Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Sweet and clean

I have been trying to figure out what bothers me about the modern trends in fragrance fashions, and no, it's neither the oud obsession nor the unreasonable idolisation of vintage scents.

It's not even the sad rise of sports ''fragrances'', mostly among the masculines. These are simply boring, but I am not fond enough of classic masculines to be bothered, and anyway there are still some pretty good ones to be bought easily and cheaply, from Aramis and Polo aromatic fougeres to the Old Spice.

Before I go on, here is a picture:

And, to put a very candied cherry on an already thickly iced cake, here is another picture:

These are both screencaps of the voting screens of the 2017 Fragrance Foundation Consumer's Choice. I don't know how the shortlist is determined. It might be done by sales (FF is an industry organisation, even if it claims to be passionately devoted to increasing the awareness and appreciation of fragrance in all its forms) but if it is based on sales than so should be the winner, just the same way charts work.

And the interesting thing about all these fragrances, both the 2017 five and the Hall of Fame candidates is that, apart from the only ostensible masculine on the Hall of Fame list (Calvin Klein's Eternity For Men) which is a cheap and cheerful, youthfully aspirational aromatic fougere, they are all the same. So, of the nine nominally feminine fragrances on these lists, nine are are the same.

Before someone (if there is anyone out there reading this, which I sincerely doubt at this stage) starts to accuse me of ignorance, I will freely admit that I haven's tried all these scents. But I did look up the ones I didn't know and really, I didn't need to. The names would have been enough.

They are all sweet and clean. Or rather, they are all clean and sweet.

Yes, even Pleasures, which (incidentally to the subject of this rant but obviously) stand out from the others in a towering manner as a historical monument to a certain style of fragrance, not even style but a certain message, and which I personally don't like much, firstly because that particular message is not what I usually want to either explore or transmit, and secondly because it smells close to a lily of the valley soliflore on my skin.

Now, as much as I might personally dislike ''clean'' in its feminine expressions (which usually seem just too buttoned up for me), I can appreciate it (see below). I also don't object to ''clean'' as such, and for example classic barbershop masculines are an excellent expression of that, as are straightforward citrus colognes. From Azzaro Pour Homme to 4711 and Hermes' Eau d'Orange Verte (the latter available mega cheaply at least at the moment so one can literally douse oneself in it).

But I have a huge - HUGE - HUGE - problem with ''clean and sweet''. When the sweet part is figurative and manifests as prim florals evoking either débutante virginal muslins and pale pink bedrooms, or a scrubbed and douched to perfection vibe of a soccer mom who hasn't found her inner MILF yet, I can appreciate it even if  I don't like it.

But the modern sweet is fairly literal and often distinctly food-evoking, as in all the gourmands spawned when Angel somewhat incestuously deflowered the original Lolita Lempicka (I reluctantly but undoubtedly like both of these). Honey, chocolate, vanilla and candy, red berries covered with mountains of icing sugar, vanilla, hazelnuts, caramel, latte and did I mention vanilla?

Now, I love vanilla and chocolate and berries. With some spices it's just about a perfect way for a house - especially kitchen - to smell and sweet, spicy warmth is one of my primary reason for loving classic and not so classic orientals. Shalimar and Hypnotic Poison are among my favourite scents.

But c'mon. These are not clean scents. Sugar and all things related is one of the key categories of dirt in the life of even a semi civilised human. Ask anybody who ever gave a chocolate bar to a toddler and had to clean up the fallout. Sure, sweet dirt doesn't have the naturally repulsive characteristics of organic waste, human, animal or vegetable which we have evolved to avoid as it promoted survival (there is a very good reason why the vast majority of people are disgusted by the smell or even the idea of faeces, vomit, rotten animal flesh, to a lesser extent rotten vegetables, and to even lesser, rotten fruit, and it's not merely the social training we undergo in childhood). But sweet dirt attracts insects (with their danger of bites and contamination) and because it's very sticky, it attracts other types or dirt, not necessarily as innocent as smears of chocolate, caramel or jam. So there might be something in it even from the most wanky ev psych perspective.

Sweet is not clean. Sweet when fruity (i.e. with sour and floral notes woven in) is sticky, juicy and can be heady. Sweet when non-fruity (as in vanilla, honey, chocolate, various sugars raw or burnt) is sticky, oozy, creamy and heavy. In the so-called nature, in ''real life'' outside glossy mags and design offices and possibly outside shopping centres too, sweet is dirty.

But mass-market (which includes large swathes of ''designer'') feminine fragrances nowadays, while maintaining the sweet factor sky-high, also insist on being clean, on invoking the idea of cleanliness as it was so well discussed by Bryan in this post on the meaning of ''soapy''. Those two current prerequisites for a feminine fragrance with a reasonable popular appeal seem to be tad contradictory to me and yet countless scents seemingly manage (as in the FF voting shortlists above).

The result is a weird kind of sweetness, a sugar-free sweetness which I would call ''chemical'' or ''synthetic'' if these poor words weren't abused enough as they are. What I mean is an artificial, kind of fake sweetness (the cleanliness has to feel real), a sweetness that is an olfactory equivalent of aspratame: it is there, it's undoubtedly sweet, and it generally tastes all right, especially in combination with other strong flavours, but it isn't quite the same. It might be sweet enough, very sweet, too sweet even, but it's not sticky.

The success of Angel, and the fact that in all its monstrosity, it is a wonderful fragrance miles above most of followed it, lies partially in that it isn't clean.

The choco sweetness goes hand in hand with (earthy = dirty) patchouli, and the initial outpouring of fruit is neither horrid nor trite. There is a solidity about it that's surprising. Angel is like a woman who seems like a bimbo with a boob job but who turns out to be not just a decent human being but not stupid at all. And amazingly, she also has a sense of humour. So few fragrances laugh but rather remain full of themselves and dead serious, but Angel has this dirty belly-laugh that means you can forgive it the Barbie heels and berry-pink lipstick. Unlike its aspratame sisters and daughters.

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