Bottling the Zeitgeist: 100 Years of Iconic Perfumes – Part 2

19 January, 2017

Jessica Murphy is an art historian with a passion for perfume and pop-culture. In two installments of our Truth-tellers & Troublemakers Salon, she gave us a comprehensive look at more than 100 years of the iconic scents that bottled the zeitgeist of their times. We caught up with her to talk about some of her favorites... and hear the stories behind some familiar (and not so familiar) fragrances. Here is part 2, from 1950 up to today.

Rochas Femme ad

Could you tell us why Rochas' Femme was such a big hit?

Just like Fracas, Femme coincided with fashion's "New Look," a very luxurious aesthetic that Piguet and Rochas pioneered in the prosperous years after World War II. And just like a New Look gown, Femme is rich and voluptuous. It feels like it needs to be paired with jewelry and heels, a proper hairdo and lots of lipstick. There's nothing casual about it! Even the bottle's curves let you know that this perfume is feminine with a capital F. It became popular at a moment when traditional gender roles were being reestablished and celebrated in Western society.


Can you give us an example of a perfume that’s deliberately gone against that grain?

Calandre is intriguing because it started with a classical chypre composition, although a much lighter one than Femme, and added newly available synthetic notes for a more modern effect. Paco Rabanne was famous for making clothing from pieces of plastic and metal, and he wanted his brand's first fragrance to have the same feel: youthful, futuristic, a little shocking. It even has notes that smell slightly metallic! And it's named for something mechanical: "calandre" is the French word for the front grill of a car, something mass-produced that's designed to keep moving ahead. It's a perfume made for the auto age, the era of Pop Art, and the youthquake of the late ’60s.

Opium ad

Are there perfumes you might describe as controversial?

Opium was definitely controversial at the time it came out. Squibb, the parent company of Parfums Yves Saint Laurent, had to be persuaded to keep the name, and there were boycotts and protests when the fragrance was released. Of course, this controversy made Opium all the more coveted! Orientalism is a recurring trend in perfume (remember Shalimar in the ’20s), and Opium was launched right in time for the disco decadence of the ’70s. It was a peek into the glamorous, sexy world of exclusive nightclubs that people like Yves Saint Laurent and Jerry Hall (the first face of Opium) actually visited. It also offered a sense of escapism during a decade marked by inflation, unemployment, global tensions, and a severe energy crisis resulting from gas shortages.

Poison ad-resize

Poison took a few of those cues, too, wouldn’t you say?

I'm sure the team behind Poison had learned from Opium's controversy; scandal sells! Poison's more-is-more aesthetic tied in perfectly with the over-the-top clothing, home décor, and popular culture of the ’80s, and then that added hint of danger made it appealing in its own way. And it was even more provocative than Opium: opium can give you hallucinations, but poison kills! The purple bottle looks like a poison apple, and in one of the early Poison ads, the deathly pale model holds it like she's a modern Eve (offering temptation) or the evil queen out of "Snow White." Pretty scary stuff. Wearing it is almost like taking a dare. On a more basic level, just as in the case of Chanel or Rochas, women who couldn't afford couture may have enjoyed the opportunity to own something more accessible with a designer's name on it.

When you’re talking about accessibility, CK One comes to mind. Was it the first unisex fragrance?

To be clear, CK One certainly wasn't the first gender-neutral fragrance. Until the 1800s, most fragrances were worn by men and women. But they very cleverly updated the traditional citrus-and-herb Eau de Cologne composition (dating back to the early 1700s) with some more contemporary fruit notes, gave it a very functional-looking bottle, and advertised it with black-and-white ads that incorporated gender fluidity and relationships beyond the conventional boy-kissing-girl perfume ad. The "fresh" feeling of the scent itself and the minimalist-grunge visuals of the ads and packaging attracted the attention of teens, who recognized CK One as something very different from the perfumes of their parents' generation. And aren't we all rebels at that age?

We all like to think so! So many of these scents seem tied to cultural moments. Or does their success depend on their designer’s cult of personality?

That's an excellent question. Angel was definitely ahead of its time with its mix of chocolate and patchouli and white flowers, and it needed a few years to find its audience in Europe. It took even longer to catch on in the United States, where Mugler (unlike Dior, for example) had very little name recognition. I think it was finally helped along in the United States in the late ’90s by a New Age interest in angel imagery. Its name was suddenly very on-trend. I also have a theory that the huge popularity of gourmand fragrances in the U.S. after 2000 (with Angel leading the way), was tied to a larger phenomenon of cocooning and the need for sensual comfort in a new era of terrorism, but that’s a topic for another day!

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Words by the Editors. Imagery kindly provided by Jessica Murphy.

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