In the world of fashion (and other) magazines, there exists a phenomenon known as the ‘Anita Loos Effect’. Ms Loos, a rapier-witted screenwriter of no little style and beauty, is most famed for having observed that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (though, as she pungently adds, they prefer to marry brunettes). Thus, the ‘effect’ for which Ms Loos is named refers to the media’s privileging of blonde models, since to do so, we are told, is a guarantor of maximum sales.
Advertisements for perfumes appear to adhere to a similar principle: Caucasian blondes undisputedly predominate, though brunettes and the raven-haired make their presence felt, presenting a ‘smouldering’, ‘dusky’, ‘exotic’ counterpoint. Black and Asian models are predictably few in number – woefully so, in fact, given the global scope of the fragrance market.
Admittedly, mine may represent a somewhat Northern European concern: after all, redheads are said to make up just two to four per cent of the human population (a percentage that is, nonetheless, visibly higher here in Britain, in Ireland and Scandinavia). But this statistic relates to that rarity that is the natural born redhead, overlooking the fact that humans of multiple cultures and civilisations have long elected to redden their tresses, from the use of henna and other compounds by the peoples of ancient Egypt to the many millions who use home-dye kits from their local pharmacy.
Indeed, could not the fact that copper locks are so very sought-after and prized not be a case for placing redheads at the forefront of fragrance fantasy?
Did not Hollywood, in its golden age, champion many a redheaded siren? Consider the flame-haired (if assisted) glamour of the undulant Rita Hayworth, the disarming, rusty waves of the wayward Susan Hayward … and the iconic, bouffant vividness of the perky Lucille Ball. Even Anita Loos herself wrote The Red-Headed Woman screenplay (1932), a vehicle for an appositely russet-wigged Jean Harlow, who played a dastardly, red-haired home-wrecker and hussy.
For such is the ambivalent flipside of Western perceptions of the fabled redhead: for every Titian-haired, too-hot-to-handle glamourpuss there is a ‘carrot-topped’, tomboyish, forked-tongued firebrand. For every Boticelli’s Venus there is an antithetical Biblical Lilith; behind every Rita or Susan lurks a Fergie or Cilla. Thus, with the redhead, we find a cartoonish jarring of the sensual against the asexual, of the combustible against the abominable.
As with any minority, it may be argued that redheads are too numerous to be ignored and too rare to be accepted. Thus, the mythologising – and demonising – of redheads is all too commonplace, though one may discern a tinge of awe in some pronouncements on this genus. Can Mark Twain’s declaration that ‘redheads are descended from cats’ not be interpreted as some form of panegyric; likewise Colette’s allusion to the redhead’s ‘feral, civet-like smell’?
More than once have I heard it mentioned (albeit with no substantiating evidence) that, due to ‘a lack of oil in their skin’, redheads in fact smell ‘just like babies’, and are to this end employed by companies for the testing of perfumed products. (A comment as to the veracity of this ‘fact’ would be highly welcome.)
To consider the history of redheads in the marketing of Western fragrance, an extremely rudimentary survey reveals a handful of iconic examples. First is Jean Patou’s Adieu Sagesse (1925), a clove-laden floral that was created as part of the designer’s ‘Love Trilogy’ of scents, with the redheaded lady wearer at the heart of its conceptualisation. Second are those pale, enigmatic, and ‘quirky’ redheads that have fronted high-profile scent campaigns, such as Karen Elson for Gaultier’s Classique (1993) and Lily Cole for Moschino's I Love Love (2005).
Last, and most compelling, is the glorious parade of redheads who, for almost forty years now, have represented Yves Saint Laurent’s modern classic, Rive Gauche (1971). A sassy, energetic, irreverent blast of aldehydes, the chic and audaciously sharp Rive Gauche was arguably the first scent to attempt to bottle the dynamism of ’70s feminism. How apt that YSL should opt for an exemplar of ‘unconventional’ beauty to front a scent that, like the socio-political movement it emblemised, sought to shatter all pre-conceptions of what was ‘normative’ and desirable.
Who are your favourite redheads from the annals of modern perfumery? Share them here with The Scentimentalist.
This column is dedicated to two superlative redheads. To my Mum – happy birthday. And to Miss Helen Lawson, with my sincere condolences.