Sunday, February 1, 2009

Perfume and Fur part 1

Upon relating perfume-wearing to winter it’s natural to think of fragrances as warm and enveloping as a fur coat of the softest mink or the whitest sable. Sultry, luxurious and rich in slowly-evolving notes, those fragrances are rivaling the opulence of furs and their superior warming properties.
There is a fascinating term for down-and-dirty in French: "parfum de fourrure" (par-fehm –de-fou-reeh-rr or click here to hear how "fourrure" is pronounced), which means “fur perfume”, to denote not a fragrance meant to be literally used on fur coats (as fur gets dried by alcohol and is sensitive to several materials anyway), but rather a perfume to be worn when donning a luxurious fur coat, usually in the evening amidst smart company. Natural fur has a catty odour, which can become rather musty when turned into a coat that’s stored in the closet, and this necessitated the use of scents that would help “mask” this problem. In fact Claude Fraysee, the creator of fragrances for parfums Weil, celebrated furriers to begin with, was said to have created “parfums furrure” specifically at the request of a client. But we will revert to that later.

The sociological implications of furs are not to be sidetracked when considering this particular olfactory vogue which flourished in the beginnings of the 20th century, well before PETA and animal-rights-movement. In regions where extreme temperatures necessitated fur-wearing for months on end, such as Canada and Russia, fur-producing countries, that aspect was minimal. In Russia specifically fur does not hold a great implication of luxury, as even the poor wear it –albeit in poorer quality incarnations-to escape the cold. This is perhaps the sanest use of fur devoid of any aspirational nuances. In other parts of the Northern hemisphere however furs emerged as an emblem of luxury, ever since antiquity. They became especially prized since the Romanov dynasty’s decline and the subsequent stories of princess Anastasia escaping in the West (finally put to rest after the DNA examination that proved she was part of the Bolsheviks’ shootings) which fueled the imagination of millions. Numerous are the literature texts in which a mysterious lady with a Russian accent, decked in furs and art-deco jewels, is referenced. The baroque style of the Russian court who was in close diplomatic contact with the French gave rise to a vogue for fur coats and stoles; particularly welcome covering the by now naked shoulders of women in 20s filmsy charleston-dresses or 30s evening gowns that left them all too cold for comfort.
But fur was also heavily eroticized starting with Leopold von Sacher Masoch’s “Venus in Furs”, in which fur performs the role of exalting his heroine’s, Wanda von Dunajew, almost supernatural façade and is then copiously referenced in the Berlin cabaret scene and classic film noirs.

And who can forget Charles Baudelaire when in Un Fantôme II Le Parfum (from "Les Fleurs du Mal") he rhapsodised another kind of fur, much more intimate and impolite, almost untranslateable ~the odor di femina, the musky smell of a woman's sex:

Reader, have you at times inhaled
With rapture and slow greediness
That grain of incense which pervades a church,
Or the inveterate musk of a sachet?
Profound, magical charm, with which the past,
Restored to life, makes us inebriate!
Thus the lover from an adored body
Plucks memory's exquisite flower.
From her tresses, heavy and elastic,
Living sachet, censer for the bedroom,
A wild and savage odor rose,
And from her clothes, of muslin or velvet,
All redolent of her youth's purity,
There emanated the odor of fur.

In the 1970s, silver fox was de rigeur in advertisements and VIP pics accompanying the Glamazons of the era. Fur coats ~stoles especially, as they are so much easier to wear and more dramatic to use~ became standard luxury evening-wear to the point that designer Ciara Bonni declared them in the early 90s a cliché ~the most expected garment to wear over an evening gown and therefore not chic.The animal rights movement in subsequent years has attached a stigma to fur-wearing, an act of vanity ~which it so often is. Although “ecological” man-made fur is proposed as an alternative, the truth is they do not feel in the least as soft and on top of that their fibres are made from materials that do not disintegrate fast enough, rendering them ~ironically enough~ quite unecological. Still, fur-wearing is laden with some well-deserved guilt nowadays for ethical reasons, even if it involves vintage pieces which are the only ones I would use myself. Nevertheless it has been making a quiet come-back in fashion for quite some time. But the above small history of fur proves it wasn’t so when perfumes were specifically built to compliment it!

The naturally catty odour of fur lent itself effortlessly to perfumes which are rich in animal ingredients such as castoreum (often used to render leather hide notes), musk and especially civet. Natural civet comes through the impolite secretions of a small animal’s perineal glands, produced spontaneously and amassed in a process not harmful to the animal, although surely quite irritating! The advent of animalic notes after years of demure Victorian floral waters was coinciding with the vogue of the roaring Twenties for everything forbidden, dangerous and dark. It wasn’t since before L’ Empire (the years of Napoleonic reign) that musk had been popular and after more than a century past, it was the perfect occasion for its return. The success of opulent, somnobulent Orientals such as Tabu and Shalimar paved the way for braver and “dirtier” escapes in fragrances. Fur perfumes had been born!

To be continued..... Perfume and Fur part 2

Pics: "Pola woman" and Charlotte Rampling photography by Helmut Newton. Carolina Herrera in furs by her mother, designer Carolina Herrera. Theda Bara the Vamp via


  1. Great post. Love the Baudelaire, and the Courbet, of course! I guess you know you are likely to stir some strong feelings with this topic ;-)

    Oddly enough, just this afternoon I was pondering, yet again, what to do with my vintage mink coat. I've been dithering over it for years. FWIW, on the rare occasions that I wear it, I almost always wear a vintage Lanvin--My Sin or Arpege. I think of them as quintessential fur scents, as rich and soft as the coat.

  2. Am quite taken with your musings...looking forward to your next installment...including further discussion of Weil.

    I remember a friend of my mother's who, when I was a teen, introduced me to the joys of vintage shopping via a racoon coat of Roaring '20's vintage she picked up in a second hand in Northern Minnesota, and which she wore while riding on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle...whatever my feelings on fur, that was a great reuse/recycle. :)

  3. Thank you M! Well, besides by own feelings about fur (I'm with you; I only wear vintage hand-me downs of my mother's when it's quite cold) the topic is very interesting I should thnk. My Sin is indeed wonderful for that; I am a convert and would love to locate more juice. Zibeline by Weil (and Antilope too) are also magnificently cozy in their own way. There's just something potently erotic about the synergy of a vintage perfume with a soft garment.

  4. S,

    hope I will not disappoint then!
    Your mother's friend did the right thing: It's a little repelling to me to see fur (even vintage) used as a fashion accessory rather than something to keep someone warm. Makes you think how shallow that someone is when they feel they are entitled to someone else's (an animal's) suffering for their mere vanity.
    I should think in Northern Minessota it's really cold, huh?

  5. Anonymous13:00

    Agree with M, great post, at the same time as ethically sensitive. Can't wait to read the continuation, about the suitable/associated scents! :)I myself have inherited fur coats, and don't know what to do with them, since I can't bring myself to wear them. It has become quite politically incorrect to do so also, even though it can be very cold here in the winter, and nothing is as warm and isolating as fur. The volume in the fur garments so great, and the feeling when touched..
    I have, although, some very nice indoor sami/lappish footwear made by Reindeer skin. As some of the the sami people still live close to animals and their traditional culture, and that culture is intertwined with the main Norwegian culture, that feels ok! (my children on their father's side even have inherited a sami surname; two generation back they had Sami as their spoken language in the family)

  6. Here in London you wouldn't even be able to wear vintage fur (since no one can tell whether it's new or not): someone might burn a hole in your coat with a cigarette or throw an egg at you. Only wealthy foreign women (who are not aware of the risks) swan around in furs. I have a silver fox fur collar (the only thing left from my mother's fur coats): it just lies on my armchair. My cat used to love cuddling up to it.

    Btw, the Baudelaire poem is from Un Fantôme.

  7. Thank you S.
    I would argue that you're in one country of the world where fur wearing would make sense from the temperature point of view. It's very insulating, it's true.
    How very interesting about the Reindeer skin footwear and your ancentral line: I had no idea that Sami people continue to make shoes out of those animals. One would think that the craft would have been forgotten by now. I'm all for keeping languages and traditions alive. :-)

  8. J,

    you do bring an interesting point: how could one differentiate between the two if they don't actually own the garment! They couldn't, most probably, hadn't thought of that but very true.
    I haven't worn fur in London to witness the phenomenon and the times I have here are precious little due to the climate (it does look very tacky to wear fur when it's above 15C, doesn't it?) but I can very well see why your cat was fond of the fox collar. It's indeed so soft, so cuddly. And the image of an animal attracted to it is somehow endearing if you think about it (some secret kinship, some innner pang of how that collar too used to be a living animal at some point...)

    You're absolutely right on the citation source; will correct it. This is what happens when I go from memory and don't cross check the proper spellings and singular/plural!

  9. Too hot here to wear fur but we do have a cold winter in Melbourne. I do not think I dare wear fur either- I see them in Op shops and wonder .... then I remember what Joan Rivers did with her first mink coat she ever bought herself. She could not imagine throwing it away so she had it made into lovely cushions for her couch! I thought that was a great idea!

  10. Anonymous05:46

    Amazing post! This is exactly the language I've been using to describe my latest cold-weather scent obsession (West Side by Bond No. 9). That combination of sexy and cozy is exactly what it makes me feel/smell find the fragrance that is complex enough to induce such sentiment is rare (and treasured!).

  11. Brilliant stuff! I really enjoy reading your posts - your enthusiasm for perfume inspires me to take my interest in them more seriously!

    By the by, I too have a couple of furs. It's summer now in Australia (in fact Adelaide is experiencing a heatwave) so they have been packed away. They are a guilty pleasure even though they are both vintage bought at second hand stores - I still feel like some activist is going to throw paint on me when I wear them.

    I never thought of a perfume to wear with them. As they would only be worn at night in winter, I'd be wearing something 'heavier' like Nina by Nina Ricci or Euphoria by Calvin Klein.

    Looking forward to Part 2!

  12. M,

    I can see how now is not the perfect time for furs down under! Are you all right, there? I hear of brutal temperatures.
    Joan Rivers is smarter than she gets credit for (latter due to all those excessive "self-mutilations", I'm afraid). It would be a crime to just throw it away.

  13. Anon,

    so glad the article spoke to you in such a way :-) And that you have found what looks like a scented love in a bottle! Enjoy!!

  14. Thank you Audit! I hope it does inspire enthusiasm as I consider them small artefacts in wearable form (same with jewelry, my other passion).
    I hear of brutal heat in Australia, so hope you're all right and hoping it gets a little cooler.

    As to vintage fur and guilt, a reader brought an interesting point above: how can anyone actually know it's vintage? You see...
    (mine are mementos of my mother's and grandmother's)
    Part 2 will give you plenty of ideas ;) (Euphoria should be nice enough)


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