PERFUME STREETWEAR: THE WHITE-MUSK TREND IN PARIS... VRAIMENT? by Chantal-Hélène Wagner
Being in Paris, a capital-city bigger, more kaleidoscopic than Cambridge or even Boston, with more clusters of villages in it, I started experiencing first-hand how one can catch a meaningful glimpse, or rather sniff, of current perfume-wearing trends trailing sensually along the sidewalks, the subway corridors and as showcased in the intimacy of steamy, thronged buses in the summer. Finding myself in the privileged historic environment of an urban culture that is keen on burning incense at the altar of the gods of seduction and of the art of "paraître" (looks) through recourse to personal aromas (but without neglecting the interior life as the contemplative gazes of the cigarette smokers indulging in street-smoking reveals), and which is moreover conscious of its beautiful, multi-secular scented and fashion traditions, makes it all the more interesting to observe or rather take in while simply walking about.
Just as fashion-conscious Parisian women and men love to check out each other's shoes, accessories, clothes and style sense on the street, with more or less discreet patrolling surveillance-eyes that sometimes reveal a startled look of realization, one can bet one's bottom Euro that lovers of beauty are silently inhaling perfume inspiration when brushing past discerning perfumistas in the many busy areas of the city. Or is there such a thing as a perfumista in Paris and is my vocabulary just being contaminated by professional lingo? I muse on: aren't all French women and men expected to have been lulled to bed by the scents of their mothers and developed a seemingly innate appreciation for perfume from the time they were falling asleep in their cradles? Come to think of it: what if one were not just a perfumista but if one were just, is...perfume... in some meditative and deeply reflective sense? The thought is too deep to tackle right now, of course and besides I am thirsty, so I leave it aside. But it's about this idea that early education becomes something like second nature, and that other idea that perfumes that have authenticity about them are psychological constructs that contain doors one can open with invisible keys to enter in their universes...
Part II of this article: Top White Musk Trails to Try Out
One palpable, unexpected trend in particular that I see emerging out of these chance peregrinations has been that of the underground popularity of white musk scents. I use the word "underground" in jest and in earnest because the French have a reputation for caring - as old-world connoisseurs should - for the fascinating scent of physical (and to some extent moral) corruption, even decadence, as interpreted by more sensitive souls, and as expressed by the wafts of rotting indolic flowers, amorous, days-old-unwashed living flesh, as well as aged food and spirituous drinks. In other words, the old world, France in particular, is supposed to officially love to stink to high heaven while the new world, we are often told, smells fresh, a telling symbolic opposition that satisfies neither parties in reality. The French especially are expected to unhesitatingly show collective national disdain for the so-called "clean scents" of our modern era, those suspect aseptic compositions born in the minds of perfumers obsessed with replicating bathrooms smells to cover the sewage of life and which only serve the purpose of betraying your lack of understanding of "real perfumes" - if there are such things but for fundamentalists - those gems aged in the moldy yet noble oak barrels of time. The French on the contrary, we are invited to consider, are programmed to lustily embrace all the scents reminiscent of bodily odors - such is their praised or vilified perversion depending on the aesthetic camps. Likewise, and in a different area of their lives, the French are also not supposed to or expected to smile while showing a barrage of white teeth to the camera.
The line existing between a cultural expectation and a stereotype is tenuous. In the first case it is a viewpoint from a member of the society in question and open to debate. In the second case, a more external one with less possibility of evolution and discussion, if only for lack of time or knowledge of the language and culture. It therefore sticks like an old garish tourist label on a creaky pork-skin suitcase which has imbibed all the hotel-lobbies gossips on its frequent travels.
Yet, in the summer of 2008 the white-musk sillages are there, wafting up to me, unambiguously minimalist and white but, it seems to my nose, less frankly soapy than in the streets of Cambridge and Boston, as if they tended to become mellower here, rounder, more evocative of the warmth of the body serving as an obligatory undertone, in short, less shower-like and scrubbed down to their raw selves. Or is it my mellow mood? Is it perhaps the air, the level of humidity, the weather, the food, the happy hormones, the discreet use of unscented soap, the famed non-religious washing? White musk, this weird oxymoron composed of notes of snow-white purity and transparent sensuality, combines to smell both like a fresh and warm skin and can be smelled at times on both men and women quickly passing by like a statement of simplicity or sometimes understated complexity. At times, the white musk wafts, layered, a bit, and there is a dash of rose.
These limpid musky sillages are intimate in style as opposed to some others which take up the length of several feet of "trottoir" (sidewalk), suddenly blooming invisibly and hitting you agreeably in the face, even making your head swivel around instinctively as you experience aesthetic awe, but too late; the person who was wearing the wonderful scent has already disappeared down the street and is but a hurrying silhouette. Yet that person's scent mixed with that person's odor has come to life more fully after the passer-by disappeared. Yes, even sillages seem to behave differently here, signing a presence rather than moving with the person, enveloping her or him like a nuclear cloud (ahem, sometimes).
The tangible popularity of the scent of white musk comes as a surprise, first to see it forming like a perfumed diagonal cutting across the city, and an unexpected general taste development as more generally speaking in the past whenever I came back to Paris, I would be struck by the prevalence of complex, sophisticated perfume wakes.
The white-musk trend also goes somewhat counter to the sales statistics reflecting the French taste for deep orientals, equally apparent on the streets, but seems to be an acceptable compromise and middle-road between the historic sensual animalistic and fresh-smelling traditions of perfumery cohabiting in France.
The first one is a tradition firmly rooted in the escapades, excesses and pre-hygienic experiences of the aristocracy of the French court, in particular that of the 17th century, which is known to have been the great Fauve, i.e. animalistic period for personal perfumes in France. Later it would come to be in the 18th century that queen Marie-Antoinette, who firmly believed in the virtues of water-washing and was a fervent bather, would be credited for having introduced the first trendy fresh notes in perfumery at Versailles. One can see it as an evolution that had already been encouraged by Louis XIV in the second half part of his reign when, according to the Duc de Saint-Simon, he could not stand strong perfumes anymore and tolerated only orange blossom at the court, except for Madame de Maintenon's jasmine-scented gloves. But to this day, the "dirty" model of French olfactory preferences predominates in popular representations of France's perfume culture forgoing those other meaningful aspects such as the historic usage of the bracing eau de cologne and the invention of clean fougère scents (the barber-shop smelling fresh colognes).
As for the invention of white musk, a decidedly sophisticated, non-natural treat for the senses , although the scientifico-historic literature on the topic claims that the first prototype white-musk accord was invented by perfumer Alberto Morillas for Armani White Emporio for Her in 2001, with a code name of "cotton and linen," white musk scents existed a little before then. Some popular staples like The Body Shop White Musk was launched in 1981 and Jovan White Musk in 1991.
Admittedly, the fact remains that so-called white musk perfumes playing on crisp, transparent and snow-like powdery effects are a more recent evolution over the more literal idea of a dirty animalistic musk extracted from the anatomy of the little Musk Deer (Moschus Moschiferous) and which smells rather more like dark brown in its natural state with a tinge of yellow gold (urine). Grains of musk look black actually. It is interesting to note also that there exists a traditional literary trope in Islamic literature that opposes the whiteness of camphor to the blackness of musk. Thus, for example, the poet Ibn Kalakis writes,
"There are females dark in skin, but in conduct clear and pure; whose presence would induce the (white) camphor to envy the (black) musk: 'tis thus with the pupil of the eye: men think it black though merely (concentrated) light."
Habanolide, Globalide, Galaxolide, Ambrettolide are some of the synthetic molecules used to produce that cool and diaphanous white-musk effect like a silver knife resting on snow and absorbing its coldness. It is also worth knowing that due to frequent anosmia to musk found in the general population (about 50 % we are told), perfumers have to use several kinds of musk-smelling molecules to compose a legible musky trail that people will be able to smell and enjoy.
So here's to the health of clean, maybe never-to-be-smelled-by-all musks scents in the streets of Paris, which reveal that French tastes are more varied than expected. And since this is Paris, this must be a fashion trend.
Next week: Reviews of top white musk perfumes to try out
We are pleased to inaugurate our new category called "Perfume Streetwear" with this article. In it we will muse about perfume and fashion and what fragrances or scents people are wearing on the street, wherever we pick up a trail.
Image credit: Wikipedia