photos from Victoria and Albert Museum
Colours fascinated Elsa Schiaparelli. Her autobiography, Shocking Life, is paved by her colour discoveries, from the blue and red uniforms she designed during the First World War to the oranges and turquoises of Kremlin treasures.
In the first third of her book, however, the colour pink only comes up only to describe her new-born daughter, Gogo. Schiaparelli’s early career was, much like her contemporary Coco Chanel’s, defined by black and white. The first garment she created, in 1927, was a jumper with “a white bow against a white background.” Her first evening dress was, again, monochromatic.
The shocking-pink came thanks to Schiaparelli’s first foray into fragrances. In 1937, while struggling to name her upcoming perfume, she remembered a pink Tête de Bélier Cartier diamond owned by her friend, client and Paris editor for Harper’s Bazaar, Daisy Fellowes. In her autobiography, Schiap (as she nicknamed herself) describes the jewel colour as “bright, impossible, impudent, becoming, life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world but together, a color of China and Peru but not of the West – a shocking colour, pure and undiluted.” She asked Surrealist designer Leonor Fini to create a perfume bottle imitating Mae West curves in that very shade. The perfume was named “Shocking”.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for a good smell. Whether damp soil, lilies, new shoe leather, inland water, church incense, a clean shirt or old books, almost nothing produces as visceral a reaction as scent. It conjures memory, desire, and potential; a lovely fragrance makes everything nicer, an unpleasant odor makes everything worse. So it’s no surprise I was curious to read Perfumes: A Guide.
At first glance, the book has an encouraging heft, with perfume reviews from page 51 to 366. I was slightly put off by the lack of images, but after reading a few random reviews I discovered this volume had something much better: A sense of humour. Within the first fifteen minutes of leafing through this book, I laughed out loud no less than five times. The authors are clever, imaginative, and in possession of a biting wit. Whether I recognized (or cared about) a particular subject or not, I found myself devouring every review as though I was reading a collection of short stories.
I was also pleased to find the ratings economically democratic. The book includes everything from the cheapest drugstore colognes to the most exclusive high-end fragrances, and it was nice to discover they were equally exposed to praise or censure. In a favourable review of David Beckham’s Instinct, Sanchez declares that “snobbery in perfumery is pointless,” and Turin gives Cacharel’s LouLou (a high school favourite) five stars; “Do not be misled by the fact that LouLou, when found, is likely to be cheap. This is one of the greats.” Lady Stetson also gets top marks. On the opposite side, Chanel’s Allure Homme Sport is described as “being stuck in an elevator for twelve hours with a tax accountant,” and their Gardenia as a “loud, airport-toilet floral.” Ha.