration)and sometimes even enlightening; how many times have we had a Eureka moment when someone who isn't into perfumes bursts out the -often awful-truth about something we are perplexed about in a scent? ("gee, Louise, this is pure cheese!" and we nod our heads in belated recognition).

    I was discussing this with a friend of mine who is in a prominent position in perfume evaluation and there's agreement: in most cases the list of "notes" is a complete fabrication on the company's press kit, see the case of Magnifique).

  7. Adding:

    actually there is a way to test things blind and I do it sometimes.

    Get your samples (yet unsniffed) in an array, assign them numbers and write the numbers down in Post-its and hide the labels with the Post-its (there are some very small Post-its available; they're very handy for this exercise).
    A couple of days later check the samples out one by one and write down your impressions corresponding to each number (no peeking!) Then cross-check with the notes, names, brands etc.

    You will be very surprised with what you find out ;-)
    Do try it and report back!

  8. The other day I was in Myers and sprayed Y by YSL . I was in a "mood" and I just grabbed the nearest tester with a "god, haven't smelt this in years , give it a go" attitude and it was wonderful. I was never a fan but I just might respray when "not in a mood" and see if its "buy worthy"!

  9. Vetiver is a beautiful note in women 's perfume because it adds character and intrigue but as a dominant note doesn 't work for me, it says "after-shave" sort of thing. That said I am extremely comfortable wearing hardcore leather, animalic and woody scents, it 's just that straight up vetiver doesn 't interest me. Same goes for oceanic scents like Cool Water, not possible for me, but it 's not a big deal really, let 's be honnest it 's easier for women to wear the darkest leather than for men wearing No 5.

  10. Dear M,

    Y is one of those chypres that have more or less saved their beautiful composition (with a slight arrangement of the oakmoss levels I bet): still great after all those years. No an easy feat!

    I'm so glad you gave it a chance and hope you find another beautiful perfume to add to your lovely collection :-)

  11. Dear Emmanuella,

    thanks for your interesting comment.
    I appreciate vetiver as a contributor to feminine fragrances as well and agree on the reasons you stated. Of course I understand how it might "read" as aftershave on a more straight-up composition (since it has been used in numerous shaving foams, soaps etc for men).
    Perhaps Vetiver Tonka and Vetiver Oriental might break those associations for you; although I assume you have already given them the test?

    On the other hand, indeed we -as a society I mean- tend to accept more easily a woman who is playing with masculine scents than a man wearing something ultra-feminine: Which might be accounted to a fear of modern western society of effeminancy of its masculine aspects (if you think about it, the western, white man is the most agressive species to grace the earth, especially so in the last couple of centuries), of losing what has "made" it what it is.
    Other people and races are less fearful of their feminine characteristics and by embracing them they are somehow liberated of this burden.
    Of course I am perhaps going too far in attributing such sociological and semiotical nuances to something as simple as choosing a gendered fragrance (which is a manufactured concept in itself as we have discussed here numerous times), but it seems relevant to me; and maybe not so simple after all ~it's not "only perfume"!.

    Then again there are examples of western men who publicly state they go for something as feminine as No.5. I remember reading an interview of Jean Hughes Angland in French Elle several years ago in which he professed an affinity (on himself). Another actor, Pascal Gregory, is fond of donning Boucheron Femme from time to time (those were old interviews hence the semi-forgotten yet wonderful BF mention I bet). I don't know whether them being French and actors on top and rather ruggedly-looking (especially PG) has something to do with them being able to publicly state so. It could also be part of an "image" that is bordering on the unconventional/artistic and fragrance choice ties in with that, but I doubt it: they don't strike me as the Hollywood type sweating to get the next big deal in a blockbuster and hence careful of their "image".
    In any case, it's interesting to note, isn't it?

    And lenient as we are with women wearing masculine fragrances, I do recall that motherly, matronly SA who was a little "horrified" when I had picked up that tester of Vetiver Guerlain as a teenager, as I had recounted in that review. Such a girly girl, I bet she thought, what is she doing with that one?
    Then again, long hair or ample boobs do not categorically point to someone choosing only flowery compositions, does it? In fact I notice masculine frags are far fetchier on girly girls than on more angular/tomboy ones.
    Would you agree?

  12. Hello, E -- This goes along nicely with the discussion we were having on the scent construction of gender on graindemusc the other day. I think you've hit upon an interesting thought, about masculine frags being far fetchier on girly girls than on more angular/tomboy ones. Is it that there is some pleasure to be found in the dissonance between outward visual presentation (girly-girl dress, girly-girl mannerism, etc.) vs. the olfactory presentation (masculine fragrance)? Or that it hints at some sensuous relationship that girly-girl has to some unseen man ("she must have borrowed her lover's scent")?

  13. Hi J!

    I hope to have provided an interesting line of discourse. It might serve as a springboard on a later in depth investigation ;-)

    To answer your first question, I think it does! A pretty floral on a Laura Ashley type is cliche, while a woody fragrance is unexpected and thus interesting, kicking us out of our comfort zone and into noticing things more.
    Same goes for other cross categories: a flirty or bombshell fragrance on a prim, bespectacled librarian creates erotic tention and a desire to see beneath, an intense floral on a business-type hinting at an afterhours existence beneath the suit, you know the drill.

    On the other hand, as you succinctly point out, this notion of "having a raletionship with an unseen man", therefore the borrowing, has always been romanticized and eroticized through popular culture means: the classic "morning after" shirt, the worn T-shirt or belt etc.
    The reverse case (of a man wearing a woman's item as a memento of an amorous night) is rarer and I feel it is for practical reasons as well! (how many average men would fit an average woman's clothes?)
    Plus of course all the other reasons stated.

  14. maisqueperfume01:13

    Please review the new fragrance Vetiver Dance - Tauer perfumes.
    It is simply amazing.
    best wishes Simone

  15. Simone,

    thank you! Guess what: I just did!! And with a draw for full bottles! :O

    Hope you enjoy, I loved Vetiver Dance! :-)

  16. perfumeshrine, not necessarily, I think it 's also a question or character. There 's girly girls and girly girls; the smart one and the dumb bleached blonde bimbo, the woman of character and mystery and the curvaceous pulpous ultra feminine woman, the intellectual sophisticated lady and the sexy casual...I wouldn 't fancy Poison on a certain type of woman like a Wall Street executive instead Cabochard (the original old one) would be very alluring on her.

  17. Assuredly it's also about character, Emmanuella. No arguing with that! :-)

    I gather you believe Poison to be less mysterious, more exhuberant and penetrative, more in-your-face therefore not a suitable "surprise" for the executive type? Just curious if I interpreted this the way you meant it.

  18. I guess I meant something like that... maybe I also see Poison more on a pulpous woman with curves and hips than a tall model type of girl, that said I love Poison, one little spritz in the cleavage won 't be "too much" and will be enough for a stellar sillage.

  19. That's very clear, thank you Emmanuella. :-)
    Poison is all in the application, I believe: a little more and you (and those in the vicinity) are nauseous, a little less and it's daringly good.

  20. Anonymous08:07

    I love that article, helg. I have found out that vetiver is one of my favourite notes a few years ago and i especially love the vetiver-basenotes in Calèche and Rive Gauche. I also love Vetiver by Guerlain!
    Many greetings, i am looking forward to MORE of the green delight! :-)

  21. Thank you dear N!

    I knew you'd appreciate it, knowing your predeliction for several of those fragrances mentioned. Vetiver by Guerlain is really unisex, isn't it?

    More will be sure to follow :-)

  22. zara14:40

    vetiver is both mysterious and comforting, that's why i like it so much. yesterday i visited the local lush boutique just to smell silky underwear (picked in because of vetiver of course) and it smelled very nice actually, very, very comforting. they should make it into liquid!

  23. Zara,

    thank you for stopping by and commenting and welcome.
    Thanks for the report on Lush: I think they should progress to a liquid form, too. The solid is a less "cooling" form.

  24. Anonymous09:56

    I was ever a vetiver lover.
    Did you know about a Vetiver lover Private Club ?
    If you know, thanks for sharing your info.


    PS/ excuse me, my english is so bad

  25. Therese,

    no need to apologise, it's perfectly understandable :-)

    If you mean a fragrance named Private Club with vetiver, I do not know of one. If then again to refer of a private club of vetiver appreciators, we have one right here. But also on Basenotes. I believe the phrase was used in some old review on MUA about the fragrance Route de Vetiver by Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier: hard-core stuff!

    Hope that helps :-)


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