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Friday, July 3, 2009

Stars & Stripes: 10 Quintessentially American Fragrances

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!

Pics: Collen Moore The Stars and the Stripes, wikimedia commons, parfums de pub, cinematic passions.wordpress.com

40 comments:

  1. Petals15:43

    Great job E! I was definitely hoping to see EL White Linen there though (SJP's Lovely caught me by surprise). Love, love, love old spice. Cheap and good.

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  2. Hi T honey, thank you!

    *a little shamefully* I actually kicked White Linen out because of Lovely, because I thought there needed to be a very modern one in there as well. Despite my better efforts to restrict myself, I did manage to end up with 11 instead of 10....
    However I agree with you that WL is very American in feel. Actually in another way, so is Tresor! (a thought I had which perhaps I will expound on in detail on a seperate article)

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  3. Anonymous16:20

    Dear E,

    Fascinating and perfect choices. What about cK One? Although the idea of a unisex perfume is certainly not American, as scent was originally entirely devoid of gender bias, the spirit of cK One seems very American to me. It worships youth, tolerence (this is a loaded issue when referring to the States, I know, but let's not go there here) and diversity, which seems like a very American thing to do.

    Natalia

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  4. Oh, what a wonderful post! It's nice to read a thoughtful review/analysis of some quintessentially American scents that isn't a massive backhanded compliment. I enjoyed this trip down memory lane! And I really need to dig up my Norell....

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  5. Natalia,

    thank you! Very good suggestion, for all the reasons you describe. I am a little concerned however that they all hinge on a marketing angle rather than true faith in those values. Or perhaps it's that I have always been a CKBe fan (especially of the so deliciously spooky commercials> see it here on "Perfume advertising 3: gender play")

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  6. Petals16:33

    E! Tresor, as American? Really. I cannot wait to read your new post on this. Could it because it was Sophia Grojsman's creation (like White Linen)?

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  7. Thanks darling March!
    I feel like Americans are so often given the shorter end of the stick when compiling classics lists and such, as so often only the French are considered to qualify, when in fact there are several iconic frgrances and of course many blockbusters which are born on US soil. After all, isn't the US the cauldron of all influences?
    On the other hand, indeed often there is a tendency to "gloss over" some of the nation's tastes in a over-patriotic zeal.

    Norell is fabulous and quality all the way: makes it a shame it has downsized to the drugstore. Enjoy, you'll smell fabulous!!

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  8. T,

    you got yourself a deal! (It does have a part, it's a host of factors in my mind) ;-)

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  9. Anonymous17:05

    Dear E,

    Oh yes, it's all about the marketing! But aren't we all just projecting onto the fragrance the feeling the advertising wants us to project? I don't even remember what cK one smells like; I just remember the advertising and how new and "cool" it was. It felt like something some really cool NYC kids would wear.

    Natalia

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  10. Rappleyea17:19

    I'm an unabashed Francophile when it comes to fragrances. The best I can offer is that I tested SSS's Champagne de Bois this week and liked it very much. Even though it has a French name, it could be nod to America's many woodlands.

    Interesting note - Arden's beautiful farm is still going strong here in central Ky., now owned by the University of Ky. and used by their agriculture department.

    Happy holiday to all!
    Donna

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  11. What delightful list, very well thought out. I'm with March: I need to dig up a bottle of Norell!

    Also agree about cK One and Tommy Girl too is very much an all American juice

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  12. Thank you Kathleen for saying so.
    Norell is magnificent, it's what I envision those wonderful mature ladies on Fifth Avenue smelling of. (lots of them also wear Shalimar of course, but that isn't very American, is it)

    Tommy Girl is all American, true! I had so ravaged it though (or rather its status in the Guide) that I was wondering if I could include it in a more serious piece! LOL

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  13. Argh, but Elizabeth Arden is Canadian!!!
    (Even if her company isn't...)

    I would certainly include in that list some of the scents you mentioned, I don't know if I have 10 but my list will certainly include:
    Bourbon French's Dark Gift (the name was changed because of some copyrigth agreement with Anne Rice, but I can't remember to what...)
    Hove Perfumery's Spanish Moss (it's the only scent I tried from the house, but I am sure there are others worth trying)
    Private Collection
    Youth Dew
    Obsession
    Anne Pliska
    Lovely
    Glow
    Old Spice
    Aromatics Elixir
    If I had to pick a Ralph Lauren it would be Pure Turquoise.

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  14. Ayala,

    hi!!

    Very true, perhaps the association has more to do with the horses than Arden herself.

    Love your list!!! I'd wager you that Pure Turquoise is a better scent (I prefer it, as I know you do too) but those two are more iconic in the US-collective unconscious I feel.
    Obsession smells middle-eastern to me, despite everything!! Weird I know! (it's one of the ambers I like) And Aromatics Elixir I smell SO MUCH her (it's a best-seller), that I have come to associate it with the Mediterrannean rather than its country of origin!
    Hadn't thought of Anne PLiska I admit, but she certainly has a little cult in her hands, doesn't she!
    Interesting choices, I should locate a sample of the Dark Gift. I had heard the Anne Rice story someplace, although wasn't it originally created FOR her??

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  15. What a great list! I'm going to wear White Linen tomorrow. A tiny quibble, though: Elizabeth Arden wasn't Jewish. She was an Episcopalian of Welsh descent. Perhaps you're thinking of her long-time business rival, Helena Rubinstein, who was a Jewish immigrant from Poland?

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  16. Elizabeth,

    thanks, and enjoy!
    You must be right!! Those two were mortal enemies, weren't they? Entwined for ever in memory. I have just edited out the adjective so as not to mislead readers.

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  17. Alexandra19:29

    Halston is a *clean american chypre*, I agree, but Halston couture is a real full blooded foresty chypre.
    I recently gave away my Norell, my DH couldn`t stand it (old granny smell)

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  18. Great list! I'm so pleased to see Blue Grass get a mention. I still love the stuff. And Norell will always be a favorite of mine.

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  19. When I think of American perfume I see "Charlie" by Revlon.

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  20. Anonymous04:08

    Great choices, and more great choices from commenters!

    I know you discussed this above, but Obsession just has to get my vote. It is pure USA in the eighties--all enthusiatic, optimistic and loud.

    Loved it then, but just can't go near it now.

    Mary

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  21. Great list!

    My favourite American fragrance is Tommy Girl (Tommy Hilfiger). I've had a bottle for over a year now and haven't grown tired of it!

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  22. Alexandra,

    oh...you should have kept Norell for times alone! (that;s what I do with those that are unappreciated by entourage)
    Yes, HC is definitely not the same! Thanks for pointing it out.

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  23. M,

    thanks honey, appreciate your saying so. It's funny how previous best-sellers become obsolete after the passage of a few decades.
    Norell is so...I don't know, patrician?? (for lack of a better word)

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  24. M,

    very true, Charlie marked an era, didn't it? It's a pity they have cheapened it.

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  25. Mary,

    thanks! I hear you on the "enthusiatic, optimistic and loud", it certainly is and the US culture seems to be so too. Personally I love Obsession and wear it from time to time, it's so snuggly! I fully realise however lots of people have been overexposed to it and can't stomach it any more.

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  26. Audit,

    hi there and thanks!
    Tommy Girl supposedly utilizes all American floral essences(supposedly, I repeat)and it definitely had a very stars & stripes advertising behind it. (It's a mystery how TH has rappers et al as his buying audience when the advertisemtns show scrubbed clean WASPy boys, eh?)

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  27. Bond No9? I am head over heels in love with "Chinatown". Maybe they're a bit NYcentric rather than generally American though. But so pretty. And weirdly I kind of think of Molinard "Habanita" as kind of Miami-ish rather than either French or Cuban. Sorry, I know I'm odd. xx

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  28. What a wonderful post; thanks so much! I just returned from three weeks traveling in the American west, so I've been thinking about the "true" America a lot. Can't add any fragrance to the list, but I've worn Norell off and on since receiving a bottle for Christmas in 1969 (I was 10; my mother really fueled my love of fragrance!) I still love it once in a while and will wear it today.

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  29. Three more very American scents I would add to your list, all men's:

    Stetson, a big, sprawling, sweet fougere, as if someone had tried to make a leather scent without any leather in it, and at the same time had the original Lagerfeld in the back of their mind.

    Perry Ellis Reserve and Clinique Chemistry, two perfect exemplars of the mid-nineties style of men's perfumery--crisp, smart, tailored, complex without being fussy.

    I love 'em all, and to my nose you could never take them for anything except American.

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  30. Wonderful concept...like that you've tried to go across time as well as stay "in country"...

    Hmm, how would I add it in? Don't know what would get knocked off, but I'll put in a plug for Jean Nate, the 4711 for the center of North America. It's not the same, of course; there's something a little thicker, vaguely vanillic/powdery, in there...but also has the snap, of course, that makes a refrigerator scent what it is. ;) Has been the inexpensive refresher of more than one generation of an American woman.

    And, of course, I tip my hat to your mention of Norell. I almost feel like it goes without saying when my name is at the bottom--or, at this point, people start to wish it would (go without saying).

    Have a wonderful weekend.

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  31. To me, most of the Lauders (I certainly haven't smelled them all yet) have a quintessentially "American" quality; a sort of "yes, I'm wearing perfume, what's the problem?" message. Add to that lots and lots of imaging and marketing.

    There may be a subtle EL, but I haven't sniffed it yet! Of course Youth Dew is the only possible choice for this list, as it was the first, and founded an empire.

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  32. For me, Beautiful is "my" american perfume. I wore it throughout my university years (1986-1992), and it brings back many memories.

    My daughter asks me: "Why do you say the happy eighties, mum?" "Because they were", is my standard reply.

    It is a true dilemma, we (in my case, norwegians) often criticise US policies and political and military actions, and still we love many parts of american culture with all our hearts. Including american perfume! :D

    Gundad

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  33. Lucy,

    Chinatown is good, no doubt about it. I rather like the Miami-ish Habanita allusion!! (I loved Miami, perhaps that's why)

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  34. Rosarita,

    thank you for chimming in! True American things: a vast subject!

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  35. R,

    excellent choices! Thank you!
    I think I had a decant of Chemistry at some point and recall it as one of the better 90s frags. :-)

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  36. S,

    thanks darling for your kind words.
    I have no experiences with Jean Nate, but have heard it spoken of fondly, so I assume generations grew with it (always an endearing thing). Thanks for mentioning it!!

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  37. P,

    good observation. I am racking my brain to think of a subtle one: maybe Pleasures? It's quite potent though in its own way. Or Youth Dew Amber Nude? (very recent, so does this count?) What do you think?

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  38. Gundad,

    thanks so much for this personal snippet which is so illuminating!

    Indeed! I find myself disagreeing with many political decisions and actions on the part of the US administrations, yet the pop culture is something else. The US pop culture (and that includes perfume) is very, very interesting and rather top-notch (How many references do we come across every day in our lives of American icons? I know I do a LOT!)
    Beautiful used to have a certain something about it; a bit too loud, but that was its character, I suppose.

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  39. E, I really appreciate your decision to write this piece for the American holiday. I have found myself so often wishing for an expatriate life, or thinking that my sensibilites would have been better suited to being born in certain other lands. However, there are still things I absolutely LOVE about America, and your post certainly reminded me of them. I also appreciated Gundad's comment.

    I'm actually unfamiliar with most of your list, except Polo, which I wore at one point in my life, as I did Tommy Men, and both sort of remind me of more innocent times, and of that certain type of idealized (white, beautiful, upperclass-aspirational) youth that is such a typical fictional construction of our American media and advertising machines.

    You have intrigued me so much with mentioning Blue Grass. I wonder if the current formulation is worth smelling at all? You may be surprised to know that the Arden website states that it's "inspired by the beautiful flower fields and blue skies of Grasse, France."

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  40. Joe,

    you're most welcome, I thought as a foreigner it would be interesting to see what I perceive as American and what not. It's often that Americans themselves don't realize the good things they have on their hands, culturally-wise (I believe the pop culture is top notch in the US as opposed to other countries, the other higher brow culture can appear aspirational though)
    You're definitely right in the concept Polo communicated, after all isn't RL the most "British" of US designers? (said knowing full well of his origins)

    The Blue Grass cologne is quite good even now, it's a simple refreshing smell and you could knock me down with a feather on that preposterous description, thanks for mentioning it, had no idea! Proof positive everything Frenchified sounds "better" to some people's minds...Bah!!
    If I hear one more time about Grasse etc in ad copy I swear I am going to barf! :/

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