Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Perfume and the Perfumed: When Icon & Fragrance Delightfully Clash

Imagine the jaws dropped when Christina Hendricks, the one of voluptuous bosom, retro colouring and glamorous role in Mad Men, the cult TV-series, revealed some of her favourite things on People magazine, naming a fragrance among them: The fragrance was Premier Figuier by L'Artisan Parfumeur, a fig fragrance. It's quite usual to think of perfume in the way of a glamour accessory meant to evoke a specific image, but how can this astound us when a perceived connotation of a specific fragrance is shattered by its actual use; especially when it is by someone famous which we envisioned a specific way. For many seasons fans of the series imagined Hendricks oozing sex-appeal in something that was come-hither and ripe of the seductress, in the context of a 1960s classy one, not withstanding.

It's an automatic reflex to think of fragrance as a very specific symbol of self, the most pliable perhaps of all, since it does not evolve neither a sanctimonious financial overlay (like a condo would), nor an extreme make-over. Spray and you're good to go; or so the thinking goes. After all, we have been told that a fragrance wardrobe should be our goal, fitting scent to time & place and to outfit, not to mention our mood.

What happened with the above scenario is that we had pegged Christina a certain way: the curvaceous glamour puss and we -more or less- refuse to believe that she is a living, breathing woman with tastes of her own who chooses an outdoorsy, intelligent scent that is reproducing something that is not meant specifically for seduction, but for one's self. It might have helped that we saw a shot of Christina as Joan Holloway (office manager of the advertising agency Sterling Cooper) in front of a mirror preening, applying lipstick, with an array of glamorous bottles in front of her, one of which was the seductive Shalimar by Guerlain in one of the stills from the TV-program. Premier Figuier has its own special sex appeal, but it lacks the edge that a certain mythos over the decades has given to Shalimar. We have come to associate the actress with the role of the sassy femme fatale, as if she is incarcerated in her DD-cup and her cinched waists, smart reply hanging on rouged lips. And yet, her style is not without substance. On the contrary. But like in many cases of projecting a certain image in olfactory terms, it's another example where the mold is broken and we raise an eyebrow in surprise.

I hear similar pronouncements all the time perusing some of my favourite perfume-discussing boards: "Jackie Kennedy Onassis was the epitome of elegance, it all fits she wore Joy and Jicky". (But not only!) "Maria Callas was so loyal to Chanel, she must have worn No.5, her style was so timeless." (We'll never know for sure though the hypothesis holds water) "I can picture a chypre perfume on Katharine Hepburn". (and yes, she scored one or two, but not only!).

In our above exercise, Peggy Olson would wear the cool, brainy chypre fragrance. "Keira Knightley must have an endless crate of Coco Mademoiselle, oh look here, she says she only wore men's scents before!" (absolutely not true). Madame Sarkozy, previously known as Carla Bruni, is an Italian aristocrat who modelled for a hobby, so it fits she would wear something with a pedigree of taste and quality. (voila, indeed!).

I had the easiest time while composing my Vetiver Series picturing each and every one of the vetiver fragrances featured on the visage of some male actor (even though they did not necessarily wear said fragrance in real life): smart and facially rugged Hugh Laurie, alluring and insinuating Jeremy Irons, straightfoward old-school Gerald Butler, virile and seemingly cocksure Russell Crowe, suave but enigmatic Ralph Fiennes. Was I guilty of free-associating thanks to no more than the persona they project? Most certainly.

To cut a long story short, celebrities choose what they choose for various reasons, one of the lesser or grudgingly admitted ones being that they are people like us with their own set of criteria, tastes, memories and dislikes. But try to take that out of our heads? Not so easy...

And on to YOU: Are you guilty of associating specific fragrances to specific people and why? Share your thoughts in the comments!

*Note on picture of Christina Hendricks as Joan in Mad Men bathroom scene in front of perfume display: The AMC photo is from Season 3, Episode 3: “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”. The fragrances tray includes for sure Houbigant's Demi Jour, a Lauder bottle (same shape as the later Estee but it's probably Youth Dew) and Intimate by Revlon.

Christina Hendricks photos via wikimedia commons, Huffington Post and Haircutting in High Heels


  1. This reminds me of those quizzes that used to be popular in women's magazines in the 60s & 70s; a series of questions about one's personality that would lead to a specific recommendation for a scent, a mate of a particular zodiac sign or even a lipstick color. :) The lipstick color part seems esp quaint, in that no consideration is given to a person's coloring, for example, just to her personality (are YOU a fire & ice girl?) Assigning scents also has to take into consideration the nostalgic aspect. L'Air du Temps will always be my mother to me, no matter who wears it, for example. And yes, I think celebrities esp seem to fall prey to our preconceived notions of what scent they *should* wear, but after all, they are the ones that create the persona they project.

  2. I'm definitely guilty of doing that. Though mostly, I'm guilty of wishing someone would put something on or take it off...scent that is! And more and more I'm surprised when a man or woman actually smells good. Too much dryer sheets/laundry detergent/fabric softener stink going on.

    The other day I was at the grocery store and this very nicely dressed old woman sported the sweetest, sweetest perfume with incredible silage--reaching far and wide. Her perfume did not suit her, and a juice a bit fresher would have been a nice contrast for her.

    How is THAT for assumptions!

  3. Anonymous15:34

    I think in the first season, Joan was shown applying Shalimar before a date ... wasn't she?

  4. Anonymous16:06

    Interesting post, and just one more reason to not put people into little boxes!

    Remember that ad that went, "I'm not a doctor, I just play one on TV"? Christina H isn't Joan, of course. Am I surprised that she loves a fragrance that I think of as both intellectual and outdoorsy? Not really.

    I look at my own collection and see how wide it stretches, from the old-school floral chypre Leonard de Leonard to the starry-eyed (original) fruity floral Ines de la Fressange, from plush vintage Emeraude to drop-dead sexy Citizen Queen, from wallpaper-scent Marc Jacobs Daisy to the cool austere green of Silences (and farther, too, but I've made my point!) and realize that it's silly to stereotype. Thing is, ALL those fragrances are "me," or at least some aspect of "me." Or, sometimes, some aspect that I would *like* to be part of my personality.

    It is a little unusual to run across a well-dressed, retirement-age lady wearing something sweet and fruity in the modern post-Angel style, but it makes me smile. It tells me that she wears what she likes (or, perhaps, what her grandchildren gave her for her birthday!), and I'm all for that.

  5. This reminds me of the games that people play on the various discussion boards. "Scent this person _____ "(fill in with name or picture of actress, actor, celebrity, historical figure etc). It's interesting to see what people attribute to others. And probably just harmless fun. After all, famous people are subjected to far worse.

    But as others have pointed out, most perfumistas wear everything from bold, white floral sillage-monsters to elegant, dry chypres, to orientals. So I'm never surprised by another person's choice unless a fragrance is so overly-applied that it's room-clearing. Or if it is a mismatch to the occasion e.g. Amouage Gold worn to the office. As for a person's style? Wear what smells good to you, as long as you don't offend the person next to you with over-wafting fumes!

  6. I've seen photos of Christina Hendricks out of character, and she looks sweet and vaguely hippie-ish. So maybe a fig fragrance suits her after all!

    The biggest out-of-sync perfume/celebrity mismatch I've seen was the light, lemony rose fragrance Creed made for Ava Gardner (sorry, can't remember the name now, but it's still around.) Somehow I can't imagine Ava in it.

  7. Fragrance is the most personal of accessories; doesn't have to fit, to match, to be appropriate to a setting, really, just suit our mood and taste. All too easy to project the "idea" of a fragrance on to a real flesh and blood person, but it's wildly inaccurate to do that. Because fragrance evokes such an emotional response, we forget it can exist objectively.

  8. R,

    what a great comparison! Indeed, those quizzes seem odd to me, while browsing old magazines at the library, I'm always striken by how different the criteria were back then (same goes with the all too popular perfume according to hair shade, which of course is more complex than generally thought of).
    To narrow it down to lipstick, I'm hypothesizing that it might have to do with lipsticks being very different back then: more war-paint and solid, unnatural, chalky or waxy shades that stood out as "makeup" instead of blending in with one's undertones like today, a la Bobbi Brown or Laura Mercier...For instance if you were bold & vampy, you went for red. If you were the flirty, "pretty" type you went for pink. The coral shades were for those who were in between. And that was that, as far as I've seen at least (haven't lived through these years so I might be mistaken). No nuanced purples, berries, chocolate browns and beiges, no bronzes, no rosewoods or fuschias. The shades were more or less predictable. Do you agree?

    Now as to scents, they do follow type most of the time (I can't picture a very athletic woman in a gourmand, or a completely tarty one in something that is sophisticated and classy) but the diversity nowadays is so wide, I wouldn't begin to categorise only by "type".

    Memories do come into the equation though, no doubt about it! How poignant that L'Air du Temps reminds you of your mother! I bet it does to many as it's very popular (and a lovely fragrance indeed). It's especially intriguing that it has always been marketed as a young fragrance (and it is, really) but is mostly worn by more mature women today.

  9. TFC,

    far it be from me to judge anyone, so your secret admission on assumptions is safe with me :-)

    Your comment (thanks for sharing) reminds me of similar experiences: for the longest time I couldn't shake off my expectation that someone I knew should wear more substantial scents. She had all the makings of a perfumista (sensual, loving smells and cooking, artistic etc) but she didn't wear anything apart from simplistic fruity-scented deodorant... :/ I finally realised that it was her choice, her image, her projection and it was none of my business converting her.

  10. Luxe Bytes,

    yes, that's what I mentioned in my post. I think there was a photo doing the rounds of showing her with bottles in front of her, but couldn't find it (if I do I will update the post to include it).
    Someone was thinking of a siren scent for siren-Joan and they chose well. ;-)

  11. Muse,

    thanks, thought it might strike a chord or two! :-)

    Of course us perfume colectors, we're all over the place. Your collection proves it!
    And yes, there's no need to put anyone into little boxes, it's pointless and futile. But think of how when someone is famous there is a sort of expectancy in the audience for them to preserve their image? (and scent is another part of it, perhaps a reflection of some coherence between the subconscious and the conscious persona). Are we let down when a favourite brainy type goes for something decidedly simplistic or low-brow? I think we are. Are we enthused when we discover kindred spirits? (Think of Nicole Kidman with her favourites ranging from Eau de Sud to Angel to Tea Rose..she's all over the place! Or think of Sarah Jessica Parker and how she's using scent as an identity and a personal badge. I think the subject lends itself easily to nuances and manipulation in order to even throw a smokescreen!

  12. M,

    what, am I totally out of whack wearing my Gold in the office???

    (just kidding or am I?) :-P

    Thanks for commenting, nice to see you!

    Point well taken. The judiciary use of perfume allows better understanding, better enjoyment and perhaps even better communication of what you're going to communicate with it (if it's used like that and I bet most of the time it is, even if it's still for ourselves, on some deeper level there is a desire to let our taste, our self get through to others thought it).Don't you think so?

    And oh, of course I was inspired by the fun games on the boards "scent X or Y". It's extremely fun and interesting exactly because people tend to fall into specific patterns.
    Harmless to celebrities, I agree, and they'd wish that was all they're subjected to. ;-)

  13. P,

    if it were the olden days when studios managed every bit of a celebrity's life, I bet there wouldn't be any pictures of Hendricks out of character! She would be the smart sexpot even if she were doing the dishes in her own condo at the crack of dawn. :D

    But yes, actors and actresses aren't what they portray. Otherwise, where's the artfulness?

    Not being able to picture Ava Gardner in Fleurs de The Rose Bulgare might have to do with the scent not being specifically tailored for Ava in the first place, ever come to think of that? I think the tales Creed weaves are grossly exagerrated at the very least, but they have been insisting on them for so long they've become their own mythos *sigh* Can you really imagine Audrey in Spring Flower? (no offence to SF which is competent and lovely) Me neither.
    Then again Ava did have as a diverse taste as anyone famous: she was known for liking Aqua di Parma (the classic cypress-y cologne) and Crown Heliotrope (a floriental), so we can't preclude anything based on that info...Maybe a serious biographer will tackle that and let us know eventually.

    Hope you're very well!!

  14. Jennifer,

    thanks for stopping by and commenting! You live in a most interesting city and I'm of your(and Sherlock's) train of thought obviously: tidiness in thought makes for clearer conclusions. :-)

    Wildly inaccurate doesn't even begin to describe it. As you say the emotional baggage of a fragrance makes for a hell of a sway in interpretation.
    I wonder whether this can also be said about a fragrance's intellectual baggage: Have you met with the idea of an "I'm not worthy of it" fragrance? Now there's a thought!

  15. I'm not so sure most celebrities choose what they choose according to themselves. So many have stylists who introduce them to something new every now and then, whether it's a new line of cosmetics, the latest sky-high Louboutins or a new fragrance that middle america has never heard of. For award shows and major events, Aedes in New York provide a service to celebrity stylists so that everybody wears a different fragrance while experimenting with someone new.

  16. E,

    there is a point in what you say, especially since celebrities don't seem to be as will-driven as they were some years ago (OK, a couple of decades ago). Now everyone is listening to the stylist and they have no opinion of their own. Still, there are the cases when they genuinely try something (be it from their own volition or on the recommendation of an "expert") and they zoom on it. And then a whole vista of possibilities opens up for us to think on their choice.

    Hope you're well!

    BTW, I wanted you to know I haven't forgotten what I had promised, but I had been expecting a necessary means/medium to the whole process ;-) You will see soon enough.

  17. Anonymous03:14

    oh i don't know, since figs are associated with eve, the original woman, i think it's quite an appropriate scent for this voluptuous lady.

    plus, i love its sunshine and happiness - it's such a lift.


  18. I LOVE her and I love her even more for having good taste in perfume- hooray for proper women (and I don't just mean because she has a womanly figure but also because she is pale and makes the most of herself rather than conforming to look like everyone else)


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