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June 1, 2005

"Vulgar women" By Luca Turin

"Vulgar women" By Luca Turin

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Men want to impress, women to please. Men suffer from a style shortage, women from a surfeit. You’d expect these differences to matter when it comes to vulgarity, and they do. In women’s perfumes “vulgar” was violets (1900), then sweet amber (1920s) then “fur perfumes” (1950-60), then big green things (1970s) then loud red ones (1980s), then thin pink ones (1990s). It now takes two forms best illustrated by reference to toe-curling (and extinct) musical forms: the medley and the love duet. For those too young to have endured either, here’s how they worked. The duet paired a breathy soprano with a big pour-him-on-the-pancakes male voice, one answering the other before finishing together against a sunset glow of canned strings. The medley swept up the garbage after a busy summer of hits, and allowed you to listen to 12 of them in the time that it took you to name one.

In perfumery, the medley carries on undiminished. When feminine perfumes try to be “all things to all men” they are by definition in call-girl chic territory, a style the French, perhaps mindful of the customer base, often equate with luxury. In the trade, medleys are known as soups, because they’re made of scraps. Two classic soups were Oscar de la Renta’s Volupté and Christian Lacroix C’est la vie. Recent examples include Organza (Givenchy), a fragrance that puts you off vanilla for months at a time, and Magic (Céline), a gallant attempt at using every chemical in the perfumer’s palette simultaneously. and lately the appalling Attraction (Lancôme), a loud mess from topnote to drydown.

The “love duet” type rests on a case of mistaken identity. In the beginning there was the wonderful Angel, virginal white flowers mixed with a barrel-chested oriental bass. Angel was no duet: it was a transvestite, a gorgeous blonde with a five o’clock shadow and a wicked laugh. Inspired by Angel but trying to be more presentable, Chanel took equal parts of Allure and Guerlain’s Héritage for men and mixed them. Out came Coco Mademoiselle, an unexpected success. The effect, initially impressive, soon becomes tiresome. Unlike Angel, it feels both mawkish and butch, like high-heeled trainers or a 4WD with bull bars on the school run. Chanel tried to fix that with CM 1.1, also known as Chance, but it still crashes. So does everyone else, most recently Prada. Give up, guys: the only thing that’s worse than repeating a joke is leaving out the punchline.