My three biggest passions in life are cinema, music, and perfume.
Since my early teenage years I have loved the heady, mindless escape into each art form ; enjoyed observing how it evolves with the times; the strong sensation that each year has a very particular aesthetic, influenced by politics, fashion, and the zeitgeist that straddles boundaries of genre, affecting everything.
While I think I have really quite an eclectic taste in music, I came of age, or more precisely came alive, to the pop music of the early eighties, which offered a beautiful refuge to a boy who was essentially very traumatized by the terrifying knowledge that he was ‘different’ to others, despite being ostensibly loved, and popular at school.
However, though piano competitions and being decent academically gave me a sense of achievement, the darkness at my centre as I was compelled by society to hide my true self; the fear that I might not only be rejected, but even possibly injured or killed (because that was how I saw it, based on what was being said around me), was truly devastating to one as sensitive as me, and resulted in a schism where I think a chasm opened up inside of me that, when I first fell in love with music, was flooded like a lung with water.
So, while my one half functioned as usual, the other broke off into the dreams and beauty of pop.
On Sunday nights I would religiously wait for the top 40 UK charts, finger always on the pause button of the cassette player to record the new songs, which I would edit and listen to obsessively, enraptured. When I finally started getting pocket money or earned my own from a paper round, the records I managed to buy were like religious objects to venerate. I loved them. I would stare at the sleeves, hold them; an unbearable desire and yearning in me to somehow POSSESS them – an impulse I usually expressed instead by dancing frenetically around my room in a tearful mix of joy and desperation.
While the seventies were my childhood years and I love the music from that era – the disco, the folk, the funk, the AOR (the ABBA, god), it belonged more to my parents, or at least their generation. The new records belonged to ME: Duran, Japan, Soft Cell, Scritti, but particularly Culture Club, whose mix of innocence, colour, and beauty gave me a strange kind of unsullied, elemental, hope. It was a strangely dark period in Britain, the turning of the decade personified musically by post-punk and the politico-pop of The Jam, The Specials and the like, but I was too young really to understand (or frankly, care) about miners on strike or unemployment. I had enough pain of my own to contend with.
To me, now, the whole period is a bittersweet swirl of memories and emotion; of school discos; the ridiculous levels of excitement I would feel as the music cascaded down to me as if from heaven, and in fact that first school disco, where I was hooked up with a girl called Jessica with her giant, silver, hooped earrings, is to me in my memory like my first taste of reality: the dancefloor; the blur of lights; the smell of swathes of dry ice alighting on my tongue.
This may seem unrelated to the topic of perfume, but in fact the period of 1981 to 1985, before Madonna reigned, and perfume came to reflect the engorged confidence and material greed in rich, molotov cocktails of scent (Poison, Panthère, Obsession…) was as beautiful in perfume as it was in music. Like diaphanous chrysalids emerging from darkness, the records and the perfumes of this delicate time were couched in irreality, a certain purity and, not least importantly, a sense of fun. The lyrics to half the songs were nonsensical, particularly those of Duran; it was a time when a song called ‘Karma Chameleon’ could reach number one.
What is interesting is that although the ‘public’ might not consciously realize it, perfume is not simply an intangible nothing, a ‘pleasant smell’ that some company has randomly come up with out of the blue, but, like music and cinema, an actual reflection of the times. Conservative eras breed conservative perfumes (have you ever smelled Nina Ricci’s Capricci?), more louche periods give us Jovan Musk. And following the classicism of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the wife-swapping 1970’s, but before the horror of those later 80’s Reaganite ‘power fragrances’ (Boucheron, Senso, Red Door) there came a new dawn of softer, more mysterious beauty that has not been much written about.
The perfumes of the 80’s tend to get stereotyped exclusively with the standard jokes about big hair and shoulderpads, but like the music itself of the period, which, in the charts at least, became crass and cheap around 1986 (Stock, Aitken and Waterman, Starship, Samantha Fox), perfume had a period of great creativity and spark prior to this uglier time (which I of course of now love, in adult retrospect, in all its Pat Benatar glory). Brosseau’s Ombre Rose, that shadowy, powdered, gorgeously salty creature from 1981, is the smell of the thick foundation and blusher that the girls and the boys were wearing at the time, tenebrous and sombre but also beautifully suggestive and so pink, a colour I most definitely associate with the period.
Despite the dire economic and social circumstances, the popsters I most identified with understandably turned away from the ‘reality’ of the day, taking refuge in fancy and fairy tale, tarting themselves up like Prince Charmings in their Rococco frills and lace. And, not by coincidence, most of the hit fragrances from this period were based on a preponderance of that most romantic of flowers, the rose, especially the more shadowy Damask roses from Bulgaria and Turkey. These satin-red scents were not characterized by soft aldehydes or chypre notes, like the perfumes of the fifties and sixties, but instead given a new sensibility: intense, brilliant bouquets of flowers sharpened with notes of green, and rounded with sensuous amber to produce a new kind of Modern Romance. Diva, Nocturnes, Courrèges in Blue, Armani Pour Femme and Clandestine, among others, all captured the spirit of these years perfectly.
Does all this mean that wearing a scent such as Diva caterpults you straight back into the past? I don’t think so. Perfumes reflect the times we live in but are still, ultimately invisible. Our olfactory apparatus is far less developed than our visual acuity, with which we have become accustomed to processing every image and rapidly filing it in whatever societal classification we see fit. It is very unlikely that someone on the street will flick their head round as you pass by, snidely remarking ‘Jesus, you smell so 1982′.
It is thirty years ago since The Associates, Spandau, ABC, and the other New Romantics graced the charts, yet the music has been reincarnated in the countless electro acts that are the current musical babes du jour: the fashions, ludicrous as they were, also rechannelled into the latest collections in Paris and Milan. It seems as though the eighties will never die, and for fashion completists who want to capture the entire New Wave look, three-dimensionalizing it with a dusky scent from the actual times, the olfactory lifeblood that emanated from the skins of people actually dancing to that music in those clubs, could be quite compelling.
You will not find any of these perfumes in the shops anymore, as all have been long deleted from their company’s fragrance lineups, if they are even still in existence, but most can be found quite cheaply online, and I can assure you they are well worth investigating. Compared to what is sold on the high street now they are masterpieces, with the ingredient quality of the best current niche perfumes but fuller; more perfumey, more of an event.
Perfumes to have your first crush to.
POUR FEMME / ARMANI (1982)
Armani is a strange creature, personifying certain of the qualities I have written about above. To me it is a glorious mix of the chaste and the carnal, a baroque green rose chypre with a troubling ambery afterglow, overlaid delicately with herbs, woods, and spices. A ghostly girl in white ruffles who in reality has the heart of a tiger. Insistent, feminine, a pallid, hypersensitive girl, you think at first, until her lushness and erotic undertones take over and you realize she is a powerhouse.
In certain reviews I have read about vintage Armani, the talk is all of chypre, and it is true that the scent, particularly in one early black vintage bottle I have, has quite a lot of oakmoss (the defining characteristic of this perfume group): but the benzoin and amber that graze the fuzzier, semi-oriental later stages of the scent, along with the heart notes of Turkish and Bulgarian roses, take it very far away from the witchier, darker scents we associate with that classification, such as Paloma Picasso, 1000, and Magie Noire.
Armani is a perfume of tension. The fluttering sweetness of the rosaceous heart is overlayed with an atypical top note of glinting, tart marigold/tagetes (a trendy note of the period, also a main feature in Lauren and Courrèges in Blue), and a very green accord of pineapple, galbanum and spearmint which persists throughout the fragrance, even in the more nebulous later stages. This accord, painted in virginal brushstrokes, contrasts brilliantly with the spiced Reine Margot below, those honeyed red roses buttressed with notes of cyclamen, orchid and narcissus. It is all very sweet, and very clingy somehow, with a wide-eyed quality that disturbs and gets under the skin.
In 1982 I myself did not have any opportunities to smell this on anybody as the girls at my school were all wearing Impulse. The first time I smelled it was ten years later in Rome. I was waiting in line to enrol at the Università di Sapienza, and a girl, who we will call Christina, introduced herself. It is possible that I am quite a callous, superficial person because what I remember more about her than anything else to this day is her scent : most other things have faded away. Having said that, she was very reticent and didn’t give much away. But somehow she didn’t need to: she wore Armani to perfection, and it almost spoke for her: its sweetness, its strange greenness, and that disturbing, ambered aureole surrounded her with a classical, almost grave, enigma.
CLANDESTINE / GUY LAROCHE (1985)
Here comes the mirror man…..
Like dancing to the Human League at the school disco.
Boob-tubed girls with dangling gold earrings and pink legwarmers chew gum, sip Dr Pepper, glance around. They dance to the beat, flicking their hair to walls of discolights pumping blue and red….
Clandestine, smelled now, is a vivid flashback to the early 80’s, a cherry-lipsalve perfume of plum, pineapple, tuberose and ylang, that is bright, fruity, a touch tacky and young.
As the discoball twirls and you move slowly across the dancefloor, you can almost, almost taste her lipgloss….