Some time ago, my husband started taking my fragrance samples into his workplace for some of his co-workers to play with, and there were a few women who were particularly thrilled. They were instantly smitten with the gourmand scents—Tea for Two, New Haarlem, and Ambre Narguile—but then I made the mistake of sending in things like 24, Faubourg and Amouage Gold, and all of a sudden their attitude changed. “Too perfumey,” they told him. “Smells like my grandmother!”  And one of them point-blank asked him, “Why is your wife into old-lady perfume?”  I was not offended; there is more than a grain of truth to that charge, and it is a criticism so common to the perfume lover’s experience, its commonness has robbed it of any power to inflict insult. Nevertheless, I stopped making samples for them: it just seemed pointless. I had only a few gourmand scents to offer, versus a whole lot of the other stuff that I believed they would view as falling into the arsenic-and-old-lace category. And I didn’t have a blessed thing that fell into the “fresh and light” class of scents, save for Eau des Merveilles, which really only fulfilled the second part of that definition.

A year later, I still don’t have much to offer my husband’s co-workers. I’ll admit that I haven’t made my perfume collection very diverse or appealing to a wide audience, mostly because I’m still operating under the constraints of this nasty habit—this addiction to old-lady perfume. At the moment, I’m in a cloud of Caron French Cancan extrait. I might as well don a blue wig and a pair of black, lace-up oxfords with a sturdy heel.

French Cancan is a whiff of everything that is old-fashioned, belonging to a bygone era. It is the scent of a lady’s fur muff and the horse-drawn carriage she rides in; her vanity table laden with greasepaint cosmetics and bottles of talc; and the apothecary she visits when she is in need of a cure for the Vapours. For every floral note in French Cancan, there seems to be a medicinal note, green and leathery-smelling; for every light powdery note, there seems to be a dark and oily one. It is a fairly linear scent—it doesn’t have the lovely unfolding of notes in a pyramidal form (at least not to my nose); it’s complexity lies instead in the brocaded richness of its ingredients, a textural quality achieved through layering contrasting accords.

A definitive list of perfume notes for French Cancan is difficult to find. The online perfume boutique, Les Senteurs, lists them as violets, lilac, iris, rose, ambergris, patchouli and vetiver. Other sites identify them as jasmine, lilac, violet, lily of the valley, rose, orange blossom, patchouli, iris, sandalwood, amber and oakmoss.

Originally launched in 1936, then discontinued in 1990 and relaunched in 2001, French Cancan in its current incarnation is probably quite different from the original, but happily it pays no mind to modern sensibilities: take one whiff and I think you’ll agree that its inspiration could only be drawn from a cancan dancer of old—not a mini-skirted Rockette, nor (heaven forbid) a poll-dancing stripper. For one thing, there are neither the bright lights of Radio City Music Hall in this scent, nor the neon glow of the stripper club: French Cancan has a sharp green tinge to it that seems to tamp down light, that reminds one of absinthe taken in the shadowy recesses of an 1890s Paris dancehall. And for another, there is the penetrating richness of its weighty formulation. Like a number of the Caron urn perfumes, French Cancan reminds me of a time when women swathed themselves in tiers of fabric—in corsets and stockings and petticoats beneath their dresses and cloaks—and thus perhaps required a heavier scent that could project well under such daunting layers.

So now I’ve told you a little about Caron French Cancan, but the question still remains: Why do I find myself continually drawn to these vintage-y smelling fragrances, these old-lady perfumes?  (Other than the fact that I’m more than halfway to becoming an old lady myself.)

To me, these fragrances smell lived in—and more to the point, audaciously lived in, as if they are the mantles of real-life or fictional heroines that have been cast off (most reluctantly, I would venture) and handed down to me. There is something about their heft, their lavish construction and complexity, that endows them with life—and often there is a studied sharpness that endows them with personality.

Textiles, furniture, jewelry, even books don’t have the durability of materials and fineness of craft they once had. Everything feels so flimsy these days, although I will concede that this is not a terrible thing. I genuinely do appreciate the many freedoms granted by the slim and weightless aspects of the modern world we live in—and it’s an appreciation that extends to perfumes, too. But for reasons I’m not entirely sure of, I have a craving for the heavy thump—the sharp kick—of something more complicatedly robust.


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French Cancan extrait de parfum can be purchased from the Caron Boutique in New York City. One of the Caron “urn perfumes,” it is housed in a Louis XV-style Baccarat crystal urn and decanted into individual bottles when purchased. Prices vary according to amount.

Images: Jane Avril Dancing by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, oil on cardboard, painted in 1892, is from abcgallery.com.


Suzanne's Perfume Journal

November 4, 2009:

Getting My Fix: Parfums Caron French Cancan

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