Reminiscing of my United States days now that Independence Day is around the corner, I cannot but admit my amazement instigated by the sheer size of the country and the numerous "pockets" of microvariables I witnessed throughout in all matters: nature, people and culture. Who could believe that the Latino-bursting humid Florida with its Art-Deco pastel houses and stretching highways has any relation to the glass skyscrapers, the bustling sidewalk and the loaded, steely sky of New York City? Or how can the jazzy Louisiana with its succulent Creole kitchen be compared to the barbeque pool parties in Los Angeles or the boxwood trees flanking the streets of San Francisco? In trying to assemble a list of quintessentially American fragrances, for men and women to share, I stumble across this very obstacle: One cannot generalise; especially concerning such a multi-nuanced nation as the US!
Still, there are olfactory elements which fuse together to create something that is perceived as American to my mind. The maritime pines, or the palm trees lining Miami beach which remind me of home; mixed with the bay leaves which lace not only Bay Rum the cologne, but also tangy Southern dishes. The lighter Virginia blond tobacco ~so different from the murkier, richer Balkan varieties which I have loved~ remininding me not of Istanbul-bound vagabondages but of a Marlboro rider, free to roam astride in the immense plains. The yellow trillium with its lemon scented flowers and mottled leaves; as well as the ironically named American Beauty Rose, brought from France in 1875 (where it was bred as "Madame Ferdinand Jamin") and commemorated in the Joseph Lamb ragtime "American Beauty Rag". Accessing the fragrances that represent to me the American classics however I recurr to some constants: The desire for a potent message, no matter if it is a "clean" or more herbal/woody one, the affinity for a certain latheriness in even the most dense oriental, the preponderance for traditional proper values.
All these and more comprise my reminiscences and associations with America the Great and I invite you to augment the list with your suggestions. Here are some of my own:
Florida Water Eau de Cologne
The sweet oranges bursting with sunny warmth and tanginess on the branches of Californian and Florida trees are the shift that took place when the traditional European recipe of Eau de Cologne, like the pilgrims, lay foot on the New World by the brand of Lanman & Kemp Barclay in 1808. The addition of clove and lavender imparts two elements of American significance which converge into one: hygiene!
Caswell-Massey's Number Six cologne
Supposedly worn by George Washington and part of the collection of the USA's oldest perfumery, what could be more American? Citrusy and rosemary-rich in a formal but also country-like way, its introduction in 1789 marked the raw, rugged manliness that was necessary for the times: noble ideals fought with decisive dynamism!
Blue Grass by Elizabeth Arden
The enterpreneur Florence Graham choose a name out of "Elizabeth and her German Garden", or altenatively from Tennyson's poem "Enoch Arden" and her former partner Elizabeth Hubbard, when she opened her first beauty salon in 1910 and became world famous as Elizabeth Arden. George Fuschs, a Fragonard perfumer, was commissioned to compose a scent that would honour the Kentucky Blue Grass horses of Arden's in 1934. The smell is one of the great outdoors: freshly dewy and herbal, old-fashionedly lavender-tinged pettering out to clean woods. Despite one of Arden's managers ominous forecasting ("it would remind people of manure and would be a flop"), it became her best-seller. Today it is forgotten, which is all the more reason to re-explore it as an American classic.
Old Spice by Shulton
There is no more poignant memory than dads and grandfathers smelling of this enduring classic of smooth spiciness and austere woods, with its traditional flowery accent of lavender and geranium. Intoduced in 1937 by William Lightfoot Schultz and composed by Albert Hauck, the cologne came in an identical men's and women's scent packaged differently, tagged"Early American Old Spice." It's now part of the Procter & Gamble brand. No matter how much it has become a cliché in perfumeland and how hard it is to shed the associations, the greatness of the scent cannot be denied. It was meant for the guys who would rather shed an arm than change grooming products (ie. typical male customers of half of the 20th century) and it has won several blind tests as "the most expensive, the sexiest, the most sophisticated" fragrance.
Youth Dew by Estee Lauder
Estee Lauder, a Hungarian-Jewish-hailing enterpreneur who flourished in the US, was responsible for the first American fragrance rivaling the French, putting American perfumery on the map and coming out victorious. Her classic spicy-balsam oriental of 1953 is a perennial: Introduced as a bath oil, it revolutionised the way women could now buy fragrance for themselves, rather than expect it as a gift. Perfumer Josephine Catapano (with Ernest Shiftan) married aldehydes with carnation, clove, cinnamon on a base of Tolu balsam, frankincense and rich amber to great aplomb. Despite being dense Youth Dew surprises me by its absence of animalistic dirtiness so beloved by the French. Headstrong, musty and not meant for wallflowers, Youth Dew is best ~discreetly~ enjoyed in the original bath oil form or the gorgeous body cream version.
Norell by Norell
''We all knew the formula was long,'' said Josephine Catapano, the perfumer of Norell (also of Youth Dew), ''like a treaty.'' It was her proudest creation (1968) with a pow of raspy galbanum and an intense trail of clove-y spice under the iron-starch aroma of aldehydes, which seems to date it; a fate fitting to someone like Norman Norell who nipped in waists before Dior and never paid attention to the vagaries of trends, choosing the timeless Babe Paley and Katherine Hepburn who both wore the scent. Forgotten, grabbed by Revlon in 1971 and later sold to Five Star Fragrances, Norell remains a harken-back to the glamour of cinemascope American images and wears like a rich mink on pampered skin.
Halston by Halston
The American designer Halston was born as Roy Halston Fronwick and in 1975 he embodied the scent of an era in his eponymous fragrance in a flacon famously designed by Elsa Perreti. Halston is that rare American chypre which forewent the classic Mediterrannean and foresty ambience for a minty and soapy warmth that lingered on skin seductively. In many ways it not only represented the disco epoch of Studio 54 but ironically enough also the "cleaner" values of the American ideal of sexiness.
Lauren by Ralph Lauren
Was there a college-dorm or high-school locker in America in the late 70s and early 80s that didn't smell of this 1978 creation? I've heard not! The terrific success of this part old-fashioned floral (violet, rose and carnation notes), part herbal-woody by Bernand Chant (Cabochard, Aramis, Aromatics Elixir) has pre-emptied the rage for designer scents in the following decades. Regretably has been reformulated to its detriment ruining the collective mementos of a whole generation.
Polo by Ralph Lauren
Conteporary to the feminine Lauren, Polo is as densely woody green as its bottle-green flacon ~in the shape of a flask with a gold cap and the rider trademark of Lauren's sports line embossed~ would denote. Its rich bouquet of patchouli and oakmoss composed by Carlos Benaim is accented with bracing notes of juniper, artemisia and pine with a light whiff of tobacco, embodying the very essence of an American forest getting on its legs and glidying past you like creatures out of The Lord of The Rings.
Happy by Clinique
No matter how much part of the olfactory landscape this cheerful little potion has become, its huge commercial success was based on 2 factors: It smells optimistic, a trait very much ingrained in the core of a new nation like the US, and it is a "Get me everywhere" scent that would never offend, another desirable in the increasingly non-tolerant American urban environment. Perfumer Roy Matts employed emollient tonalities of mimosa, melon and "clean" musks to gloss over the zinginess of grapefruit, resulting in a best-seller that still endures, 12 years after its introduction.
Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely
Three years after the introduction ~and terrific success~ of the first contemporary celebrity scent by Jennifer Lopez, Glow (2002), another popular figure, actress Sarah Jessica Parker agreed to launch her own scent under the aegis of Coty. A dedicated perfume lover with a self-admitted predeliction for CDG Avignon, Bonne Bell Skin Musk and Paris by Yves Saint Laurent, SJP was the perfect person to compose a celebrity scent: she's genuinely interested! Her Lovely is nothing short of lovely indeed, a refined, girly musky trail with subtle floral accents of virtual magnolia that can be pictured on every cute lady reserving a table & couch at Hudson Terrace or Terminal 5 roof deck on a balmy summer evening.
Well, 11 rather than 10. But we might as well leave it be!
Please post your own all-American fragrances recommendations!
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