Lips and hips : FEMME by Rochas (1944)





Yesterday I wrote about the wonderful experience that is the Shinagawa flea market in Tokyo, and I forgot to mention one of the scents that I once found there….

And I was thinking. Are these vintage classics that I am so excited to find in their original incarnations mere museum pieces; dusty relics that smell so dated they become laughable?

Or can classic perfumes still be sexy? Can they appeal in the modern age?

It would seem so. One Sunday, a few years ago, our dinner guests, Penny and Terry, sampled the myriad delights of the perfume cabinet and its latest acquisitions. And despite all the goods on offer, the perfume that got the unanimous wow was, to my total amazement, an old, pre-formulation edition of that timeless classic, Femme. Neither of these two is old-fashioned in their tastes (Terri goes for fresh, modern tuberose and wears it well, Penny more the Indian amber and khus), yet somehow this smooth, voluptuous peach of a scent had them inhaling and inhaling  (at this point, possibly from elbows, knees and ankles, so much skin space had been covered in scent – this was one of my last pitches).



How could such an old classic garner such a response?

Because, quite simply, they don’t make them like this any more. Femme was a splendid scent, as rounded and full-bodied as it is possible to be without ever becoming obvious.



The perfume clearly has powers of seduction (my friends were up in arms over its sexual magnetism), personified as well in the muse for the perfume, Mae West. Marcel Rochas, head of the house, did a clever thing when he modeled the curves of the original bottle on the hips of his most famous client (the Chantilly black lace of the corset the couturier created for her forms the main design on the box.) At the time of the perfume’s release Ms West was the box office and theatre’s greatest star. West was hilarious, the queen of steamy one liners, and the world  needed cheering.







It was nearing the end of the second world war and amid the ruins of Paris, or so legend has it, the great perfumer Edmond Roudnitska was determined to create something happy to banish the ghosts of grey. He had happened upon a perfumery material in one of the laboratory vats, a gourmand ‘apricot-brioche’ molecule that would be the starting point for the perfume that later became the ravishing Femme.




There are two other famous scents to which Femme can be directly compared, its blood relatives: Mitsouko (1918), and Pour Monsieur (1953). All belong to the fruity chypre category. In fact, wear all three and after ninety minutes you will barely be able to distinguish them.


Where Mitsouko  (a beautiful, serious creation ) is not conventionally sexed – though its dark spice has intrigue – spiked, undercurrents of piquant green, spices and earth make it forever cerebral, removed. Femme takes the same olfactory template of warm mosses, flowers, spices and fruit, but if Mitsouko is a cool dark wood, then Femme is an orchard of peaches ripening in the sun. It is this full peach note, undercut with plum, fused brilliantly with velvety flowers and warm woody notes of cedar, sandalwood and civet that makes it that much the sunnier of the two: moss suffused with light, a tantalizing scent like a second skin.








Funnily enough, the scent isn’t in the least bit redolent of Mae West (Rochas had had it made originally for his demure wife Helène, the legendary Madame Rochas, before Mae become the perfume’s face and derriere):  Roudnitska’s formula was so flawless you can’t even see the seams, never mind rip open the bodice. There is nothing throaty about this scent. It is perfect.



And yet in 1989 Rochas scandalously commissioned another perfumer to reorchestrate the classic – against the wishes of its creator, and thus vulgarized a work of art. The new version, though capturing the fundamental feel of the original, is brassier, louder – probably more like the inimitable Ms West, who once quipped on stage: ‘I feel like a million tonight. But one at a time.’







Filed under Chypre, Flowers, Perfume Reviews

18 responses to “Lips and hips : FEMME by Rochas (1944)

  1. It saddens me that because of the current trends in perfumery, I dare not wear any of my vintage classics outside of my own home for fear that people my recoil in my wake, not being used to such audacious scents as Femme, Miss Dior, Bal a Versailles, etc. Instead, I just wear and savor them as I have my morning coffee. You’ve inspired me to layer Femme and Mitsouko right now! Thanks.

  2. ginzaintherain

    (and speaking of Bal a Versailles, I have stunk out cinemas wearing that beauty. When it works, that perfume works wonders!)

  3. Tora

    When I was about 9 years old, I was left alone for the afternoon at my grandmother’s house with just my step-grandfather, who, paid no attention at all to what I was up to. He was busy in his study with his cigar, which I loved the smell of. I wandered into my grandmother’s bathroom (we called her Honey….which she wasn’t) and I smelled all of her soaps and perfumes on the counter. Femme was front and center, and clearly in the place of favorite. I think I swooned an 9 year old swoon, when I smelled Femme. I actually considered taking it, and keeping it for my own. That thought was quickly dispelled by the image of Honey bearing down on me with her sharp tongue, ripe with insults and harsh judgement. So I just put a little dab on my hand, and ran upstairs, closed my bedroom door, and felt guilty for the rest of the day. However, I kept holding my hand to my nose, in a revelation of a whole new world, that I had glimpsed and knew I loved.

    Years later, in high school, a boarding school in the lower oak creek canyon of Arizona, I was sitting on a friend’s bunk bed, and I spied that curvy roundish unmistakable bottle of Femme, on her dresser. I jumped up, so excited, and begged her to let me smell it. “Sure, that is my Mom’s, she let me bring it to school, to smell her when I was lonely”, she replied.

    There I was again, entranced, and in love.

    Femme was my first……

  4. Tora

    I have not seen Femme in my forays through the perfume alleys and byways. Maybe someday our paths will cross….

  5. Robynh Polinelli

    Trying to recreat the original !!!!!

  6. Robynh Polinelli

    Mix up the formula and see what happens.. Fingers crossed !!!

  7. Robynh Polinelli

    What is the original formula???

  8. Whilst writing to you about Tsubaki yesterday, I was overhearing two elderly women in a cafe talking about Femme by Rocha. They were visiting Holmfirth and whilst saying they could never live here because of the hills, were expounding on its joys as a place to visit. I felt strangely uplifted listening to them. As they passed me to exit, one of them carried a huge floral waft of the stuff out the door with her – a delightful peach and rose gauze of a lingering scent settling, filmy and glistening, over the scene. Femme by Rochas is the one scent I didn’t bring you. I have a bottle for you (I bought it specifically for you some time ago) and packed it in the case but it took it just over the limit and the box threatened the zip with its bulge, so took it out and it’s still on the shelf in the bathroom. Will send you it at some point.

    • Fantastic synchronicity. Were they actually talking about the scent or just wearing it? I do love it.

      • Both! I think one just asked the other for the name of the scent she’d bought and her friend said ‘Madame Rochas Femme’ in a loud, clear voice, so my ears pricked up (as I’d been looking at the box of the one I’d intended to bring you that morning). The other said something approving and then they chatted on about other things. I didn’t listen to it as I was just reading the last few pages of KoKoro – the gripping, tragic, suicide bit (I found the book irritating for the first chapters comme toi – all the things the writer is about to tell us and then doesn’t or says he can’t! But then the detailed deliberations – the self-reflection and slow unravelling began to grip me and by the end I was absorbed, but still strangely eager to finish it). Then when they decided to go and wafted out past my table I got a glowing whiff – to the point that my eyes followed them out! I’ll try and send it to you as a separate parcel with nothing else in and see if it gets through the draconian, perfume-suspicious UK postal system!

      • I think there might be some confusion between Madame Rochas and Rochas Femme..

      • oh, perhaps… a scramble of synchronicities then! Well the one I’m sending you is vintage Femme by Rochas EDT – looks like an 80s version,, kinda raspberry / brown liquid and comes in a bottle like the one pictured in the middle of your post.

      • I love it. I want it. Arigato.

  9. One of my mother’s favorite scents and also one of mine. This scent is perfection, pure perfection. I was lucky to find a vintage sealed bottle last year in a vintage shop. Now I do not have to be too judicious in my application of this beauty. I wore this on my wedding day, vintage of course, and it was just perfect for my January nuptials. Totally fit my persona to be married wearing this scent, no white blossoms for me 😉

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