mentioned being desperate to smell Chanel's legendary Cuir de Russie
, and I asked if she was interested in leather scents, as I seem to be in the middle of my own private leather-scent-fest (an amazing number of my favourite scents are leathers) and might be liable to bombard her with recs, and she said:BOMBARD ME
And then this happened, and I started rambling about leather scents I know, and it started turning into its own post, and I had to garnish it with links (I've linked from the names of the perfumes to particular reviews I find insightful, accurate or amusing, just to give a taste of the perfume writing that's out there, and trying not to use the same reviewer twice, but recommend Basenotes
and Googling "[name] perfume review" to get a wide sampling), and so it goes.
For those of you just getting into this: the "leather" note in perfumes smells like, well, leather.
(This is less obvious than it sounds: "fougere" scents don't smell of ferns, which don't smell of anything, and the "amber" note in perfumes smells neither of amber nor or ambergris; instead, it's a blend based on labdanum and vanilla
, or synthetics aimed at the same effect.)
Stick your nose inside a leather coat and sniff; that's basically it.
The association of leather and perfume goes back to the 16th century at least, when perfumers would scent leather gloves in order to cover up the odour of the chemicals (at that point, urine and tannin among other things) used to tan the leather. From there, the distinct traditions of "Russian leather" and "Spanish leather" evolved, until perfumers went from trying to conceal the smell of leather to trying to recreate the smell of scented leather.
Unlike some perfume ingredients, leather notes are not extracted or distilled from nature; instead, perfumers draw on ingredients used to cure leather, such as birch tar
combined with other natural and chemical ingredients to construct the smell of leather. The result can range from grungy biker leather through sweaty saddles to the most delicate beige suede.
(A side note for people who, like me, worry about these things: "animalic" notes in perfume are now almost invariably synthetic too, for reasons of cost as much as ethics. You don't have to worry about the civet cats and the beavers. )
For an overview of the field, check out Now Smell This: Leather fragrances 101
, the Perfume Posse's Leather Perfume: A Comprehensive Guide
, or the rest of Perfume Shrine's Leather Series
***********Cuir de Russie (Chanel)
-- I have a bottle of this which I've owned for so long the top notes have gone off, and I'm still
not grown-up enough to wear it. But I have come to accept that I'm not a Chanel person, pretty much. I can admire them as art, but they don't fit me in any mood or persona; I don't have whatever it takes to wear them sincerely. But it is really beautiful, in a grand classical perfumery way: rich florals over expensive leather. The leather here makes me think of the upholstery of a beautiful vintage car. This scent will never not be dressed up.
-- apparently at some point in the last few years I have become grown-up enough to wear Bandit, which thrills me (currently debating a full bottle, especially since IFRA regulations are likely to gut it of the oakmoss shortly). I stand by my "bitter green, black leather, soap and cigarettes description." The chypre-ness
of it means that it's going to come across as old-fashioned or "perfume-y" to some noses, but damn, it's still edgy as hell. Bandit
Created by the great (queer, woman) "nose" of the 1940s, Germaine Cellier, it opens with a whipcrack of galbanum (like her Vent Vert
), venomous green that lasts all the way through. The (faint, soapy, acrid) florals don't make it soft or pretty, they just heighten its cheekbones. The leather here is definitely a leather jacket.
In Scent and Subversion
, Barbara Herman talks about Cellier's work in relation to the conflicts over the roles of women in the 1940s -- women doing war work and in the Resistance, versus Dior's hyperfeminine post-war New Look -- and suggests that her work plays with gender as construct, deliberately subverting perfumery's gender tropes.
hypes up femininity into drag, high femme, Bandit
is that startling thing, a perfume which reads not as a "masculine", but as butch
***********( Cut for length )