May 8, 2012

The Perfumed Court Reprised: Time Travel with Perfume by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz

This is a re-post of a piece from 2009, slightly edited and with more pictures, based on one of my favorite DSH Collections of perfumes  -- in the style of  the Versailles Court.  I wanted to post it again because honestly,  these perfumes have been on my mind ever since.  Anyone with an interest in perfume culture and the beauty of its traditional forms should try this collection from Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, which comes as a pack of ten.  You will likely choose a favorite or two for everyday wear.  Personally, I consider "Le Roi Soliel, Louis XIV" a classic to keep for summer or anytime you want to honor the Sun.

It's  a vacation from modernity to try the DSH collection of ten perfumes in the style of 17th and 18th century Versailles. In keeping with the King's order that his courtiers wear a different perfume every day, with the full selection of these ten samples based on the famous perfumes of that time and place, it is possible to follow the custom of "le Cour Parfumee" - - the Perfumed Court, of Louis XV.

It was a great age for fragrance. We know that everything that could be scented, was, and on occasion even the impossibly extravagant fountains of Versailles were perfumed. It was possible to use so much perfume at this time, because this was the era when France was first able, through the expansion of colonies in tropical areas, to secure and cultivate a large supply of fragrant materials for the perfume trade, and also began the mass cultivation of local European materials in Grasse. This was the beginning of the French mystique of perfume and the fashions of the court encouraged its consumption everywhere. The French economy has profited ever since.  Louis XIV was responsible for this, and it worked well to unify what was good for France with his own inclinations to refined luxury and perfectionism.

I imagine the perfumed fountains' mist on the breeze must have been a full body experience. (Louis XIV overdid it and ended up unable to have anything perfumed near him at the end of his life. Even the scent of blooming flowers caused him migraines. Let it be a lesson to those who over-apply!)

This collection uses natural botanical materials, in keeping with the period, except for the animal notes, which are synthetic.

Courtiers from the film Marie Antoinette by Sophia Coppola, filmed in Versailles
Royalty and courtiers engaging in the daily ritual of the "toilette" and developed it into a creative definition of personal style and distinctive expression. It took a bare minimum of two hours to dress and put together all the accessories and apply the cosmetics and perfume, to make an appearance at court, for both men and women.

Except for the brisk Aqua Admirabilis, which is the classic Eau de Cologne developed by Gian Paolo Feminis, the rest are very floral fragrances.

They are divided into roughly three types, those that are combined with high keyed citrus notes (d'Oranger du Roi Louis XV), those that are strongly floral with just enough of an earthy base to hold them onto the body (Mille Fleurs), and those that have middle notes of carnation/wood types combined with a stronger tone of animal/musk or vanilla absolute (Reinette).

Jean-Louis Fargeon, the great court perfumer, left a number of detailed and descriptive formulas DSH used for reference.

The paintings of Boucher were also an inspiration for the perfume personality of Marquise de Pompadour, the great luxury stylist of the period. I was amazed to find out that her active love affair with Louis XV lasted only five years.

M de P by Boucher, & more on toilette scenes
During that short time she did everything she could to keep him from being bored, to personify the feminine, to be a solace and refuge from the harshness of politics and power. Gathering writers, philosophers and artists for intimate and social conversation, commissioning beautiful furniture and domestic interiors of remarkable craftsmanship, developing an ultra refined taste in fashion and personal adornment, she was a founder of many of the the elements of French culture as we know it today.

This extremely cultured woman's use of her ephemeral position to become an important patron of the arts, especially the personal ones, left a lasting impression. She created a standard of elegance and grace in support of an intimate relationship that became the ideal in French romance ever since. Reinette is a Rococo-style composition of a hyacinth accord mixed with bergamot and jonquil, cassis, carnation, rose and tuberose, violet leaf and ambergris, civet and vanilla, so it has both the high pitched and the graceful mid-notes cascading into a sensual animalic tone over time.

Pot-Pourri de Pompadour
is an interpretation of an 18th century ambient fragrance, meant to be refreshing and calming for the courtiers. Madame de P loved Chinese porcelain jars filled with herbal and spicey formulas. This composition has coriander, crushed mint, lavender, rosemary, rose geranium, lemon balm, marjoram palma rosa, rose absolute, jonquil and orris root.

Mme. du Barry, not so innocent
Her successor, Madame du Barry, is represented by day and night perfumes, based on Fargeon's notes. Eau de la Favourite for day has a soft, feminine, clear orange-flower-water top, with an orris-violet heart over the spiciness of cognac and mace and a tiny bit of musk. It contains an unusual Daucas accord (Queen Anne's Lace) that required the use of some synthetics to recreate unavailable ingredients. It gives an impression of clarity, transparency and refinement, holding very close to the body.

The du Barry Eau de Coquette for night, is based on Fargeon's Eau de Cypre Composee. Rich and seductive, with floral absolutes of jasmine, rose, orris concrete, angelica, nutmeg and a deep animal finish of ambergris. This one is the most similar to modern perfumes, reminding me a bit of Andy Tauer's themes.

Dance Scenes from Le Roi Danse, Louis XIV practically invented ballet himself

Louis XIV, the Sun King, known for his extravagant elegance, perfectionism and aggressive persona, was so deeply enamored of perfume he customarily had himself massaged with it when commencing a new romance.

Le Roi Soliel for Louis XIV, has a bright citrus accord leading to a leather finish that maintains an elegant transparency.

His son Louis XV, was strongly identified with orange flower water and Eau de Fleurs d'Oranger du Roi contains both orange flower water and the absolute, bitter orange and lemon, with a grounding in pettigrain and ambergris.

Orange-flower water became a popular French flavoring and scenting agent in confections such as Madelaines, and laid in wait to trigger a whole other world of sensual stream-of-peculiarly-French-consciousness and memory.

Sophia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette has become a modern favorite historical figure, and is seen as glamorous and sensual yet somehow innocent in her material-girl acquisitiveness.   She loved a kind of countrified simplicity that is actually very sophisticated and costs a fortune to maintain.  Eau de Trianon is based on Fargeon's detailed notes for his commission to evoke the gardens of Petit Trianon, where she pretended to be a milk-maid. Subtle, fresh and very delicate, it uses the usual floral ingredients of the period such as rose and jasmine and orris but the addition of the Atlas cedarwood and benzoin cuts the floral aspect to turn it into an evocation of fresh air in a sunny meadow.  Sad to think her personal fragrance, such that only an aristocrat could emanate, gave her away on their attempt to escape the heavy hand of the French Revolution.

The Draughtsman's Contract
Cyprian was a popular scent used for hair and the wigs generally worn in Versailles for about a hundred years. It was so pervasive and characteristic that it nostalgically evoked the court of Versailles to many after that life was long swept away by the Revolution. This mossy violet fragrance with orris root and French oakmoss, rosewood and clary sage was believed to keep the hair fresh. I recall that the wealthy in Europe and the Americas all wore wigs of varying degrees of elaborate-ness for that long period and this must have been a very familiar aromatic signal of formality and sophistication. Men wore white powder, women blue-grey, or other tones of lilac or even rose pink.

This collection of fragrances are especially wonderful for those who appreciate botanical fragrances and also love fine antiques, or are the avid readers of historical fiction, biographies and memoirs, or those who travel to France and visit Versailles and would like to have a more intimate, personal experience of a particular time and place's refined yet powerful beauty.

I love recreations of period perfume styles, especially those using the ingredients of the day to which that we still have access,  and have done a number of posts on this topic -- here is a selection:

DSH Historical Fragrance Part 1;
DSH Secrets of Egypt Collection;
Nenufar and Pyxis, Scents of Time;
Cire Trudon - Scented Atmospheres

These perfumes are especially wonderful to set the mood as you wander the period rooms of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Frick, or other places in the U.S. that evoke the past.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this. DSH is so prolific that it's hard to decide when you're on the site. I will now go and grab a set of these as a place to start.
Portia x

Stacey said...

I also wanted to thank you for writing about this collection. I've been so curious about them for a while, and the only one I have tried is Eau de Fleurs d'Oranger du Roi. It is perfect for me as a neroli/orange blossom lover, and now I am ready to try more. I love the flow of this article too and the lovely pictures. Just can't get enough of this period of French history. :)

Lucy said...

Hi Australian perfume, thank you for visiting. I think if you are someone who appreciates the old perfume forms, you will be very pleased.

Lucy said...

Hi Stacey, thank you so much for your kind words. It does amaze me how that note is common thread that runs through the whole of French life and history in many different areas, from then to now. I will read Proust's Madelene scene thinking of orange flower essence and how French it all is from now on.

lostpastremembered said...

Brilliant post, Lucy. I really want to try a lot of these and loved the idea that a particular wig fragrance would remind the aristos of happier days.
I have made those madeleines with lime-flower tea and it is a positively haunting combination.

I want to mix a batch of Eau de Cypre right now!

Lucy said...

Lost Past, I think we share a similar wish to drown in the beauties of the past, especially the scents and tastes.
I did see that Balzac novel César Birotteau was translated into English, and Guerlain created a perfume for him to work from in writing the novel. Which gave rise to the revival of the bespoke perfume trade in Paris, which made perfume fashionable again, which led us to here and now. Tho I credit Mandy Aftel for much to do with the revival of interest in perfume in this country, in these days....