Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Leather Series 8: The Garçonne Leathers of the 1920s (part 2)

by guest writer Denyse Beaulieu

Tabac Blond was the opening salve of the garçonnes’ raid on gentlemen’s dressing tables. Its name evokes the “blonde” tobacco women had just started smoking in public (interestingly, Marlboros were launched as a women’s brand in 1924 with a red filter to mask lipstick traces). The fragrance was purportedly meant to blend with, and cover up, the still-shocking smell of cigarettes: smoking was still thought to be a sign of loose morals.
Despite its name, Tabac Blond is predominantly a leather scent, the first of its family to be composed for women and as such, a small but significant revolution. Though perfumery had recently started to stray from the floral bouquets thought to be the only fragrances suitable for ladies (Coty Chypre was launched in 1917), it had never ventured so far into the non-floral. Granted, there are floral notes, but apart from ylang-ylang, the clove-y piquancy of carnation and the cool powdery metallic note of iris don’t stray much from masculine territory. Amber and musk smooth down the bitter smokiness of the leather/tobacco leaf duet, providing the opulent “roundness” characteristic of classic Carons. And it is this ambery-powdery base – redolent of powdered faces and lipstick traces on perfumed cigarettes – that pulls the gender-crossing Tabac Blond back into feminine territory to the contemporary nose, despite Luca Turin’s calling it “dykey and angular and dark and totally unpresentable” in Chandler Burr’s Emperor of Scent. Like its younger sister Habanita (1921), Tabac Blond’s rich, golden-honeyed, slightly louche sillage speaks of late, smoke-laden nights at the Bal Nègre in the arms of Cuban aristocrats or déclassé Russian émigrés, rather than exhilarating rides in fast cars driven by the new Eves…

Not so Knize Ten, the 1924 fragrance composed by Vincent Roubert (who worked with Coty on L’Or and L’Aimant) for the Viennese tailor Knize. The Knize boutique was famously designed in 1913 by architect Adolf Loos, whose anti-Art Nouveau essay, Ornament and Crime, helped define Modernist aesthetics with its smooth surfaces and pure play on volume. The scent itself was introduced to complement the clothier’s first ready-to-wear men’s line and in its opening notes, it clearly speaks in a masculine tone. The leather, paired with bergamot, petitgrain, orange, lemon and the slightly medicinal rosemary, is as dryly authoritative as a sharply-cut gabardine suit. As it eases into wear, rose, orris and carnation throw in a gender-bending curve ~Marlene Dietrich (herself a Knize patron) may have well slipped into that suit… The leather itself is of that of the wrist-watchband or fine shoe rather than the pungent “cuir de russie” boot. But despite the richly animalic base – musk, amber and castoreum – hinting at bridled desires, Knize Ten retains the buffered, well-bred smoothness of gentleman who never felt the need to set foot in the cigar-smoke laden cabinet of Herr Doktor Freud…

His twin sister Chanel Cuir de Russie (also 1924) clearly departs from the butch Cossack boot and its birch-tar roughness. In fact, in an anecdote told by the composer Ernest Beaux to Chanel’s second perfumer Henri Robert, and transmitted to the third perfumer of the house, Jacques Polge, this particular “cuir” was meant to reproduce the delicate smell of the fine leather pouches wrapping precious jewel – another type of loot, as it were, than what the Cossack bore away on their horses. Cuir de Russie is a tribute to the impact of the Russian émigrés on the intellectual and aesthetic life of 1920s Paris -- Beaux himself, of course, was a Russian exile of French descent and Mademoiselle’s fashion house was peopled with elegant Russian aristocrats hired as sales assistants and models – as well as a radically modernist reworking of a by-then decades-old theme.

But more later in Helg’s review…

Photo by Irving Penn courtesy of ArtPhotoGallery.com, painting by Jack Vettriano Fetish, courtesy of angelarthouse


  1. Anonymous17:46

    I find Knize Ten to be one of the best fragrances there is. truly a gentleman scent, indeed and close to perfection from a construction point of view!

  2. Dear Andy, indeed it is. I'm still wondering whether it isn't too gentlemanly to be worn by a woman, but I suspect I could get away with it because of its floral heart to balance out the dryness of the opening.

  3. And I kind of recall that it was an inspiration (although not in the same spirit, since you went on a different direction) for your Lonestar Memories, right?

  4. Loving your posts.

    I'm a Tabac Blond girl- one of the few leathers my family can abide-
    But I'm with Andy on Knize- I adore it.
    Lonestar I wear more successfully, as it purrs after awhile-
    But I still stealthily sniff my Knize with deep pleasure.

  5. Cuir de Russie is indeed one of the softest leather note of that period, refined and aristocratic and not "violent" at all. It has a typical styrax note and of course a lot of natural jasmin to soften everything. The leather 'cuir de russie' with birch note, strong and animalic is very well represented by Scandal Lanvin and the base Cuir de Russie from Synarome (made in the 20's by Fraysse, the same family that gave us Lanvin perfumes, Weil, and so on).
    Once Tabac blond was put in a different family: Tobacco. But because there are not a lot of tabacco and leather fragrances, the 2 families (Tabacco and Leather) "merged".

  6. I've allways felt that Tabac Blond should be smelled with L'Heure bleue (and to a lesser extent with Chypre). What do you think about it?

  7. Ida, I am sure Denyse is excited about your kind words.
    I was so dismayed TB didn't love me. I was sure I would fit it perfectly. But then I found Bandit and all was well :-)

  8. Octavian,

    Fraysse being the nose behind Scandal it figures. I think Chanel's is the most jasmine-rich of the ones I have smelled in the genre.

    Indeed Tobacco seems to be should be a different family altogether. (of course I think the same about spice and no one has done me the courtesy). But then I figure it's rather rare that there are representations (at least in feminine scents), therefore they merged.

    Re: your question about Tabac Blond and L'heure Bleue: I think there is some element of bittersweet in both that gives me that old fashioned feeling (anise in LHB, tobacco-coumarin in TB). I feel that Habanita is TB's more powdered younger sister, ready to please more, seduce more than her "difficult" sibling who is self-providing and a little aloof.

  9. Ida, I'm like Helg: Tabac Blond is not on best behaviour with me, but I suspect this is because I wore its Cuban cousin Habanita for years: too many memories.
    Octavian: thank you for the info on the CdR base composed by Fraysse. Was it actually used in Scandal? That's my next review.
    Tabac Blond is indeed closely related to Chypre; I thought L'Heure Bleue was more of a variation on L'Origan? But I'll do the side-by-side to see. The heliotropin is quite distinctive in L'Heure Bleue.

  10. Anonymous06:58

    Love this series. Stunning work, helg and Denyse.

  11. Oh, Lee, your words are balm to my heart...

  12. Thanks Lee. I appreciate your stopping by to say so :-)


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