Thursday, February 7, 2008

Leather Series 9: leather scents of the 50s

After the ravages of WWII, which brought real emancipation to women through their en masse contribution to the workforce and the uniformity of vote throughout the western world, people were now free to revert to more conservative models of life. In that regard, fashion and its cultural sensibilities that pertain to fragrances followed suit. Women craved glamour and style after the privasions of the war and the boosting economy tended to their needs with swathes of fabric and gilded bottles of precious, fragrant liquid.

In this economically optimistic atmosphere which was olfactorily inaugurated with the stunning verdancy of Vent Vert by Balmain (1947) and the playfully leathery animalic chypré Miss Dior by Christian Dior (1947), women reverted to more traditional roles in which the bitter green dyke-y typhoon of Bandit (1944) had no place. Family values gained newfound popularity as the world was ready to be repopulated with young people, to substitute the ones who had perished in the fields of warfare. Thus, being a good wife and mother was seen as the height of success for a woman of that era and in that regard fashion and perfumes complimented that ideal: constrictive lingerie that created smooth but immovable lines beneath the new secretary-chic clothing of twin sets and pencil skirts; bows and polka dots fighting for a decorative boost, capri pants and Vichy plaid, pearls adorning swan and less swan-like necks alike; the introduction of the stiletto heel ramaging parquet floors and the concept of shoes matching the outfit in its colouring and detail.

The formality and solid glamour of the 1940s relaxed into clothing that was more conservative overall, taking cue from the “I Love Lucy” series and “The Honeymooners”. The rock n’roll craze injected its own special touch to the youth culture with voluminous circle skirts, short ankle socks and ballet flats. Dior and Balenciaga were the couturiers to revolutionize fashions and while to wear the former you needed a slim waist, to wear the latter you needed a headstrong caracter: Many of his creations were architectural in nature and striking in their aesthetics.

Perfumes consequently moved into the realm of demure floral, feminine floral chyprés and elegant cool aldehydics. Leather as a material had lost its emancipated allure of the Garconnes of the 20s and the toughness of the Nazi uniform of WWII, relegated into items of luxury denoting prestige: expensive, smooth handbags of stiff shape made from endangered species (ecoconsiousness had not entered people’s vernacular yet), heels in elongated impractical shapes, Chesterfield couches in gentlemen’s clubs. With a rebelious sideline of leather boots worn by Teddy Boys and youths copying Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”.
Leather in fragrances therefore took a new twist to match the sartorial mores of the times: powdery, with floral touches of old-fashioned violets such as in Jolie Madame by Balmain (1953) or starting its own revolution with all the gusto of a "Rebel without a Cause" in Cabochard by madame Grès (1959). The refinement of the original Doblis, issued by the house of Hermès in 1955, is the soft to the touch hand that caresses a crocodile-skin bag; in many ways its logical descendant in fatal smoothness is Paul Vacher's Diorling for Christian Dior in 1963.

Myself I envision the femme leathers of the 50s emulating the style of two different ends of the spectrum: on one hand like the insouciant costumes of “Une Parisienne” (1957) with Brigitte Bardot and on the other like the faded, broken heroine of “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” (1961) as played by Vivien Leigh; both elegantly dressed by none other than Pierre Balmain, the couturier who established the jolie madame style of 50s fashion.

(uploaded by stallano)

Reviews on all those scents coming up shortly!

Pic of Suzy Parker for Balenciaga couture from Vogue 1963. Roger Vivier pink embroided shoe for Christian Dior from Victoria & Albert museum exhibition.


  1. "Dior and Balenciaga were the couturiers to revolutionize fashions and while to wear the former you needed a slim waist, to wear the latter you needed a headstrong caracter"

    Coincidentaly enough, I just quoted the same quote on Gaia's blog about a week ago, but as I wrote in that comment then, I was unable to remember where the quote comes from! Do you know, Helg?

  2. Dear D,

    you managed to prompt me to go search for the comment you made! LOL

    I gather it's this one?
    "I think you will like this quote I read in a book lately: "It was said at the time that to wear Dior, you had to have a waist, but to wear Balenciaga, you had to have character."
    Apologies if the 'quote' is a little mangled, I am going from memory!

    But surely since it is in a book you read lately, you must know!
    However, since you ask, I can't recommend enough the one I have been reading concerning the subject: it's by Marie-Andree Jouve, simply called Balenciaga. I think Denyse might have read it as well (I believe so).
    Of course I am sure such things are perpetuated in Vogue articles as well (of which I am also a fan, btw)

  3. Actually, no, I don't know, otherwise I would have told Gaia of course! I've been picking my brain trying to remember where I read it ever since, that's why I asked for your source. It's not the one you mention unfortunately. As for Vogue, I don't read it - I view all the latest runway shows and reviews online.

  4. Then, I am sorry but I can't help you to remember where you read it. I recall such comparisons from the French ~they love doing it, Poiret and Chanel, Dior and Balenciaga, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent etc.(and the book has been translated in English), so since I believe you don't read French books, perhaps you might give it a go? It's a good one.
    I wonder if there are also Dutch authors who have focused on couture issues. (I wouldn't know myself, LOL)

    Vogue has been a great source of inspiration for me over the years; especially older issues, since before going online. Inspiring articles, especially British edition.

  5. I'd love to see a review of Hermes Doblis (and another re-release!).

    Switching gears here -- Happy Lunar New Year, dear helg! Today starts the Year of the Rat.

  6. As soon as possible, Iris. :-)

    Happy new year to you too! I had no idea: completely slipped my mind that indeed there is that lovely Chinese tradition yesterday.
    Thanks for reminding me.

  7. Anonymous17:04

    Hey Helg: If I may butt in, there is a book about fashion in which the rivalry between Dior and Balenciaga is recounted.
    It's Fifty Years of Fashion by Valerie Steele, there is a chapter called Couture and Conformity that you'd like, I bet

  8. No Helg, I haven't read the book about Balenciaga. Right now I'm up to my neck in Chanel, preparing my lecture. But I'll look it up, as well as the Valerie Steele book Irene mentions.

  9. Good then; we all have lots of catching up to do :-)


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