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.