There is a fascinating term for down-and-dirty in French: "parfum de fourrure" (par-fehm –de-fou-reeh-rr or click here to hear how "fourrure" is pronounced), which means “fur perfume”, to denote not a fragrance meant to be literally used on fur coats (as fur gets dried by alcohol and is sensitive to several materials anyway), but rather a perfume to be worn when donning a luxurious fur coat, usually in the evening amidst smart company. Natural fur has a catty odour, which can become rather musty when turned into a coat that’s stored in the closet, and this necessitated the use of scents that would help “mask” this problem. In fact Claude Fraysee, the creator of fragrances for parfums Weil, celebrated furriers to begin with, was said to have created “parfums furrure” specifically at the request of a client. But we will revert to that later.
The sociological implications of furs are not to be sidetracked when considering this particular olfactory vogue which flourished in the beginnings of the 20th century, well before PETA and animal-rights-movement. In regions where extreme temperatures necessitated fur-wearing for months on end, such as Canada and Russia, fur-producing countries, that aspect was minimal. In Russia specifically fur does not hold a great implication of luxury, as even the poor wear it –albeit in poorer quality incarnations-to escape the cold. This is perhaps the sanest use of fur devoid of any aspirational nuances. In other parts of the Northern hemisphere however furs emerged as an emblem of luxury, ever since antiquity. They became especially prized since the Romanov dynasty’s decline and the subsequent stories of princess Anastasia escaping in the West (finally put to rest after the DNA examination that proved she was part of the Bolsheviks’ shootings) which fueled the imagination of millions. Numerous are the literature texts in which a mysterious lady with a Russian accent, decked in furs and art-deco jewels, is referenced. The baroque style of the Russian court who was in close diplomatic contact with the French gave rise to a vogue for fur coats and stoles; particularly welcome covering the by now naked shoulders of women in 20s filmsy charleston-dresses or 30s evening gowns that left them all too cold for comfort.
But fur was also heavily eroticized starting with Leopold von Sacher Masoch’s “Venus in Furs”, in which fur performs the role of exalting his heroine’s, Wanda von Dunajew, almost supernatural façade and is then copiously referenced in the Berlin cabaret scene and classic film noirs.
And who can forget Charles Baudelaire when in Un Fantôme II Le Parfum (from "Les Fleurs du Mal") he rhapsodised another kind of fur, much more intimate and impolite, almost untranslateable ~the odor di femina, the musky smell of a woman's sex:
Reader, have you at times inhaledIn the 1970s, silver fox was de rigeur in advertisements and VIP pics accompanying the Glamazons of the era. Fur coats ~stoles especially, as they are so much easier to wear and more dramatic to use~ became standard luxury evening-wear to the point that designer Ciara Bonni declared them in the early 90s a cliché ~the most expected garment to wear over an evening gown and therefore not chic.The animal rights movement in subsequent years has attached a stigma to fur-wearing, an act of vanity ~which it so often is. Although “ecological” man-made fur is proposed as an alternative, the truth is they do not feel in the least as soft and on top of that their fibres are made from materials that do not disintegrate fast enough, rendering them ~ironically enough~ quite unecological. Still, fur-wearing is laden with some well-deserved guilt nowadays for ethical reasons, even if it involves vintage pieces which are the only ones I would use myself. Nevertheless it has been making a quiet come-back in fashion for quite some time. But the above small history of fur proves it wasn’t so when perfumes were specifically built to compliment it!
With rapture and slow greediness
That grain of incense which pervades a church,
Or the inveterate musk of a sachet?
Profound, magical charm, with which the past,
Restored to life, makes us inebriate!
Thus the lover from an adored body
Plucks memory's exquisite flower.
From her tresses, heavy and elastic,
Living sachet, censer for the bedroom,
A wild and savage odor rose,
And from her clothes, of muslin or velvet,
All redolent of her youth's purity,
There emanated the odor of fur.
The naturally catty odour of fur lent itself effortlessly to perfumes which are rich in animal ingredients such as castoreum (often used to render leather hide notes), musk and especially civet. Natural civet comes through the impolite secretions of a small animal’s perineal glands, produced spontaneously and amassed in a process not harmful to the animal, although surely quite irritating! The advent of animalic notes after years of demure Victorian floral waters was coinciding with the vogue of the roaring Twenties for everything forbidden, dangerous and dark. It wasn’t since before L’ Empire (the years of Napoleonic reign) that musk had been popular and after more than a century past, it was the perfect occasion for its return. The success of opulent, somnobulent Orientals such as Tabu and Shalimar paved the way for braver and “dirtier” escapes in fragrances. Fur perfumes had been born!
To be continued..... Perfume and Fur part 2
Pics: "Pola woman" and Charlotte Rampling photography by Helmut Newton. Carolina Herrera in furs by her mother, designer Carolina Herrera. Theda Bara the Vamp via seraphicpress.com