"How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?" General Charles de Gaulle had infamously querried. Growing up one of my best friends was French. Her name was Marianne (coincidence?) and she was living in a Paris banlieu: We met in the summers vacationing, we exchanged cards and film-stars-stickers in the wintertime. She brought our family gorgeous stinky cheeses that cemented my life-long appreciation for them, we brought them handmade olive oil soaps and mastic liqueur; and between summer siestas and hot days skulking we came to know each other's culture in passing. I learned that the French are a sensual more than sexual people: They buy their fruits and vegetables every day (fondling them, like us); they like to satisfy their eyes, but also their touch and their tastebuds in everything they do. The cliché wants them to be dirty and if the Paris metro is anything to go by one can't blame that notion, yet much as they have legends of The Great Unwashed (Napoleon's note to Josephine "I am returning in three days; don't wash!") they also have recipes to aromatize said juices! (The tisane recipe of orange, rosewater and mint the French lover hands down to his American young mistress in bed in "Le Divorce" by James Ivory: "That's something you would never have found out in Santa Barbara" he tells her naughtily).
But what constitutes Frenchiness? In the mind of the American it has always stood as sophistication, but this really only stands for Parisians. And not as expected: French women often go for a thrift thrill at Zara and gloat on finding the perfect little outfit for less than 100 euros! They wear mainstream and high-street brands unapologetically and shop at department stores.
My own culture has been very influenced in the political and intellectual fields by France. Yet France is as much the Breton seaside with the matelot tops and its mussells as well as the Gitanes-smoking existentialists and the urinous paths of the clochards in Paris; the sole meunière with its bland ~to my Greek buds~ taste and the tangy blackberries growing on each side of the Loire valley. It's Midi and the characteristic familiar Mediterranean herbs (thyme, oregano, rosemary) picked by hearty housewives cooking a mean coq au vin, but also the Route des Vins d'Alsace (the Wine Route)!
Compiling a list of perfumes viewed as French-smelling, I had to eliminate many classics. Surely Paul Parquet's Fougère Royale for Houbigant (1882) and Jicky by Guerlain (issued in the same year as the Exposition Universelle and the Eiffel Tower, 1889) are beacons in the history of perfumery, but they were not as popular with the French themselves as other scents. The French are an elfin people, small, usually brown-haired and quirky, not blond and athletic, so anything Wagnerian can be safely left behind; nor are they Joan Crawford shoulder-padded and hollowed cheekboned; therefore Mitsouko and its Japonesque homage was out. By the same token the pale sunlight of Après L'Ondée (1906) reminds me more of northern climates. Miss Dior and Cabochard have now changed to the worse... And although France has traditionally been a very advanced country in the intellectual stakes, it is also conservative in its mentality, much like many of the older nations in Europe: People want to feel special, but not to be too different from the other respectable society!
Paris by Yves Saint Laurent seems like an obvious choice, yet its rosy embullient appeal transcends cultures. Same with Soir de Paris by Bourjois, especially popular with American women, and Narcisse Noir by Caron (initially a US hit before establishing Daltroff's knack). In the end I went for an arguably idiosyncratic list of French perfumes which satisfy my inner exploration of what "smells French".
Here it is for your enjoyment.
Amoureuse by Parfums DelRae
Technically an Anglosaxon fragrance (inspired by the Victorian boxwood trees on San Francisco), but executed by a masterful French hand (Michel Roudnitska, son of Edmond and responsible for Noir épices & most of the Del Rae line), Amoureuse is a sublime indolic, "dirty" floral (jasmine and a little tuberose) touched by honeyed sweetness and a ginger zing, that you can picture on someone as fortuitously vulnerable as Jeanne Morreau. It oozes femininity, frank sexuality and inner power like few other modern florals (Manoumalia perhaps?).
Bal à Versailles by Jean Desprez
If there was a void of great French orientals that didn't took you to the gardens of India in the manner of Shalimar, but kept you within terra franca, Bal a Versailles (Ball in Versailles) would be it. Unusually for the second half of the 20th century (1962) issued by the perfumer himself, Bal smells like afterglow ~spent, content and animalic, its citrus opening cascading into a cadenza of rich florals, fanned on opulent resins and golden balsams.
Bel Ami by Hermes
The citrusy leather modern classic of 1986 is often overlooked in its unusual pepperiness and floralcy under the smoky woods (cedar and sandalwood) and the animalic vanilla, which make it raunchy and assertive at first, refined later on. Named after a novel by Guy de Maupassant chronicling the rise to power of a manipulative journalist, Bel Ami has always striken me as the perfect masculine choice for a genuine French lover. Someone like Michel Piccoli of Le Mépris, Belle de Jour and The discreet charm of bourgeoisie. Can you think of anything more French?
Cologne à La Française (Institut Très Bien)
Small children in France ~and all along the Mediterannean~ often have their hands "washed" and their clothes sprinkled with Eau de Cologne. This cherished memory I have has undoubtedly contributed to my appreciating fine fragrances later on. This particular ~recently discontinued~ cologne by Pierre Bourdon bears its nationality proudly as a crest and its lemony goodness is akin to the optimism felt on a bright summer's day. I like to think that it smells like the one (American born) Jean Seberg casually splashes on her nape in Godart's A Bout de Souffle under Belmondo's watchful eye.
Hypnotic Poison by Christian Dior
Annick Ménardo went for the gourmand idea inaugurated by Angel, yet proposed a novel approach: the plummy, bitter almond heart poised on coumarin radiates like a poisonous apple of temptation (cyanide smells of almond) while the heliotropin is a distant wink to Après L'Ondée . Although Angel can be smelled everywhere in Paris, so it can in several other metropoleis (London, Athens, Miami...). Hypnotic Poison (1998) is just this side of being subversive without straying too much.
L'Air du Temps by Nina Ricci
Paris was liberated and hope was brimming in the air; the world was ready for light-hearted optimism after the austerity of the WWII ravages. Francis Fabron was thus commissioned to create the first Nina Ricci perfume in 1948 capturing exactly the "air of the times". The Lalique doves almost kissing on the top of the cap (designed in 1951) symbolised the romanticism that Paris has always stood for in the collective unconscious, preparing us for the olfactory equivalent of delicate Chantilly lace. The scent's tender clovey-carnation and peachy heart seems strung by fairies (especially in the vintage version), given a boost by benzyl salicylate, effectuating one of the most memorable scents of my own childhood.
L'Heure Bleue by Guerlain
From the Impressionist paintings that Jacques Guerlain was inspired of, to the elaborate pattiserie tradition that the French have been going to extremes for (see Vatel), everything in L'Heure Bleue (1912) is redolent of French Belle Epoque: the orange blossoms of the South, the Meditarranean herbs with the spicy anise overlay of rustic bread and the woody violets flanking it, as well as the paradigmatic sillage left behind it, enforce L'Heure Bleue as one of the masterpieces of French perfumery. Its wistful contemplativeness feels very Parisian to me.
Musks Kublaï Khan by Serge Lutens
Named after the bloodthirsty warrior of the steppes and created by Christopher Sheldrake in 1998, the shocking reality is this purring cougar smells soft, luminously warm and inviting in a special, "dirty" way, thanks to intense cistus labdanum, castoreum (rude hide) and civet essences. It shares the barnyard quality with the otherwise mossy musk of L'air de Rien by Miller Harris and several parfums fourrure. Despite its reputation of "the armpit of an unwashed camel driver" (perhaps due to the dirty hair note of costus), my personal perception of it is highly erotic, a view which the many French pilgrims of Les Salons du Palais Royal, where it's exclusively sold, seem to share.
No.5 by Chanel
Is No.5 French-smelling? Does the Pope wear a hat? No list would be complete without Chanel's icon of 1921 by Ernest Beaux, simply because it is emblematic for the perception of French perfume throughout the globe. The image of the little black dress with a single strand of pearls and two drops of No.5 is not especially francophone (it's more of a WASP image nowadays), nor is the touristy "baguette under the arm and tilted beret" cartoonish notion. Yet whether you like its soapy aldehydic bouqeut of intense ylang-ylang and jasmine over a musky trail or not, No.5 has accomplished what the Eiffel Tower has as well: to be considered an instantly recognisable French hallmark!
Nuit de Noël by Caron
The mysterious Mousse de Saxe (Saxon moss) base, with its cool and dark, animalic edge rich in musky and vanillic aromata (it's said to include geranium, licorice, leather, iodine and vanillin), and its jarring 6-isobutylquinoline (leathernote) produce a rosy-woody-powdery fragrance with a raw undercurrent that stood apart even in an era filled with outstanding perfumes (1922). Guy Robert praised it thus: "If a woman were to enter [a crowded theatre] wearing Nuit de Noël, all the other women would become invisible".
Une Fleur de Cassie by Editions des Parfums Frédéric Malle
I recall seeing farmers collecting gum from the cassie tree (acacia farnesiana) for use as gum arabic substitute in Australia, their agile hands working effortlessly. Known as Cassier du Levant in the South of France, the scent of cassie is rich in benzaldehyde, anisic aldehyde, and a violet-smelling ketone, rendering the essence sensuous and shadowy fleshy like the contours of a soft feminine body through gauzy garments. Cassie has been harnessed in several renditions from Caron's Farnesiana to Coty's La Jacée through Creed's Aubepine Acacia, but nowhere is the flesh-like honeyed richness, from bark to thorny stem to sugary-spun blossom, best interpreted than in Dominique Ropion's masterpiece Une Fleur de Cassie.
Vétiver by Guerlain
Simply put the scent of the French bourgeoisie, a classic that smells respectable and always pleasant in all situations; the passe partout that opens all doors! It seems there's nary a banker, broker, lawyer or well-to-do doctor in France who hasn't got a bottle of this citrus woody with refreshing vetiver notes of Jean Paul Guerlain in their bathroom. Although Eau de Guerlain with its provencal herbs accord is just as French, Vétiver (1961) caught on more, due to its erstwhile virile profile. A bit hacknayed thus if you're actually French and in France, it stands along with Dior's Eau Sauvage as the classic of classics in the great masculines pantheon. Its feminine counterpart is exceptional too!
Please add your own suggestions on French-smelling perfumes!
Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Stars & Stripes ~10 Quintessentially American Fragrances
Painting "La Liberté guidant le peuple" by Eugène Delacroix (technically commemorating the July Revolution of 1830) via Wikimedia Commons. Jeanne Morreau in Les Amants via cinemoi.tv, J.P.Belmondo via artscatter.com, L'Heure Bleue photo via Tangled up in L'heure Bleue