Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Mirror Up To Nature: Diaghilev At The V&A

We're all aware that, over the years, perfumery has been influenced by other art forms and, indeed, by wider socio-historical developments. Nevertheless, it's always fascinating to see concrete evidence of this flow of ideas, which is precisely why I was thoroughly enthralled by a recent Roja Dove lecture at London's V&A Museum. Using the current Diaghilev exhibition as a springboard, Mr Dove presented a summary of early 20th century perfumery, with a particular focus on how the fiercely avant-garde sensibilities of the Ballet Russes indirectly supported the women's rights movement and, to some extent, the perfume industry's adoption of more abstract, more daring compositions. It was particularly interesting to discover the effects of Paul Poiret's costume designs - which included harem pantaloons and lampshade tunics - on various flacons and advertising imagery.

However - engrossing though all this information was - the real highlight of the evening came when Mr Dove announced that he was about to let the audience smell two classic, discontinued fragrances which he has had especially remade: Guerlain's Coque D'Or and Djedi. Blotters were passed around the lecture theatre amidst a hubbub of excited murmurs from perfume fans. Eventually, two, thin paper strips reached me - I've now got them safely ensconced in a hermetically sealed chamber 30 ft below the basements of Fort Knox - and I took a deep breath. Coque D'Or is an effortlessly elegant, smoky, mossy balsamic; Djedi plays high notes of aldehydes over low beats of the deepest, blackest vetiverts. Both are sleek, rich, beautiful and totally unlike most of the scents released in today's IFRA-fearing climate.

Whilst I sat there, turning my head from one blotter to the next, wondering if we're ever going to combine the force of our indignation in order to reverse the anti-allergen lobby's gradual destruction of our global cultural heritage, I was struck by a question. Developments in perfumery have often been determined by changes in society and technology, but has the reverse ever happened? We say that life sometimes imitates art, but has a perfume ever acted as an agent of real, meaningful change in the world? If we could confidently say that the answer to these questions is Yes, then we may have another argument to use in our attempts to persuade the Powers That Be to stop their senseless erosion of this most emotionally charged of art forms.

Persolaise.

[Since writing the above, I've discovered that there's a little bit of confusion about whether Coque D'Or and Djedi really are discontinued. I did a bit of investigating and the final word - received directly from Roja Dove's team - would appear to be that the perfumes are, in fact, no longer available anywhere. The samples used during the lecture came from a batch which Guerlain made especially for Mr Dove.]

8 comments:

  1. Absolutely incredible. It's shocking to see how there's a body capable of slowly eroding away an industry. Do artists who make sculpture and paintings get told to limit their palette? Probably not, even if some work is an assault on the eyes. I understand that perfume has more of a connection to the body than paintings and such, but still. Oh, you're very lucky to experience Coque D'Or and Djedi. Treasure the memories :)

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  2. Lucky you! Very Lucky. Merry Christmas in advance!

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  3. Hummm , how to break into Fort Knox ?

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  4. Persolaise,

    I was going to comment but, under the benign influence of Van the Man and mulled wine, I stopped myself.

    Wishing you and Madame P all the best concerning Paris in the trying travel conditions.

    cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

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  5. Liam J, you're absolutely right. It really is incredible how much power is currently held by the anti-allergen lobby.

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  6. Anna, thanks very much. We've made it safely back now.

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  7. Angela: don't even think about it ;-)

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  8. Vintage Lady, a very merry Christmas to you too.

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