For months now, I have wanted to weigh in on the latent discussion regarding the use of the world <Oriental> and all of its progenitors. However, such a discussion must begin with an admission of guilt, for I have used these terms far too easily, without any recognition of the social, cultural, political, and symbolic costs of its very application. It is all too easy to not have to think critically (or to think heteronomously: deferring one’s thought to the prevailing order of the crowd) about the words one uses and the way one uses them, but I’ve always maintained that words aren’t innocent, nor should anyone be spared of their perlocutionary effects.
These transgressions remind us of the shaky foundations perfumes are built on: narratives seen through the Occidental prism, without proper or authentic reference to the very referent it claims to draw upon. It is no short of sweetly scented corruption. Tania Sanchez said it well in Perfumes: The Guide (2008), speaking of ‘<Gourmand Orientals>, I think it can be applied more generally to <Orientals> overall. Paraphrasing, there are <Oriental> fragrances shaped according to a Western idea of the Orient, fantasy ideas like that expressed in Guerlain’s Shalimar (1925), or YSL’s Opium (1977)1; and then there are <Orientals> that reference something seemingly more concrete and literal, like the aroma of spices, honey, and dried fruit, as expressed in Diptyque’s spice cupboard L’Autre (1973), Serge Luten’s Arabie (2000), or perhaps the evocative aroma of souks, hot sand, and shady refuge in Tauer’s L’Air du Desert Marocain (2005). I am also keen to make reference to Habit Rouge (Guerlain, 1965) as a curious case that falls minimally into the latter camp. It lacks an ‘Oriental’ narrative, but is characteristically <Oriental> by virtue of its structure and choice of notes put into beautifully ordered harmony. Under the entry on L’Autre, Sanchez states:
Observe two strains of gourmand orientals in fragrance: first, the Shalimar school, lush and sweet, based on amber and joined to exotic fantasies that said more about the mind of Europe than the life of Asia; second, the Postmodern school of the original Comme des Garçons fragrance and other recent niche creations, based on the smell of import shops and the cuisine of actual Near Eastern friends and neighbors. While the Shalimar strain, as a perfume daydream with no debt owed to reality, has flourished, producing a long line of fragrances, the latter strain can seem hobbled by a desire for authenticity.(Turin & Sanchez, 2008, p. 83).
Furthermore, as a label, <Oriental> stands for spices and ambery resins. This is at its most reductive, but frankly I do not think there is much more to it. Also, Michael Edwards refers to the application of incense in <Soft Orientals>, yet again another ‘Oriental’ idea. Vanilla too is an important component of the <Oriental> qualification, here an opportunity to address the legend whereby Jacques Guerlain overdosed the Ethyl vanillin in the earlier <Aromatic Fougere> of Aimé Guerlain’s creation, Jicky (1899), literally pouring the molecule into a bottle of the stuff, and thereby Shalimar, the first <Oriental>, was born. If this were true, then I’d wish to emphasise the purely contingent and superficial nature of the Orientalist narrative – but I am fairly convinced this is not so. Simply smelling Jicky next to Shalimar reveals that it’s much more than just one molecule in emphasis. And now my argument: <Oriental> certainly captures something distinctive of all the scents in this genre, but there is no reason not to use the value-purged <spice/spicy/spiced> over and above <Oriental>.
The point of these elucidations is plain – there is nothing sacrosanct about these words or these labels, and we can capture
Oriental3 ideas in perfume and art, in a way that is conscientious, by elucidating to ourselves our prejudices.4 We can know other cultures and its effects without blatant ideological imposition or through an asymmetrical process of struggle, and rather with well-meaning and respectful fascination – with positive knowledge of the other, and not unthinking creation and the very consumption of this other, semper ad meliora.
The Postmodern <
Perfume, whether by choice or not, reflects a state of affairs. Even an attempt to not concern itself with its climate is an act that responds to the state of affairs at present. A perfumer, as a human and creative agent, inculcates the values of their surroundings. This is not at all a new or bold notion by any means, but it bears upon the discussion so far, highlighting that more recent <Oriental> perfumes are reflecting an impatience and dissatisfaction towards the very inauthenticity within the category. Even further, it speaks to an aesthetic postmodernism that concerns creativity. That is, the belief that all perfumed forms have been exhausted,5 and there is no longer a possibility of creating new figures – so, in response to this, there are three options that are largely interconnected:
2. To create hybridised fusions, i.e. <Gourmand> + <Aquatic> = <Gourmand Aquatic> [viz. Phtaloblue (Tauer Perfumes, 2020)]; adding unexpected notes to more established forms, or emphasising something differently.
3. To deconstruct pre-existing forms to then play with them, generally approaching a degree of abstraction, where the finished result no longer references the historical ‘first-generation’ benchmark but no less represents the genre or category.
Fate Woman (Amouage, 2013) is a prime example of the deconstructive approach with a bit of help from the hybridisation process. In fact, I’d argue that at base, option (3) must necessarily work with either (1) and/or (2) to then create a new and exciting fragrance. Other than broad connections drawn on the basis of a shared categorically <Oriental> style, Fate Woman (gen. 3) has little reference to Shalimar (gen. 1). However, as Turin identifies, it’s Opium (gen. 2) where one should look, where Fate Woman borrows its “[woody-balsamic] core” (Turin & Sanchez 2018, p. 134). Turning to option (2), and most probably option (1) also, Fate Woman takes this core and adds “an emphatic dose of the cool minty note that separates it from the merely warm, dusky Cabochard-Cinnabar style … transfiguring [it]” (ibid.).
This may very well be the result of a new molecule, and/or the unexpected addition of a pollen-laden narcissus note, but Fate Woman is without doubt dumbfounding – it is holographic but present and impactful: like a holograph of lustrous and solid chalcopyrite. That is – you know it’s solid, but nothing seems to properly reveal this fact – the chilli pepper note builds into this effect, its diffuse and sizzling aroma creating an enormous sense of space like a scented cloud. The main note is dry incense, so intimately rubbed up with cinnamon and resins that it takes on a chewy texture, diaphanous and light, but never getting away, anchored by a razor-thin base of something largely indeterminate, perhaps woody and animalic, but unquestionably nice.
The best thing? There’s no ‘Oriental’ narrative in sight, it’s gone well beyond that and deep into the territory of the postmodern.
Histoires de Parfums’s earlier 1969 (2001) is also worthy of consideration. It is perhaps the most gratifying thing I’ve smelled this year. 1969 is an act of subversion, disrupting expectations. The opening of this fragrance is a thrilling rush of photorealistic peach – the juiciest, sweetest, most perfect summer fruit captured in scent: gourmand bliss without excess. But – and here’s the interesting part – in the shadow of this peach note is an exceptional accord of rose and patchouli anchored to woods and spices, where for a moment clove takes centre stage, and then cardamon, and then dark chocolate, and then amber, … repeating this series of sequences again and again in a shuffle of what is otherwise an archetypical soft <Oriental> fragrance; uniquely emphasising the top note that the category often downplays. Altogether 1969 is fruit and earth, fresh yet spicy, clean yet dirty. Even more, it takes a discernibly (almost concerningly) huge peach note and superimposes it above a beautiful <Oriental> structure, as if you can only see the base by looking through the fruit.
The significance of 1969 is that it tackles Coco (Chanel, 1984) head on (where Fate Woman tackles Opium), mimicking Coco’s melange of a clove-dominant spice heart, a rose-patch accord, and its reviving peach note. It removes the stuffy and aged dust from Chanel’s surface, keeps the plush and idiosyncratically Chanel texture, and amps up the fruit note to its extreme – uniquely adding emphasis where it was otherwise a clever, but fairly soft spoken and marginally delicious idea in Coco. 1969 pushes the <Oriental> even further into <Gourmand> hybradisation with a luxuriously dusty and deep note of dark chocolate – which is something observed in the later Coromandel (Chanel, 2007) with its use of white chocolate. 1969 however is more postmodern (gen. 3) than Coromandel, despite the fact that it predates it, where Coromandel is stuck on the outer limit of the second generation. 1969’s perfumer Gérald Ghislain more readily takes up the challenge, whereas Chanel imposes tradition on itself, and that becomes its very downfall in this instance.
Nonetheless, 1969 is detectably nervous about its own transgressionary movement, and cannot represent the postmodern <Oriental> in the way Fate Woman does so par excellence. In this sense, 1969 is quite liminal, between gen. 2 and gen. 3; or stated charitably, it perhaps represents the very beginnings of gen. 3 present within the folds of its structure. This fact does not make it any less wonderful or beautiful, but it merely indicates that 1969 lacks a critical self-questioning dimension to it that marks all the wonderful benchmark fragrances that I’ve called upon plentifully today – a feeling or mood of difference and novelty; scents that mark new epochs – and that’s what would get it over the edge into the realm of eternalised perfection.
1 Previously, I have published a ‘treatise’ on the <Soft Oriental>. I would say that my critical thoughts here were embryonic but not quite there yet. No less, I was pressing on the very arbitrariness of these labels and distinctions. See this post: A Treatise on (Soft) Orientals: Chinoiserie – From Opium to Coco.
2 My ethnographic urge – front and centre here. See this post: Discovering India: Vaara by Penhaligon’s.
3 Why the strikethrough, or, the sous rature? See this post: Oh, Binary! Gold Man by Amouage.
4 It goes without saying, that Sade’s Orientalism (1978) is a text that encourages reflexive action on this very topic. The thought of W. E. B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon also come to mind.
5 This was discussed en passant, here: Phtaloblue by Tauer Perfumes.
6 This is a beguiling assertion, but as I understand it, it is a slow process. And to be perhaps even more persnickety and pessimistic with this idea, I would argue that the perfume spectrum or ‘colour wheel’ is never going to find a new ‘colour’ – but only develop variations of the hypernym. In other words, we are left with only the creation of hyponyms; variations – or ‘shades’ – of a more general colour.