Monday, March 20, 2006

Oriental Fragrances: The Keepers of the Flame

I love sexy perfumes. I can imagine screen siren Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946) quoting "If I were a ranch, they'd have named me the Bar Nothing". The warm Oriental fragrance family is generally characterized by sweet resinous notes and musk in large amounts, creating deep, rich, dark or firey scents with the addition of spices. Judging only from what I've read and heard, the post-war era in the US seems like it was nothing if not a polarized society of extremes, and because the popular fragrance of the time (Green) was perceived as clean, polite, virginal and classy, I can imagine that the Oriental family would become popular for the opposite reasons: these were seen as sexual, inappropriate, wild and dangerous.

(Image: Rita Hayworth as Gilda, the bombshell before Marilyn Monroe. She is known to have worn Shalimar.)

Orientals fit right into the '50s-Western trend; being audaciously heavy, they're the biggest, baddest types around. However, the imagery I get from warm and smoky scents is not only of the dark bombshell often associated with them. To me, it's also that of Hestia, the Greek goddess of the Home and Hearth whose mission was to keep the fire burning in the kitchen (that's a metaphor for everything else to stay "lit" if you will). Now, I am the furthest thing from the domesticated traditional woman but there are quite a few perfumes in this olfactive family that I love and regard as creative masterpieces, such as the legendary Shalimar by Guerlain adored by Rita Hayworth, and its more modern incarnation, Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur. I'd say they smell to me like seductive love potions as well as safe comfort scents.

How could a perfume character be both wild and safe? Most Oriental fragrances are heavy but they also generally have a soft quality. That means the texture of the scent doesn't strike me with clarity like a ray of light but rather powdery like a downy swan. I suppose their often baby-powdery quality registers in my mind as depicting vulnerability. There's also something languid and sedentary about them, so the perceived "femininity" I get from them is not so much a woman-on-the-go but like Hestia, one who's happy just "being"--in this way the Oriental fragrance can represent luxury and/or being taken care of.

If these smoldering new heroines of scent are really making a comeback, I'm happy for the brazen character they bring to the table. I'm interested to see how a Bombshell Oriental trend would do today, perhaps represented by retro icons such as Sophia Loren and Ava Gardner, favorites of a bygone era ready for reincarnation. The olfactive equivalent of a rich and sinful dessert served in bed to your man should do very well among those who have been waiting for a break from the clean and soapy non-perfumy trend.

With the return of warm, seductive scents, my only hope is that images of romance and seduction won't take us all the way back to the post-war era for real. I think of Gilda. Gilda is absolutely a great classic film but Gilda's role is sad, being controlled and even slapped by her man. She may have been a powerfully seductive woman but I don't know any woman in real life who's truly happy being the keeper of the flame with no narrative of her own except to please some bad guy. I pray we move forward, not back, for the sake of sanity. As this throwback trend continues, I'm liking the idea of Musc Ravageur being a unisex scent more and more.