Monday, December 31, 2007

A Smooth Leather for the Tough 1930s: Lanvin Scandal

~by guest writer Denyse Beaulieu

Though the fashion pendulum swung back to femininity, away from the androgynous styles of the Garçonnes towards a more traditionally feminine silhouette ~waists, breasts and hips caressed by bias-cut satin, bobs set in platinum marcelled curls~ the Thirties were in fact a much tougher era than the Années Folles. Perhaps all-out modernism can only occur in an era of financial optimism…

The France in which Scandal was born in 1932 was riddled with unemployment, political instability and financial scandals. In the wake of the newly fashionable psychoanalysis, surrealism delved into the subconscious and its disturbing images. From the 1932 Tabu by Dana to Schiaparelli’s Shocking in 1937, perfume names reflected these troubled times…
It is strange, though, that the house of Lanvin would be the boldest in naming its scents: the milliner Jeanne Lanvin actually launched her brilliant career by producing for her high society clientele the designs she had created for her beloved daughter – the house logo by Paul Iribe showed a stylised mother and daughter embrace. However, starting with the sensuous My Sin in 1925, on to L’Ame Perdue (“Lost Soul”) and Pétales Froissés (“Crumpled Petals”, perhaps a vague allusion to “damaged goods”), both in 1928, Lanvin launched a series of racily-named perfumes. A shrewd marketer, she was in tune with the zeitgeist. In the year following the launch of Scandal, the most resounding politico-financial scandal of the decade, the Stavisky affair ~in which several prominent figures were embroiled~ would rock France to its very foundations.

Was Scandal scandalous for its day? As we have seen in the previous instalments of this series, leather had already entered the feminine scent wardrobe a decade earlier. But unlike its Twenties forerunners Tabac Blond, En Avion or Djedi, and to a much greater degree than Chanel Cuir de Russie, Scandal plays up the animalic, leathery side of leather. According to perfume historian Octavian Sever Coifan, who commented about it on these pages, André Fraysse had also composed a “cuir de Russie” base (i.e. a mixture of different components for ready use in perfumery) for Synarome.
This is possibly the “cuir de Russie” mentioned in the breakdown of notes:

Top: neroli, bergamot, mandarine, clary sage.
Heart: jüchten (cuir de Russie), iris, rose, ylang
Base: incense, civet, oakmoss, vanilla, vetiver, benzoin.
Considered by many perfume lovers to be the ultimate leather, Scandal was admired by no lesser an authority than the late, great Edmond Roudnitska. It is one of the few classics he mentions in his book Le Parfum(Presses Universitaires de France, 1980), firstly as the prototype of a “fruity-aldehydic-leather” family and secondly, as a prime example of compositions that evoke rather than represent a note (which he opposes to non-representational perfumes such as N°5, Arpège, Mitsouko or Femme).
“Leather and tobacco”, he observes, “are already transpositions of natural elements since they undergo painstaking preparations which alter the initial odour.”

My own version of Scandal is a flacon of extrait, of which one third has evaporated. The aldehydic top notes mentioned by Roudnitska have all but disappeared, except in the first fleeting moments of application, with a slight hint of citrus.

What immediately dominates is, well, leather, with a stronger birch tar edge than Chanel Cuir de Russie, with which it shares several notes: rich, deep, smooth as a fine old Bordeaux or a single malt whisky, with its complex peaty-mossy depths – oakmoss certainly, possibly vetiver because of the earthiness. A sombre undercurrent yields a vaguely licorice-y tinge to the heart, in a moment of olfactory illusionism: is it the clary sage? The floral notes seem so deeply blended in that they don’t appear as such any longer, which could be an effect of the age of the sample – a common phenomenon in older extraits. In its pristine version, the aldehydic fizz lifting the dark wood-resin-animal base, churning through the stately cool iris, tender rose and flesh-like carnality of the ylang-ylang must made for an intoxicating experience.
As it is, though, it is still a compellingly complex, opulent leather.

Though Lanvin has recently re-launched a scent of the same André Fraysse series, Rumeur (there was also Crescendo and Prétexte), there seems to be no chance of their resurrecting Scandal, discontinued in 1971: British perfumer Roja Dove has appropriated the name which had fallen into the public domain for one of his own compositions, an opulent white floral. Lancôme’s 2007 re-edition of Révolte/Cuir, another animalic leather of the period, was quickly followed by its discontinuation, allegedly because it was too costly to produce.

Thus, the original Scandal seems condemned to the limbo of long-lost scents. The few drops remaining are all the more precious: a reminder of an age where to dab your skin in the scent of a flower-drenched leather would send an iconoclastic frisson coursing through well-bred salons…

Pics from the "Gosford Park" film by Robert Altman, set in 1932, courtesy of djuna.cine21.
Pic of the french film "La règle du jeu" by Jean Renoir from wikipedia.
Lanvin ad originally uploaded at


  1. Excellent review Helg! Interesting that you and I both chose a leather-y, boozy scent for this date? I will have to get my hands on some original Scandal. It sounds marvelous!

  2. Fascinating. Makes me long for an era which isn't necessarily deserving of the longing, but still...
    I have a vintage extrait of the original My Sin. It doesn't feel very sinful, though definitely pretty. Now I'll have to haunt eBay until I find Scandal.

  3. Actually, TMH, my choice of Scandal for a review is purely chronological: it comes in the leather series after the 20s... But "boozy" is quite serendipitous for the time of year, I admit! Though I would probably choose something a bit more aldehydic and fizzy to match the champagne tonight.

  4. Gaia, I find My Sin quite sensuous - its "sinfulness" is hidden behind layers of ladylike elegance (or at least a slinky silk sheath). Scandal is definitely worth seeking out, but its cult status makes it very hard to nab. And expensive. Still, you can get lucky.

  5. D caught it before I did :-) Good!

    We are following a historical perspective, both because it is my area of expertise (and the principal differentiation of this blog) and because D shares my passion.

  6. G,
    isn't it funny when we long and nostalgise for something we didn't even experience first-hand?

    I love the description "a beautiful flower inside a leather handbag"...(it was Guy Robert I believe who said it a propos)

  7. On second thought, it might have been Roudnitska. In any case, it was told to Jean Kerleo who passed on the quote :-)

    And the breakdown of notes comes from the Haarmann & Reimer Fragrance Guide to Feminine Notes.

  8. Anonymous15:26

    d. :)
    lovely review - just as i try to get over my vintage obsession LOL
    i have a sample of scandal, but never got around to try it, yet.
    my favourite leather scent will remain tabac blond, as it also reminds me of my first time in paris & caron being the first boutique i visited.
    please, don´t tell me that the re-edition of lancôme´s cuir isn´t available anymore!
    i was planning to buy it but as it was reissued just this year, i thought, i had plenty of time to decide when to purchase.
    do you perhaps know if the boutique still stocks it? i don´t know the vintage, but the recent version was quite lovely, starting sweet, then getting very dry just to get sweeter in the final drydown again.

  9. Wonderful musings on a truly great perfume! I am lucky enough to have a smidgen of extrait in good condition. The fizz in the top is gone, but the floralcy is very much intact. I made a solemn vow not to hunt down any more on ebay, both because the cost is too high, and because I think it's a crime to hoard it when others have never sniffed it--not that I'm not tempted!

    "I find My Sin quite sensuous - its "sinfulness" is hidden behind layers of ladylike elegance (or at least a slinky silk sheath)."

    Exactly! The final dry down of My Sin is one of the sexiest things I've ever smelled.

  10. Malena, there might still be some Lancôme Cuir around but I wouldn't count on it: when I bought mine two months ago at the Lancôme shop in Paris, there were only three bottles left (I nabbed another one for a PoLer friend). I wrote to Lancôme to know why but got what was essentially a brush-off. I really like it, but if you've got Tabac Blond and/or Cuir de Russie in extrait, don't cry, they're still the best on the market.

  11. Bittergrace, I'm glad I'm not alone in finding My Sin sinful... And I'll try to join you in that vow not to hunt down more Scandal. Such a pity there's really nothing like it (goes off to sob under the desk).
    And thank you for the kind words! (raises head, wipes tears).

  12. Forgive me for not following your historical perspective. This is the first day I've had off work in a long time and therefore the first time I've had a chance to visit other blogs in a long time. I chose yours first. I choose to look for similarities rather opportunities for elitism. Nonetheless, nice entry.

  13. Dear TMH, no elitism was intended, really. I wrote my response to your comment before I'd had my second (and third) coffee, so it might have come off a bit dry, for which I apologize. I see from your blog you're also interested in perfume history, and look forward to more posts on that subject -- there can never be too many. We've all go info and different perspectives to share, don't we?

  14. Late to the party...

    First scent I really fell for, at age 3.
    A family friend brought this home to my mother- only a samp.
    She never saw it again.
    To me, it conjured trailing sables, red lips, seamed stockings, and talons hauts.

    I wanted to be that woman.

    Great review !

  15. Dear I,

    you're never late! Somehow I was sure this would be your juice. But at 3? You beat us all to it!
    Many wishes!!


  16. @Malena:

    Like D says, if Tabac Blond suits you...(myself I am partial to CdR)


    Gosh, woman, now must I hunt for My Sin? ;-)


    Dear T,
    first of all thank you for choosing this venue first for your holiday browsing (I'm honoured) and happy New Year to you.
    I apologise if it sounded like a brush-off (none intented!). I think Denyse merely wanted to set the record straight, on which the further clarification about the historical/chronological sequence we opted for.
    I appreciate your comment on looking for similarities and welcome your pointing them at to me.

  17. Anonymous04:42

    Great review carmencanada! I love how you put in perspective the historical dimension of classic perfumes.
    I scored a Scandal vintage on ebay a while ago, mine was also 1/3 evaporated and I can 't detect aldehydic top notes. I can 't really smell any of the other notes you mentioned, to me Scandal starts dark not as strict as Cuir de Russie, the drydown is much softer. I 'm wearing it tonight and asked my boyfriend what it smells like to him, without hesitating, he said baby powder. I have no idea if that makes sense or not, but it is very soft on me.

    Like Malena my favorite leather remains Tabac Blond, the vintage one, not the watered down reformulated version they have now.


  18. Anonymous01:22

    Hi Helg,

    I have a bottle of Scandal extrait from the 60s that was sealed & in excellent condition. I do not notice any fruit per se but rather a huge, fresh burst of florals. Very honeysuckle-like, though I assume it is the combination of neroli, jasmine, etc. These florals dominate for a long while until they begin to fade into the darker, resinous, leathery base. It's quite nice, although I think I do prefer vintage Rumeur for my "Lanvin leather" fix. :-)


Type your comment in the box, choose the Profile option you prefer from the drop down menu, below text box (Anonymous is fine too!) and hit Publish.
And you're set!

This Month's Popular Posts on Perfume Shrine