Thursday, March 3, 2011

Guerlain Mitsouko: fragrance review & history

Few perfumes are entangled in such mythos and in such erroneous rumours as Mitsouko by Guerlain. Mysterious, balanced, sumptuous, it's nothing short of a Gordian Knot which demands a swift cutting through its mysteries to arrive at the truth. And truth is not easily provided for this 1919 fragrance which closed the era of WWI and opened up Les Années Folles.

Famous patrons & their fateful stories on Mitsouko
Jean Harlow, the platinum blonde sex-pot of the 1930s who was born on March 3rd 1911, all slinky peignoirs and ice put on the nipples behind those satiny gowns, used Mitsouko in Dinner at Eight; it was her favourite fragrance in real life. Her platinum head was not what the creators at Guerlain had originally thought of: Mitsouko was right from the start destined for brunettes, while L'Heure Bleue was recommended for blondes. She gladly embraced both, much like she let her hairdresser put peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux Flakes on her naturally darker hair.
Little did Jean know that her first husband Paul Bern would be found dead and drenched in Mitsouko in a astounding case of a suicide just one week after the wedding. Rumours say that it was impotence that drove him to his act of desperation. Jean was put to record saying all three marriages she got into were "marriages of inconvenience". Perhaps the sad story inspiring Mitsouko perfume was a bad omen for her love life as well.

It certainly didn't really bring good luck to other famous patrons, such as the impressario of Les Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev (who drenched his curtains with it) or Charlie Chaplin. In the unexpurgated diary of erotic authoress Anais Nin, Henry and June, Mitsouko features prominently as the perfume that June Miller asks to be given her by Anais. Of course, to follow the truism by Gore Vidal [1], lying had become Nin's first nature, so all bets are off on whether that actually happened: What remains is that Mitsouko was indeed Nin's scent of choice, alongside Narcisse Noir by Caron. Such is the repercussion of the scent in cultural heritage that a pop sensation of the late 1980s, the French duo of Les Rita Mitsouko christened themselves after it!

photo via toutenparfum

The Legend of the Creation: Myth and Misunderstandings

Lore on the inspiration of Mitsouko wants Jacques Guerlain to have wanted to pay homage to a popular novel of the time, La Bataille” by Claude Farrère. In it Mitsouko, a beautiful Japanese woman and the wife of Admiral Togo, is secretly in love with a British officer aboard the flagship of the Japanese fleet during the 1905 war between Russia and Japan; Mitsouko awaits with dignity the outcome of the battle, nobly overcoming her feelings. Hence derives the confusion about the spelling of the name: although Mitsuko [sic] is a Japanese word, neither is it spelled Mitsouko nor does it mean "mystery" as the official press of Guerlain would like us to believe. Like other perfume tales, it's just that: a romantic allusion to "zee love storee" that enslaves women's imagination and stirs men's loins.

It's a fascinating discovery to find that Mitsouko despite its technical mastery and sumptuous character, and my friend's wittism when sniffing off a vintage bottle that "it smells the way a porn film would", isn't one for seduction: Luca Turin in his 1993 French guide recommended against such a use. It's debatable whether he did so because he found it not immediately accesible for such a purpose or because he deemed it highly intellectualised to demean it via lowly feminine wiles. The fact remains that although highly revered, Mitsouko is one fragrance which the Western man rarely considers as traditionally "sexy" among a stable of fruity chypres that manage to convey the idea of sexiness and erotic proximity much more readily: Rochas Femme, Diorama, even YSL Yvresse... Fruity chypres due to their typically lusher, more "golden" character with an injection of decay (fruit can easily go from ripe to overripe, recalling how a woman can do so as well) are a noted exception within that group of cerebral fragrances known as "chypres". Mitsouko could be the equivalent of someone reading the Financial Times in terms of smarts and composure. Perhaps this is why its erotic tension is not immediately understandable.

Cinematic References
In Louis Bunuel's cult classic Belle de Jour respectable newly-wed doctor's wife, but frigid and masochistic, Catherine Deneuve accidentaly smashes a huge "flacon montre" of Mitsouko in a symbolic scene in her bathroom before setting to spend the afternoon as a prostitute. Would the scene work equally well semiotically with another perfume? Doubtful...

Perfume writer Susan Irvine recounts how one day in Paris she shared a taxi with a woman [wearing Mitsouko] who smelled "the way God intended women to smell: plush, troubling and golden" [2]. And goes on to reveal in a Vogue article that adopting Mitsouko for a year produced no comments whatsoever from anyone, contrary to her compliments galore success with YSL Paris!

Understanding the erotic dimension of Mitsouko

Perhaps what's most interesting about the strange position of Mitsouko in its erotic charge is how it encapsulates two quite different perspectives on how human bodies should or would smell of. The 19th-century Japanese referred to western traders as "batakusai", which roughly translates as "stinks of butter" due to their high dairy consumption which gave their skin a cheesy aspect (isovaleric and butyric compounds do that); while the Brits found the Japanese in turn "fishy", again a reflection on an insular diet. How would the British officer and the beautiful Japanese wife named Mitsouko would have found a middle-ground between their human scents of passion?

Nowadays, Mitsouko is Guerlain's top seller in Japan, in a reverse homage to the brand that ushered Japonism in the mainstream many decades ago. This goes against all received wisdom that the Japanese go for "light" perfume and only rarely ever put it on themselves. One wonders if the cultural milieu of accepting smells that are different than those perceived as pleasurable in the West allows them a higher appreciation of this masterpiece of a scent.

Deconstructing the scent & formula of Mitsouko

The composition of Mitsouko was revolutionary at the time, even though it updated and -arguably- improved on the seminal formula of F.Coty's Chypre: The innovative peach-skin note perceived at the heart of the Guerlain fragrance derives from a modern synthetic ingredient, aldehyde C14 or gamma undecalactone (Peach essence cannot be naturally extracted). The inclusion of the famous base Persicol ("bases" are ready made smell-chords for perfumers) which included it contributes to the peachy, warm effect. Flanked by murky oakmoss and refreshing bergamot at each end ~thus composing a classic chypre chord~, it adds spicy accents reminiscent of cinnamon and cloves ~especially felt in the Eau de Toilette version which circulated till recently.  

Mitsouko also utilizes rose, neroli (a light-smelling orange blossom distillation product), woods, vetiver and patchouli for a short but succinct formula which balances itself between apothecary and pattiserie. The candied orange peel effect mollifies every herbal aspect, while the flowers are so subdued and well-blended as not to be discernible as such; if abstraction is elegance, then Mitsouko is very elegant indeed, without nevertheless losing its sensuality; there's a furry little animal hiding underneath it all, although you can't really place it!

The mysterious, haughty fragrance is in chasm with every recent pop trend, making a difficult love-affair much like its storyline; nevertheless indulging in a bottle of Mitsouko is the hallmark of the true connoisseur, like a fine Pinot Noir wine can be an acquired taste. If you try and do not like it in the end, there is no reason to beat yourself up for it, just because we proclaim it such a beautiful and smart fragrance; but be sure to give it a chance in different times, different weather (it expresses itself wonderfully on rainy days, which bring to the fore its earthy core) and different moods. After all, as The Bombshell Manual of Style declares: “Mitsouko has more sensuous layers to unpeel than Rita Hayworth dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils as Salome."

Comparing Mitsouko concentrations & vintages

Different concentrations and different vintages produce different effects. Vintage parfum extrait is so rich and luscious as to render experiencing Mitsouko a rare occasion of olfactory satiation. The oakmoss galore of as recent crops as Eau de Toilette and Parfum de Toilette from the 1980s and early 1990s is exquisite in its unsettling, deeply mossy ambience. The modern Eau de Parfum version reworked by Edward Flechier (this happened in early 2007 due to oakmoss restrictions imposed by European Union legislature, with Eau de Toilette being the first to reformulate) is the best rendition closer to the original idea, while the current Eau de Toilette seems thinned and yielding a bread, yeasty note which I personally feel is incongruent with the image which I have in my head of it.

Bottle Designs

The classic bottle design, called “inverted heart” because of its cap, reprises the design of another Guerlain classic L’Heure Bleue which was issued in 1912, due to the shortages of World War I [3]. It's the golden standard on which both Eau de Toilette and Eau de Parfum still circulate to this day. After the success of Mitsouko, the design stayed, as a gentle stylistic reminder of the two bottles opening and closing the period between the beginning and the end of the war. And indeed if L’Heure Bleue is contemplative daydreaming and above all romantic like La Belle Epoque, Mitsouko is mysterious and emancipated heralding the era of flappers like no other perfume.

Other presentations include the flacons quatrilobe, amphora/rosebud and umbrella bottle (for the extrait de parfum) and the montres (cyclical bottles with a gold pyramidal cap) for the very lasting and robust vintage eau de cologne concentration circulating throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s with the mint green, round label.
A limited edition flanker called Mitsouko Fleur de Lotus circulated a couple of seasons ago (you can read our review on it on the link).

Notes for Guerlain Mitsouko:
Top: Bergamot, Lemon, Mandarin, Neroli
Middle: Peach, Rose, Clove, Ylang-Ylang, Cinnamon
Base: Oakmoss, Labdanum, Patchouli, Benzoin, Vetiver.

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Guerlain reviews, The Chypre Series

[1] In Palimpsest, a Memoir
[2] Irvine, S. The Perfume Guide, 2000 Haldane Mason
[3] Guerlain archives
pics via felixhollywood blog and parfum de pub


  1. I have always adored Mitsouko and its my favourite scent for winter. I do wear many perfumes but when I wear Mitsouko people do notice :)

    I buy the EDP as the EDT these days is so weak and hasn't got that Mitzy scent at all to my nose !
    Parfum is the way to go but its so hard to find here now, luckly the EDP is around in Australia.
    Hope I find you well Helg :)

  2. BARBARA22:40

    Got my package in the mail today, going out for dinner tonight will try the perfume. Thank You so much, you are wonderful.
    Barbara Orr

  3. Rappleyea23:08

    What a wonderful and comprehensive review of the iconic classic. I first discovered Mitsouko at the Guerlain counter when I was in high school. Of all of the bottles on display, I preferred it and Vol de Nuit over the more popular (at the time) Shalimar. But in those pre-computer/internet/perfume blog days, it was simply another perfume at the local dept. store's perfume counter. No mystery, no mystique, not hard to wear or understand, in fact, I found it kind of sporty compared to the more usual floral scents available.

    A few years ago, I was lucky enough to find a couple of vintage-ish bottles of extrait for great prices from a wonderful seller in Japan, so I'm stocked for life. Of all of the perfumes I own, this one literally smells like my skin and is the most "me".

    Thanks, E.

  4. I have only tried the vintage Mitsouko from the 80's I really want to try the new EDP version but I am afraid to be disappointed. should I just give in and give it a try?

  5. In the years before I started seriously collecting perfume, I wore a number of classics (including Shalimar) but never Mitsouko. When I was first introduced to it, I heard it described as "challenging" and "not for beginners". I liked it immediately.

    Now, I spend evenings with my fingers hovering over the computer keys, resisting the urge to overbid on Ebay for the vintage extrait. I only have one small bottle! Maybe I'll take a cue from your write-up and buy some of the 80s/90s edt. Sometimes I want to be able to spray it with abandon, rather then carefully dabbing it on from my dwindling bottle.

  6. Wonderful review as usual! As a newbie, I never had the chance to smell pre-IFRA chypres, so I don't think I've ever smelled a real oakmoss drydown. Your review of Mitsouko's old drydown makes me salivate!

    Oh well, I guess I'll have to start bidding on ebay too...


  7. Oh, I was forgetting, the iconic Denevue scene from Belle de jour you talk about is also on youtube:
    (fast forward to 4:30)

    All that wasted oakmoss!


  8. M,

    thanks honey, I'm quite well (a little bit starting to get congested but hopefully it won't blow into a full on sinusitis, that would be terrible).
    You too?

    I know it's your favourite!! (And the daughter wears Shalimar, what a family you make, so perfectly scented!)
    Mitsy is such a gem that it's unthinkable how it would have been thinned down. The EDP is the best current formulation barring the parfum, although that too I find better in vintage versions (even pre 2000 stuff is mighty fiiiiine).

    It's a wonderful fragrance for cooler weather, it's warm but not too much, it has a veneer like a soft-lit lamp that makes everything more beautiful.

  9. Barbara,

    thanks so much for letting me know. It was an absolute pleasure to send this to you, don't mention it! Glad it arrived safely and hope you enjoy!

  10. D,

    thank you darling :-)
    You have an excellent point there: I believe Mitsouko took on a disproportionately revered status online to how many people actually wear it, thanks mainly to a prominent critic for whom it's a favourite. Of course it did happen to be a favourite for some of us too, but it didn't sound "difficult" to begin with because we had discovered it through an "easy" association. Such as the one you share with us! How lovely it must have been to claim this as your own in high school. Sporty is not a term I would have thought of it, but I can see where you're coming from comparing it with more floral perfumes. I recall how Samsara in particular had seemed very "ornate" to me, so very entrance making. Mitsouko had always been a subtler Guerlain.

    Mitsy was among my beautiful mother's stuff on her vanity table (alongside her most favourites of them all, Cabochard and Dioressence) and I sneaked a spritz or two on occasion as a teenager. Vol de Nuit I only discovered later on.

    You should thank your lucky stars for getting vintage extrait on the cheap (wow, envious): it's getting ridiculously expensive the more years progress....

  11. Taffy,

    the 80s stuff is quite excellent: my bottles are choke full of oakmoss and just plain delightful for this chypre lover. The new EDP has a different feel, although still recognizably Mitsy. It's a good perfume and you could try it for reference. You won't be too disappointed, although I'm afraid a bit of disillusion is hard to avoid.... :/

  12. Fiordiligi11:55

    Ah, my beloved Mitsouko! What a fabulous article about one of the most wonderful fragrances ever composed. This is one scent that my Other Half ALWAYS compliments; it is so distinctive that it could never be mistaken for anyone else. I am always thrilled to come across someone else wearing it, too.

    Luckily I have a Very Large Supply of the vintage in all concentrations, so I don't have to worry about running out in this life!

  13. M,

    see what I mean? It's been presented as some sort of Rubik's Cube of perfumes: only the smart can crack it! Well, not so.

    I think many people would like it if it were presented differently and if it was not mutilated, but presented in ancillary products: I could envision a body oil with Mitsouko scent, a fragrant candle (the perfect concept since it's such a great ambience scent: it fits well with wood and tissue and even lifts more modern designs into giving warmth and the feel of home), even fragrant hair products (imagine Mitsouko lingering on your hair and pillow for days!). That way they could have preserved its formula too, because allergens are mainly concerning skin contact.

    The ebay race for vintage is frantic: the rise in prices is meeting the high demand for good juice, I guess.

  14. M,

    see what I mean? It's been presented as some sort of Rubik's Cube of perfumes: only the smart can crack it! Well, not so.

    I think many people would like it if it were presented differently and if it was not mutilated, but presented in ancillary products: I could envision a body oil with Mitsouko scent, a fragrant candle (the perfect concept since it's such a great ambience scent: it fits well with wood and tissue and even lifts more modern designs into giving warmth and the feel of home), even fragrant hair products (imagine Mitsouko lingering on your hair and pillow for days!). That way they could have preserved its formula too, because allergens are mainly concerning skin contact.

    The ebay race for vintage is frantic: the rise in prices is meeting the high demand for good juice, I guess.

  15. Cacio,

    some of the older chypres can be found rather economically on auctions sites, collectors' sales and splits sites: they're worth getting aquainted with if only for reference. Perfumers and companies are slowly but surely trying to bypass the problem and I think in a few years' time we will be able to say that the problem of shunning certain smells out completely from perfumery will be bypassed.

    Vintage Mitsouko is simply majestic in a contained way: it has a balance between the "cosmetic" (as in enhancing, as a jewel that one puts on) and the "elegant" (as in short, compact solution to a bigger question).

  16. And oh, thanks for the link! Such a spill..... I see they have uploaded the whole movie! Hooray for those who hadn't seen it before.

  17. Dearest D,

    of course with your wonderful reserve of precious Guerlains, I am not surprised that you have stockpiled this marvel; as you should indeed.
    As to your hub, well, we already know he's a breed apart, with his beautiful Derby and everything (and so is mine): we must keep them at all costs, they're hard to come across!!! LOL!

  18. And thanks D for your kind compliment :-)
    Hope you have a most fabulous weekend ahead!

  19. Zazie14:01

    My love affair with Mitsouko begin only recently, when I stumbled in an 1990s edt bottle from an old shop.
    As much as I had been indifferent to the fragrance before, I became instantly addicted.
    There's a creamy (cheesy?) effect in my edt that I find mind-blowing...
    I don't get the Mitsouko-the-brainy image though: I find it so incredibly sexy, and comforting.
    It elicits the same feelings in me (and the same comments from my husband) as Shalimar....

  20. Oh! Thank you, thank you, thank you for this wonderful write up! I have had a 30 year love affair with Mitsouko and she is my number one signature scent. I too have stock piled what I can find and what I can afford but I haven't the heart to invest in the newer formulas. This perfume is so beautiful to me, I swear I couldn't live without it!

  21. Eva S19:53

    Thank you for a lovely post! Mitsouko was my first perfume, somewhere in the early 1990s, I loved it the moment I smelled it. It was a disappointment when I later bought a new bottle and it simply wasn't the same, I didn't learn about the reformulation until much later through your blog. I still wear the EDT, for sentimental reasons, I've never found the EDP in Sweden.
    Eva S

  22. Zazie,

    your introduction seems a decent one (good batch) and this is probably why you were addicted. I firmly believe that people have the good sense and intelligence to recognise a good thing when it's under their nose, so to speak.
    It's interesting that you identify the cheesy element as there is something quite intangible indeed in the heart notes: there is something that I can't put my finger on, but it doesn't come up to the fore all the time. I like to view it as fish-like, like the fat off fatty fish. Maybe it's all in my head though.

    WE have discerning SOs it seem: Yours is certainly a precious man, if he appreciates it just as much as Shalimar (which is more man-magnet material in the traditional sense). The two do share commonalities, it's true.

  23. S,

    you're most welcome and thanks for saying so.
    30 years with Mitsy, wow, talk about a most passionate relationship! (dreaming of being able to say that along the way, if my stash keeps).
    It's a pity that it's changed; thankfully not completely ruined (like Cabochard was for heaven's sake!), but still aficionados can tell the's all very sad. :(

  24. Eva,

    you're most welcome and thanks!
    Yeah, isn't it completely heart-breaking when one buys something with the flutter in their pit-pat ticking heart only to find out that it doesn't smell exactly as they remembered it to?
    The edt of today seems atenuated, although I still like its spicy note up top! I miss the intense moss mostly...

  25. this is an absolutely lovely tribute to the loveliest perfume on Earth.

    Thank you.

  26. A,

    you're most welcome :-)
    It is quite lovely, isn't it. How can a perfume tug at our heartstrings so violently is one of the world's greatest mysteries.

  27. Aline01:27

    Fabulous, fabulous review, thank you!! Not only is the fragrance history & writing consistently awesome here, I'm also savoring the many cultural references. I have had troubles with Mitsouko in the past, something never clicked with me, don't know what, as it's all so smooth and blended, but it had a note that was too earthy, too musty on me but the newer version is more wearable for me, which is weird I know, but if I am to be honest, it's the plain truth. So there, it must be still really great if even reformulated it can gain admirers such as myself.

  28. I have a 2.5 ounce bottle of Mitsouko just sitting on my dresser. I have tried and tried and I cannot bring myself to even like it right now. It brings the image of an elderly women who has just about drown herself in Mitsouko. That is one of the ways I define what is an old lady scent. The old women who decide to use a 3.4 ounce bottle or 2 of perfume a day.

  29. Back up from the trenches...

    What a compelling read! Thank you for this thoughtful many-pronged examination of one of The Big Ones. One which rightfully deserves its own vitrine in the gallery.

    I've already outed myself multiple times as a non-fan of Mitsouko, but just recently found a doorway to appreciation, a vintage lighter concentration. Oakmoss, glorious oakmoss. Peach in control, no brain screaming "overload"...I may find my way into the parfum yet. Maybe. Nonetheless, I am pleased to find a crack in the seemingly impenetrable fortress. You are quite right to point out the different characters of different concentrations and vintages. I wonder if you find this particularly pronounced with Mitsouko, as I do? Or if I do simply because I do not automatically embrace it, and am therefore attenuated to changes in irritations? ;)

    I love the contexts you set Mitsouko in; fantastic observation about Belle du Jour. Interesting how your review itself shows that brainy can be accessible and desired... :)

    Anyway, I'm going to add your review to the bottom of my account of how I found my way to Mitsouko. Which happened just a few weeks ago, after years of approaching from different times of day, weather conditions, concentrations, and frames of mind. 'Twas 1970's edc in the montre that cracked the seemingly impenetrable monster for me.

  30. Anonymous21:42

    your blog is a TREASURE!

  31. Anonymous01:40

    So, it's been 30 years since I wore this fragrance. It was tucked away in a box that I just opened today in a closet. This fragrance is so intoxicating and it brought back every memory of when I used to wear it and how I adored it. I put just a few drops on me today. It had not gone bad as some fragrances due especially after 30 years! It's smell divine. I can't stop smelling myself right now! LOL, I know that sounds crazy, but I'm feeling myself. I'm feeling this Mitsuko!!


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