Miss Balmain was the last official creation by the French genius Germaine Cellier (1909- 1976 – pictured above), a sweet, bitter, ‘devious’ leather whose facade  – quaint floral tinctures of every stripe — carnation, orris, narcissus, jasmine, fifties’ gardenia and of course lily-of-the-valley, bouquet rush-wrapped in citric, coriander-laced green aldehydes – almost syrupy, kneedling – quite My Heart Belongs To Daddy sung by Marilyn Monroe – belies a much more ‘intelligent’, dry, leather base. With coumarins, tonka and amber used to smooth out this tight-waisted, but ample-figured blend before the modishly cigarette-swanning vetiver/ patchouli phenolic cuir of the final, long lasting accord of the vintage parfum takes over, this is certainly something of a bipolar perfume – much more rebellious and independent than it might initially appear.






While I definitely prefer Jolie Madame  – I just can’t help it as it is just so…….on the ball; sharp and clever and devilishly sexy with its violets-for-your-furs and taut leather; its gentlemanly overtures  (I found both of my divine Balmain bottles, eight years ago, on the same day in Tokyo – such a find!), I also personally like Miss Balmain better than the far more audacious, torridly dark-leather whip of Bandit (1944)










– one of Ms Cellier’s most deservedly famous creations that I respect, but which for me is just too ‘old school forties’; hard, and peevish as cold ashes. Still, alongside the marvellous Vent Vert(1947) and Fracas (1948), considered all together this is really quite the most incredible triumvirate of precious, but vastly differing perfumes ( a violet leather; one of the freshest, greenest strange, perfumes ever made, and the tuberose of all time, respectively)  – always containing this enigmatic perfumer’s wry, almost obstinately intractable signature.

























Miss Balmain, from the very first moment I smelled it, immediately reminded me of The Bell Jar: (1963) Sylvia Plath’s inextinguishable, semi-autobiographical treatise on the black chasm between the bustling commercial post-war boom years of New York, where things were on the up and the Future was American all big band trombones and diners and cocktails – and the inner realities of a singularly sensitive, poetic individual with an arch sensibility and increasingly severe mental illness (or possibly just reacting to her circumstances) ;  ‘living her dream’ working at a publishing house in The Big City with great chances ahead of her, but inside… bleak, lonely, trapped inside her suffocating  ‘bell jar’ of limitation and suicidal oppression.









Though created – or at least released – in 1967, Miss Balmain is not as iconoclastic as Cellier’s earlier work – less coutured Parisian punk……. more well to do in some ways; bourgeois. The sixties was a time of neo-classicism in perfumery – Calèche, Capricci ; Madame Rochas; Climat; Guerlain’s exquisitely well behaved Chant D’Arômes, as well as the more controlled and chic leathers like Diorling; it would take until the Seventies for the tiger skin hippie chic to take over with its caravanserai of spice and patchoulis, and the contrasting white Farrah Fawcett tennis-wear slightly louche green sports fragrances ; to me, Miss Balmain in truth always smells more like the decade before it was created, the 1950’s, the time of Jolie Madame (1953) – after all, the perfumer – older, perhaps ‘wiser’, at 58, who knows, may have mellowed in her habits and tastes and wanted to create something more ‘mature’ or else even a throwback to her younger days. This perfume would not have been fresh and new for the times; it is smooth and unctuous; definitely ‘later period’ and not deliberately sharp or perfectedly jagged like some of her earlier work; to me it has always smelled like a cache of strawberry candy stored somewhere in the pouch of  a well-loved leather bag. Cloakrooms and hats. Coats. Furs. As such, I always thought it  fit perfectly the image of Doreen, Bell Jar protagonist Esther Greenwood’s closest acquaintance in her hectic, high octane work place with her ebullient, ‘naughty’, if still conformist personality: a ray of light in Esther’s black, muddled cave of isolation; someone fun to gossip with at the coffee shop round the corner in the latest fashions, doused in an endearing, cute – if animalistic – ‘man -magnet’ perfume to speculate fondly on their love lives together ; the office it girl with her typical preoccupations and the lost intellectual; smelling precisely of the moment.




























The 1950s. How you view this time period (and the 1960s, and any decade) will obviously depend on your age, your predilections, interests, and tastes. For me, while fully historically aware of the terrible horrors that were shortly to ensue, I am naturally drawn, and always have been, to the turning of the decade from the 1910’s through the 1920’s and the beginning of the 1930’s: Man Ray, the surrealists, the Ballets Russes (Germaine Cellier also frequented artists like Jean Cocteau and was part of that circle); my ultimate time-travel dream, I think, would be to go to the opening night of a Stravinsky ballet in Paris, such as the Rite Of Spring or Petrushka. You know I would have been on the firm side of the modernist rabid enthusiasts, shouting in ecstasy at the savage Russian beauty of the instinctual, stabbing music celebrating the consecration of the earth in completely new sounds and sonic structures, and not the mothball outraged traditionalists,  ripping up their velvet seats and throwing their tired opera glasses in fury at the stage.  Or else it could have been the 70s, when I grew up happily as a child, but didn’t get to live – not in that way, anyway (take me to the Disco; let me headbang in leather at a Motörhead concert the way my long haired elder cousins did.) All of which means, I suppose that I like it looser; creative; less restrictive. While some people, whether in rose-tinted glasses or not, might retrospectively look back to The Fifties as being a ‘happier time’, when things more ‘simple’, when men were men and women were women and the family unit was as rock solid as a nuclear bunker, my own probably very stereotyped image of the 1950s is that it was a time of trapped suburban housewives relying on ‘mothers little helpers’ to get them through the severe boredom of the day waiting for their husbands to come home in secret despair; deep racism; a time of great oppression generally, especially for people like me ( and thus also Germaine Cellier, whose sexuality is said to have overtly influenced her perfume style); a time when you had to hide. Or be punished. By society. Across the domestic threshold. At school. So many people curtailed; Esther Greenwood,  alias Sylvia Plath, a woman of extreme intelligence, also trapped morbidly inside the void of a lack of real opportunities and the chemical imbalances of her overworking head.








































Like Frances Farmer, the actress who was eventually lobotomized at the behest of her mother and the film company she was cruelly tethered to, ostensibly for paranoid schizophrenia, but – if we are to believe the premise of the harrowing film Frances starring Jessica Lange – to reign in her personality, and strong political  beliefs,







I also had a translator friend in New Zealand, someone who died last year,  who lived through a terrible, isolated and painful childhood; and who, because of her supposed ‘sexual deviancy’, only just escaped legal mandatory electroconvulsive shock therapy in the place that she grew up – the very treatment that The Bell Jar’s heroine ultimately is compelled to endure in order to ‘shock’ her out of her ‘doldrums’ (yet ironically rendering her more docile and ‘under the membrane’; trapped, like a butterfly on a pin, under glass   – than ever before.)





















The 1950s, for me, I am sure would have been a time of unbearable, clandestine living.  Conservative; judgemental, hypocritically ‘moral’; the excited avariciousness for brand new electrical appliances. Cold war hysteria. Hatred of The Other. UFO abductions. I would have been hunted and shamed out of gay bars; if born American, assumed a ‘communist’; tarred. Blighted. Suffocated. No wonder people went apeshite in the sixties. I would have done too. Yes, the fixed gender roles might have been more legible and more black and white and easy to understand for people back in that time  (which is why there is currently a movement in the UK and elsewhere towards some women unironically adopting specifically this classic homebaking housewife mode of living as a backlash to the gender revolution we are undergoing now; a kind of ‘back to basics’ aproned femininity that people on the left will attack mercilessly, but which I think I can probably understand).  All of this is complicated. I do not claim to be able to deeply understand the precise nuances of all heterosexual interaction: I don’t know; some people possibly do need a more typically polar male/ female experience for whatever reasons; learned, sexual, cultural, psychological; ‘moral’ – who am I to judge if it is a mutually satisfying situation –  but such people certainly would have been far better off living back in a time when these roles  – where submission and ‘feminine wiles’ were a given , and the breadwinner ruled the roost  and branded the belt   – were so much more rigidly assigned.



















People such as myself rebel at the cellular source level against the very idea of any kind of strictures or enforced modes of behaviour that feel unnatural. You have to reject. And assert your right to be in the picture, as you are. Not hidden. I think that Germaine Cellier’s lesbian outsider status and innate and visionary olfactory perception allowed her to circumvent the limitations of masculine/feminine perfumery in her age; to bring a much needed and futuristic Shock Of the New. To be true to her image of what a perfume should smell like; a sealed, liquid treasure to enhance all our complex facets; to bring out different elements simultaneously. This morning (how lucky I feel I am to live in this time, this age, even taking into account the current difficulties), wearing the vintage extrait of Miss Balmain, I suddenly realized for the first time that I had in fact been wrong about The Bell Jar and Doreen. As the keen but supple leather of the boisé base, more erotic –  yet also more dignified than I remember – interacted gradually on my skin, I came to see that the perfume is far more intriguing and complicated than I had given it credit for prior to this wearing. On me, ‘Miss Balmain’ smells manly to just the right degree once the initial stupor in pink has dissipated its way into the coffee and cream coloured clouds; darker;  more mordantly thoughtful. Layered. Deeper. More like Esther Greenwood, in fact  –   or even Sylvia Plath.
















Filed under Leather


  1. Brilliant review, Mr Chapman. Full of insights, perfume and otherwise.

    • Thank you sir. I felt like going into things a bit today at a leisurely, rather than feverish, pace. I loved your Ann Flipo interview piece as well. Interesting that you put La Chasse Aux Papillons at the top of the list of her creations; for me that is her signature perfume. She ROCKS the tuberose orange blossoms. I love her Tubereuse Hedonie for Roger & Gallet which is a interesting re-working of her original Butterfly Chase. I like her clean but still sensual combinations of notes.

      • Hello Neil and apologies for the very delayed reply. Things have become such a proverbial blur. Thank you for reading the Anne Flipo interview and the compliment. La Chasse is such a standout fragrance of hers. It had to be there.

    • PS. What decades are you drawn to? I would love to know other people’s feelings on this point. Someone the other day on a blog I was reading was talking about feeling that they were naturally drawn towards The Middle Ages, when I can’t think of ANYTHING WORSE.

      • Ha! Ha! The Middle Ages? Now there’s an interesting one. Perfume- and pop culture-wise, I’m definitely a child of the 80s. All those big and bold fragrances and synth-pop tunes. But I would hate to be stuck in the groove of one decade so I also take liberally from many others. Hope that helps.

      • Definitely the best philosophy!

  2. David

    For some reason, when I read this piece, I was reminded of the “Reefer Madness” films I had to watch in health class when I was 12 years old. (I think I was the last generation to be subjected to those reel to reels.) I remember some of the scenes–to show the depraved habitats of those who smoked “reefer”–took place in underground coffee shops frequented by beat poets or in juke joints frequented by “negro” jazz musicians. I remember thinking, “where do I sign up?”…I’m reading the autobiography of the jazz musician Art Pepper and 1950s LA was pure debauchery in the jazz world.
    I am drawn to jazz heyday LA. I am also drawn to the 1970s–around 1978 when punk and disco were colliding. Just one night in Studio 54, just one night…

    • YES YES YES. Jazz heyday LA sounds great, and Studio 54…..well I am sure it would have got tired quite quickly no matter what everybody says, but one night with all the best guests there in one place; Grace Jones, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Warhol… must have been utterly dazzling.

      I love the sound of the ‘reefer madness’ lessons. We never had that in England, but there were other anti-drugs lessons that were obviously effective for my young brain! (I was never tempted……wine and beer were my downfall).

  3. rosestrang

    Beautiful, and a timely reminder that my mum asked if I could find her a vintage miniature of Miss Balmain (ordered forthwith from Etsy, hope it’s a good one!). Talking of repression and stupor – I really feel for the elderly just now during the UK’s lockdown. My mum had it all sorted – as a single woman in her 70’s she’s made a full and enjoyable life for herself – singing, music, philosophy groups, gardening, keeping healthy, most important volunteering her knowledge and help as a former nurse, health visitor and counsellor for families in trouble, then it all grinds to a screeching halt because of this f-ing virus. Then we’re told the elderly may have to isolate for a year. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand that the NHS is already overwhelmed and we need to protect the more vulnerable, but I do wonder if self isolation is sustainable to that extent. On the plus side, Edinburgh looks beautiful just now – I’ve never seen skies so blue and clear! Hope you’re keeping well and happy

    • Great to hear from you (and I adore that the perfume is one of your mum’s favourites. How does it smell on her?)
      It is DEFINITELY tough right now for everyone in the UK – my parents are inside and doing ok as are D’s, but being alone and isolated is far worse. Such a shame. Thank god for the internet though and the fact we can all contact each other so easily. I speak to my parents quite regularly.

      Japan…….well I am going to have to write about it again. It is honestly IN.SANE.

      Keep enjoying (and painting) the blue skies. Has this epidemic led to any new slants/ perspectives in your work?

      • rosestrang

        Look forward to hearing your perspectives on Japan, I love those observational posts you write about Japan!

        Miss Balmain smells woodsy and oakmossy on my mum mostly, with a nice vintage perfumy haze. It’s by far her favourite, followed closely by vintage Femme. I bought her Nirmal a while back which she likes too, I think it’s Laboratorio Olfativo. My mum’s Zooming away online, which is a surprise since she’s a bit of a techno phobe!

        Yes, this epidemic has definitely inspired some new art from me – a painting called ‘Labyrinth’ is on my website, in response to the pandemic. But the air is changed – less car sounds, less pollution – a feel of stillness and a clarity of light I’ve not seen before, or not since I was a kid. It makes everything shine with a sort of intensified presence. I really want to paint the feel of that if I can. Weirdly enough my paintings sales are better than ever. I think people are turning to arts of all kinds to help them through this weird time. A hospital worker from Bradford recently commissioned me to paint a seascape, can’t wait to paint it, but paint deliveries are slow. On one level I’m sort of enjoying the peace just now, though there’s an ominous mood of course. It’s a good time to read and enjoy your posts!

      • I wondered if the clear air and skies might initiate some new directions for you – this all sounds great. And how lovely that you can bring some relief to a hospital worker in that way; that looking at a painting of the sea could ease the stress a little during the mayhem. Very glad your mother has discovered Zoom – I haven’t gone there yet but may soon have to for work I think.

        This is definitely a significant time in our lives: of that there can be no doubt.

  4. Tora

    I have never tried either Miss Balmain nor Jolie Madame, but have always been curious. Sometimes leather perfumes take me back too much to sitting in the back seat of my parent’s car, with the new leather, windows rolled up, and both smoking all the way form the city to Sonoma, across the Golden Gate bridge. My parents wondered why my little sister and I got car sick so much. Anyway, leather can sometimes make my stomach turn. I adore Cuir Mauresque, Bel Ami, Puredistance M, and Roja Fetish. I just can’t wear them. Your words and photos about the 1950s really took me back in time. I was born in ’54 and all the women I knew dressed exactly like those photos. My first glimpses of femininity related to the time. Even though I turned out to be a long-haired, braless hippie in jeans, t-shirts and cowboy boots, that style of women’s clothing still melts my heart a little.

    • How wonderful to read. Such an evocation x

      To be honest, I can’t really wear leathers either (the leatheriest I usually get is vintage Givenchy Gentleman, though I sometimes get occasional cravings for Etro Gomma), and think that contemporary niche perfumes capture the realistic leather scent more convincingly, if you actually want that raw leather hide smell on your skin. Like you, I prefer them on other people. What is so wonderful about Jolie Madame is the DRYNESS: a really unsentimental violet note shot through with artemisia and 50’sy things but drying out to this really chic, chic, understated leather….the vintage versions really take you to a certain space. I don’t know if it would be your thing (did you like the Romeo Gigli?) – I am pretty sure that Miss Balmain would be too slovenly, somehow – I forgot to mention in the review that it was designed to be the perfume for the ‘blasé’ young woman…

      I think today was the first time I properly connected with it.

  5. Tara C

    I love all the photos, and both Miss Balmain and Jolie Madame. Back in 1991 my ex MIL gifted me with bottles of Le Dix and Miss Balmain. Having never smelled anything like them up to that point, I was mystified and somewhat put off, especially by Le Dix, which I eventually gave away. But now after becoming more of a perfumista, I can really appreciate these scents. I love leather as a perfume note, although not all varieties work on me. Some favourites are Cuir Mauresque, Cuir Ottoman, Mona di Orio Cuir, Cuir Velours and Cuir Cannage.

    • I have Cuir Mauresque and have never really worn it. It just doesn’t work on me: I remember liking the Mona Di Orio : her perfume style always put a unique spin on things. I think for leathers to work you have to have a particular kind of skin – I LOVE how they smell on dry, cool skins rather than the pissing beasts they become on me.

      Give me a powdery violet like Le Dix any day of the week!

  6. Robin

    Very few writers seem to be able to capture Miss Balmain and its contradictions, but you, of course, do. Also its overall feeling, which — so true — conjures up the decade before its release. Out of time, timeless. I think Bandit, for me, would be wearable if it was worn in a 4 to 1 ratio with Miss Balmain. On its own, it’s just as you say. With Miss Balmain, I get echoes of things like Cabochard and Narcisse Noir, those rich woody/leathery/smoky florals, a favourite style of mine. I admire Germain Cellier hugely and love her work.

    I also enjoyed reading the other things you touched on. I’m thinking of Far From Heaven, and Dennis Quaid’s character’s experience, as embodying the worst of that time. For me, the male-female dichotomy worked to women’s detriment through most of history but works relatively well (depending on the evolutionary level of the males in a given context) in the 21st century, when women have infinitely more freedom, respect and clout. (In most of the world today, I would not want to be a woman.*shudders*) My femininity is pure nature, because I was raised with no sisters two brothers, a dominant, authoritarian mother, and my female-ness was ignored — no, even denigrated — when I was growing up. Nope, no nurture there. It’s only been with Ric that I’ve fully embraced that receptive, receiving dynamic of traditional femininity and it’s felt very good. Really freeing and absolutely natural, and a good fit with Ric’s masculinity, which is a sizeable part of his character: protective, giving. Of course, all that is massively fluid; we all move back and forth on a continuum if we’re healthy. Rigid roles are never a good thing, or at least off the top of my head I can’t think of any time they are.

    • Tora

      Your words moved me a great deal, Robin. And I agree wholeheartedly with the reference to Far from Heaven. I am going to try Jolie Madame which Neil thinks I would like better than Miss Balmain.

      • I used to find his films sometimes overwrought but wonder if I would like them better now having enjoyed Carol (which is also so relevant to what we are discussing here).

        As for Jolie Madame, if you ever wear leather jackets, I can imagine it smelling quite stunning just lacing the edges of the lapels, or inside; I actually think I prefer the vintage eau de toilette in a way as the violet and leather contradiction is more overt (the parfum is VERY strong, like a liqueur).

      • Robin

        I had to just embrace that whole Douglas Sirk homage, Neil, and then the hyper-mannered melodrama seemed to be calibrated perfectly.

        Love Jolie Madame.

    • This is what I was trying to say earlier in the piece about the masculine/feminine divide I think – you capture the essence of it perfectly here. I am lucky in that I do feel very multifaceted but not at odds with myself in that regard; I also don’t need to label myself in the way that millennials do (you know, if you are attracted to intelligent people, you are a ‘sapiosexual’ and so on. It is an interesting idea, maybe, but to me limiting.

      I think Japan is still in many ways like the 50’s American housewife. In the world gender equality rankings I think it comes in at 121 or something like that.

      • Robin

        I’m with you. I feel mostly just like a human being. I can tap into aspects of myself that might be traditionally masculine or feminine, and I think I tend to be pretty left-brain overall, although emotional, blah blah, but none of that defines me and it’s not the filter I see people through. As far as identity politics go, oh god Neil don’t get me started!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • I agree. I wouldn’t know where to start. I understand different mindsets, but I personally, like you say here, veer from one sphere to another and I don’t even know if they are actually masculine or feminine traits to begin with. I don’t care. And I feel extremely lucky to just BE: so many people cannot.

      • Robin

        I don’t think I’d like to be a Japanese housewife.

      • I mean. Things are changing. I cannot overgeneralize too much. But Jesus.

    • PS. Definitely Cabochard. I was thinking that yesterday when I reached the final accord. Just without the patchouli / hyacinth pinch that makes the Gres a tad more aloof and bitchy. I think Miss Balmain is more approachable.

  7. Oh how I loved your piece! It is interesting how so many of these leathery fragrances for woman came out at a time when women were still supposed to be demure and fragile, yes even through the 60’s. It is a fabulous juxtaposition to have very feminine creatures wearing scents that are kind of tough and slightly harsh; Cellier was magnificent in that way, so was Chant.
    I personally have always been drawn to all of those scents and not because my Mama wore them, though she did adore Cabochard quite a bit. I was lucky enough to have a specialty perfume store I used to go to for purchasing my Guerlains, from the the age of 10 onwards. There I had the deluxe pleasure of smelling all the vintage glories, such as Miss Balmain, Jolie Madame, Le Dix, L’Interdit and so many others. Mama was sometimes perplexed at my choice of scents, things she never really wore in her young-adulthood, but that I fell in love with at the age of 10/11. Then again, I was bathed as a newborn in water enhanced with Youth Dew Bath Oil, it should have been obvious to her I would not by shy when it came to fragrance.
    As far as the other, more unseemly sides of those older days.
    I have to say I am glad I grew up when I did, during the 80’s mostly, when the draconian gender stereotypes weren’t as prominent as the had been a couple of decades prior. Reading all those things just made me so sad for any and all who fell outside of what was considered “the norm”.
    I guess the fact that not all women were expected to smell like rose water or lilacs was a bit of an empowering feeling. You may have been forced to wear a girdle and form-fitting dresses all day, but you could smell as though you had just been riding in a leather saddle and picking intoxicating hot-house flowers. I will say it again, thank goodness for all the parfumeurs who let women breathe a little, even if only by a touch of fragrance.

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