A city on the eve of liberation from occupation. Éluard’s The German Rendezvous, Sartre’s No Exit at the Vieux-Colombier. The launch of two scents that remain colossi of twentieth-century perfumery: Piguet’s brutal, androgynous Bandit and Rochas’s voluptuous, ‘womanly’ Femme.
Despite sharing the same birth year and arising out of the same cultural and socio-political milieu, could two scents ever be less akin in their take on the ‘feminine’ fragrance and how women might present themselves through smell?
On first sight, certainly, we find little commonality: Bandit is a stark dominatrix of a scent, asserting itself with a unrepentant blast of galbanum then easing itself austerely into a dark, leather-and-tobacco base. Femme, meanwhile, is brimful of over-ripe fruit: the tenderest peaches and plums macerated with the fleshiest flowers, a heavy sigh of sandalwood and amber reposing beneath. The former is bitter, blunt and severe, the latter yielding, lactonic and round.
Bandit, incidentally, was created by a woman (Germaine Cellier). Femme – as you may have guessed – was created by a man (Edmond Roudnitska).
But here, to my mind at least, is where the binarism becomes blurred: in generic terms these are both breathtaking chypres, sharing compositional elements such as patchouli, oakmoss and musk. Each divides opinion and neither scent is ‘easy’ to wear (though vintage Femme, I understand, is more user-friendly than its current incarnation). And lastly, to put it coarsely, each scent is ineffably ‘dirty’, Bandit with its edgy S&M associations and Femme with its full-bodied potency and sensuality.
For The Scentimentalist, the interest of Bandit and Femme lies in the new possibilities each presents for women’s gender performance via the olfactory. Bandit – then, as now – poses a real and credible challenge to traditional expectations of how a woman ‘should’ smell. In creating a scent replete with what Balzac describes in La Cousine Bette as ‘des qualités d’homme’, Cellier (who, we are told, was lesbian) offers both women – and men – the chance to ‘crossdress’ with perfume.
No less startlingly, Roudnitska’s overtly sexual (but never vulgar) Femme seizes on the spirit of independence enjoyed by French women during the war years, and presents a perfumed persona of womanly glamour, to be bought by the bottle and enjoyed for oneself as much as for others.
After numerous, somewhat uneven, re-orchestrations, Bandit is now about as true to its original formula as it can be. To smell this scent 65 years after its creation, one is mindful of how no contemporary mainstream perfume house would dare to make anything as bold and gender-bending.
Femme, meanwhile, has altogether transitioned: in 1989 Olivier Cresp was commissioned to create a ‘new’ Femme for Rochas. This version, controversially for some, may be distinguished from Roudnitska’s by a prominent note of cumin. Ironically, this ‘womanly’ scent par excellence now smells irretrievably more ‘manly’ as a consequence.