Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Jazz and Jasmine: The Scent of a Brothel vs the High Class Rose

Gibson girl, 1910 (www1.assumption.edu)

This article is an addendum to Chanel N°5 Revisited: Russian Leather Connection? Part II, Pink Manhattan blog, November 20, 2010. According to a new book by Tilar J. Mazzeo called The Secret of Chanel No.5 which is being promoted by The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post, rose is a "high" perfume for respectable women, while jasmine is a "low" one suitable for a "showgirl". Never before had I come across any perfume history of soliflore perfumes telling of one's character or social standing, in such a way to include the smell of a "showgirl", clearly a pejorative. I became curious as to how this prejudice came about, and landed on the etymology of the word, Jazz. As a jazz music lover, I have mixed feelings about my research: one, I was delighted to learn about the etymology of jazz, something I guess I should have already known, but I was also surprised and disheartened to find that the demonization and delegitimization of jazz (by the classical world) didn't stop at the music itself, but that it had crossed over into the realm of feminine beauty as well.

According to Wikipedia and other sources, the most widely accepted origin of the word Jazz has sexual connotation, having come from "jism" or slang for semen. However, there are a number of sources that validated the word "jazz" and "jasmine" being historically intertwined. One is Storyville: The District, New Orleans storyvilledistrictnola.com: "Myth has it that jazz was born in the brothels of New Orleans' famous Red Light District, Storyville. In fact, much of the music in 'the District's' high class bordellos sounded more like parlor music than jazz. On the streets, in dance halls and in Storyville cabarets like The Big 25's and Pete Lala's, Freddy Keppard and King Oliver experimented with music so new, it didn't even have a name. (...) The new music was called 'jass', reportedly from the perfumes worn by prostitutes, and was shortly thereafter corrupted to its present form of jazz."

Another is the website for Gwynedd-Mercy College, The Institute for New Orleans History and Culture: "Storyville is often given credit with giving the name to jazz. It seems the women of the brothels, in an effort to counter the smells of the swampy city, would wear Jasmine perfume. When one left the company of the lady smelling of jasmine, one was said to be “jassed.” When musicians at the brothels would make their music sexy to inspire customers, they were said to have “jassed,” or sexed, up the music. Brothel owners would advertise their musicians with signs that would announce “Live Jass.” When mischievous children would come along and wipe off the “j,” owners decided to change the “s”’s to “z”’s in an effort not to offend people.

Cotton Club showgirl(www1.assumption.edu)

Here is another reference cited at a Catholic College (Assumption College): Twentieth Century U.S., 1914-present Spring 2009 Prof. McClymer: "Some theorize that it comes from "Jasmine," an inexpensive perfume supposedly favored by whores in New Orleans' famed red-light district Storyville." So, perhaps that's what Tilar J. Matteo was referring to when she wrote about "low" jasmine vs. "high" rose. I still don't understand how jasmine = "prostitute" became jasmine = "showgirl". Is a showgirl a prostitute? It seems Jasmine was the name of a particular "cheap perfume" worn in the District; if this Jasmine was en vogue at the time in New Orleans, prostitutes could have worn it just as well as anyone else. Jazz musicians couldn't play other more respectable venues in those times than the District, but that doesn't make jazz a lesser form of music, neither jasmine a lesser flower than rose just because hookers didn't have access to high end jasmine perfumes (PS: According to Perfume Intelligence, there was a Chanel Jasmin perfume (1920) born just one year before the birth of No.5. There also existed a Jasmine perfume (1920) by Bourbon French Parfums).

It should be noted that there are sources that speak for the high standing of jasmine, not at all associated with prostitutes but with priests: "Romans first used perfumes in religious ceremonies. Although they were known for their extraordinary gardens, a common man started using perfumes in the time of Alexander the Great. Massaging their bodies with fragrant oils & lotions was a part of the famous Roman bath. Frankincense, myrrh and jasmine were initially used very sparingly by the priests only." History of Perfumes by Justin DiMateo saching.com In many cultures the world over, jasmine is symbolic of beauty, elegance and grace, even of the Virgin Mary, contrapuntal to how jasmine is being portrayed by this perfume author. One could argue that rose being associated with upper class European women of the 15th century trumps priestly jasmine, but such value judgments are subjective at best.

Aside from entertainment value, perpetuating the "cheap" image of jasmine alienates those who like white floral scents, and it makes it more difficult to market and sell these types of perfumes for an indie perfumer like myself. Knowing what I know now, if I were to launch a jasmine perfume today, I wonder if I should feel embarrassed for doing so. No doubt as a consumer, I'd wonder if I should buy and wear jasmine perfumes at all. It's funny to even be speaking in such classist terms in the United States, but our culture has been swaying towards a more hierarchical system for some time now, at least as long as I've been involved in the online fragrance community since 2001. The more women's magazines boast material value and social status, the less originality we see. Our culture seems increasingly collectivist, pressuring women to play by archaic rules - so much for individual taste. How does it help the economy to make people second guess their desire to buy what they love?

Ziegfeld Follies (chapelhillmemories.com)

On the contrary, I don't know if consistently positioning jasmine as a low class scent helps the sale of rose perfumes. Consumers today don't care for floral scents in general, opting for modern gourmands and synthetic musks, so pitting rose against jasmine doesn't seem to serve any purpose except as some subversive jab of political nature. "Choose to smell like royalty or a hooker" may be just a way for conservatives in the industry to speak against modernity as a cultural norm, seeing jasmine perfume as symbolic of feminism, as much a threat to their belief system as jazz music itself.

If you are someone who loves jasmine perfume, you should be aware your taste is being scrutinized. Try posting on a public fragrance board proclaiming your love for this type of scent, and you'll find yourself being chastized and corrected by strangers. The same goes for Chypre perfumes which are touted as finer than Oriental style perfume, and Floral being above the lowly Floral Oriental. It isn't any more fair than perfumers of certain origins gaining notoriety for gauche taste, no matter what types of perfumes they create. I've written here before, that classism and racism are very much a part of the fragrance world, no big secret to anyone who's been around it long enough.

Beauty marketing is so often a war of perception. I wonder when these types of sexism and racism will be addressed at the core level of human psychology, marketing and semiotics of scent advertising.


Related link: "Modernity, as we will discover over the course of the semester, is a collective noun that refers to a wide variety of changes in the economy, in politics, in religion, in lifestyles, and in expectations. In seeking to make sense of "modern America" we will emphasize cultural changes ranging from the sexual "revolutions" of the 1920s and 1960s and the opposition each engendered to the rise of a consumer ethos and its corrosive impact upon traditional American (and Judeo-Christian) values." Twentieth Century U.S., 1914-present Assumption College