August 4, 2015

Les Cocottes de Paris - Melle Cleo, La Belle Otero, and La Castiglione

Anaïs Beguine's (of Jardins de Ecrivains) perfume line Les Cocottes de Paris interprets the legends of three 19th century female icons, who were the Queens of Paris in their own day.

The stories behind La CastiglioneLa Belle Otero and Melle Clèo dive straight into fantasies of past glamour. They incite nostalgic imagination, especially for those craving of a certain flavor of luxury, last possible during the French Belle Epoque. The reputation and lives of these women will strike a chord with fans of historical fiction and costume dramas that depict the wealth and privilege wielded by the fairest of them all.

European aristocracy created an elite class of Grand Horizontals, the most famous/notorious of which influenced international fashion, luxury design and often politics. Each one's unique style mirrors a slice of that culture and time.  We have our own female style and cultural icons, such as  Edie Sedgwick, Jane Birkin, Rihanna, etc. who embody our fantasies and their own reality at the same time. Female icons show and tell us much about who and where we are as a culture.   

Each of these perfumes interprets a specific slice of the past with an olfactory portrait of each woman. They are a take on the spirit of each woman's persona, a cloud that projects in both an abstract and concrete way their celebrated qualities.  Yet because they reach far enough back into the past, the perfumes  are purely personal interpretations of essentially mysterious people whose interior lives we can only guess at. These women are yet again infused with beauty by projection and imagination. 

All three are in EdP strength. Each displays gentleness at the core. Definite but not overpowering, as befits that long stretch of time that valued subtlety above all in women's perfume. 

Cleo Merode's hair was
much imitated
My favorite is Melle Cléo, based on Cléo de Merode, a ballerina whose physical presence comes close to the aesthetics of our own time. The photographs of her slender graceful and un-corseted figure, show huge dark eyes and an air of quiet artistic focus. She was an inspiration for Klimt, and a celebrity portrait subject for Boldoni.  She embodied Art Nouveau itself, and became a star as huge numbers of picture postcards of her in exotic and luxurious dance costumes saturated the Western world.  It had to be good for her career and extended it into her 50s.

Melle Cléo opens into powdery softness and a gentle but true floral air, both associated with the late 1890s. All well grounded by a dry and astringent balance of lichen, and 'cotton flower'.  Quietly refined, yet with an natural depth, violet and iris insinuate themselves in a smooth and silky way.  I can imagine wearing this across a range of moods and situations. I would use it to soothe, decompress and relax. Worn at night, it's calming enough to want to fall asleep with. I enjoyed it all the more because of my current crush on powdery perfumes.

The base is strong enough to hold everything together within a grounded and lyrical space. I am put in mind of Satie's piano pieces from that same time period, which in their simplicity edge toward a modernist expression of thoughtful moods.

Notes are listed as rosewood, bergamot, litchee, night blooming cereus rose, ylang ylang, cotton flower and lichen.

Otero wore costumes made
 of diamonds and pearls
Carolina Otero came out of nowhere to take Europe by storm. La Belle Otero starts bright, cheerful and just a little forward. My first impression is of fragrant fresh melon lifted up by the headier varieties of Spring florals. A rising undertone of cooling iris and mild sandalwood is kicked up by transparent shades of the wild herbal powers within absinthe, ginger and lavender.

It's as openly demonstrative and clearly feminine as a sophisticated ladies cocktail, with a promise of intoxication that never quite goes overboard. Instead, in the dry down phase the perfume starts to bond itself closely with the wearer's skin heat.  The incorporation of this subtle aromatic enhancement into the skin's own scent, and the continuing background influence of iris and sandalwood, implies that the wearer's personal scent is itself a decorative element.  That phase holds long and well.

Notes are listed as neroli, pepper, fig absynthe, ginger, violet, musk, buchu lavender, narcissus, iris, frankincense, sandalwood.

My faorite of her Pierson
La Castiglione - the Countess is a figure whose image fascinates me, indeed I have borrowed one of her most famous photos as an online avatar. The more I know about her the more mysterious she is. Her story is complex and strange. Acclaimed as the most beautiful woman in the world (that year) as time passed she became more and more obsessed with preserving herself and her image. In one way tragically so, in another way transforming that obsession into inspiration.

She art directed a fascinating proto-surreal, experimental body of work in the early days of photography, by having herself and her fantasies about herself thoroughly documented. The most magnificent dandy and aesthete of his time, Robert de Montesquiou, felt impelled to lavish more thirteen years on writing her biography.

The perfume starts out as a basic Italian Mediterranean sunny citron, which then evaporates quickly into an atmosphere of cloudy to overcast, a mist tinged with  herbs, woods and resins.  Citron, mugwort, copaïba, liquorice, patchouli, sharp cedar, ambergris, myrrh and styrax are listed for notes.

It's a contradictory perfume, the sharpness and refreshment of certain notes are counterbalanced by the dreamy silky cocooning effect of others, as if the corners and edges have been softened by wear, cushioned and coated. It turns extremely soft and atmospheric, more of a mood perfume than an accessory that would reach others unless close to the skin.  I imagine this is what piles and piles of voluminous silk skirts would smell like.  It's thoughtful.

I could see using all of these with abandon, as they would never overwhelm with sillage but would envelope the wearer in their own private atmosphere of antiqued softness.

Much thanks to Indigo Perfumery, for helping me discover these perfumes by sending samples.

Cleo Merode, dancing
La Belle Otero caught on film 1898
25 stunning photos of Countess Castiglione, from the more than 700 she staged.

Copyright 2015, Lucy Raubertas, All Rights Reserved


Anonymous said...

Melle Cléo sounds wonderful! Violet, iris, and cotton flower...must be a delicate yet profound essence indeed! Thanks for sharing

deana sidney said...

I want to try them all!! I love the idea of perfumes of a different age. Are they grounded in recipes of the period or just homages to the women. They really do represent such different aspects of the type, don't they? So amazing the longevity of Otero. Most of the rest of the horizontales were like moths with such short lifespans with depressing ends.

Thanks for a wonderful post...

Lucy Raubertas said...

Thank you Nutmeg.

Lucy Raubertas said...

Deana, these ladies are right up your alley. The perfumes are based on a combination of the period taste preferences in perfumes and a modern interpretation of their personalities. Cleo also lived into her 90s, actually did the best out of them all. Castiglione bankrupted herself with the photo project, and Otero spent down her $20 million too quickly and ended up destitute, though to a very old age too. I find a lot of antique photo photo portraits and postcards featuring the 'most beautiful woman in the world' during the Belle Epoque era on Pinterest, there's a great one called Grande Horizontals you would like. We had several in America too, of course, the Gilded Age supported them. WW1 ended all that, and switched over to movie stars, the public beauties, tooled and promoted by the experts of Hollywood.