Lesley Blanch was Features Editor of British Vogue 1937-45. During the Second World War, she was on the front line of women journalists covering a wide range of topics, and wrote about anything but fashion.
It was the best of perfumes, it was the worst; it was the trademark of the grande cocotte, it was worn by the femme du monde. It was the heaviest of scents, it was the lightest. It was the worst of taste, it was the height of fashion. It drove men mad, it tamed the beasts of the jungle. It was an aphrodisiac, it was an emetic. It came from India — from Haiti. It smelled of newly sharpened pencils; of Victorian boudoirs. It preserved furs from moth; it was something to eat. It was divine; it stank.
These were some of the ways patchouli was described to me when I set out to discover what precisely was the nature and history of this long-forgotten perfume which reached its apogee of popularity about a century ago — and which, suddenly, is in demand once more. Patchouli — pucha-pat to the India of its origin — belongs, in Europe, essentially to the mid-nineteenth century; it is the essence of its age, as frangipani evokes the eighteenth and musk and ambergris belong to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a time of perfumed gloves — and poisoned ones too. Each age has its characteristic expression, found as much in some minor aspect as in a heroic gesture, or great personality. A tune, a colour, a manner of speaking, like a way of moving, or standing, or a particular piece of clothing is as telling as a line of thought or a code of conduct. And nothing is more memorable than a perfume.
Patchouli was the quintessential nineteenth-century perfume, as the shawl was its quintessential garment. The two are indissolubly linked, for patchouli first came out of India because of and with the cashmere shawls which were then the cornerstone of every woman’s wardrobe.
These cashmere shawls first appeared on the European market early in the nineteenth century, with the rise of the East India Company’s trade, along with spices and those fabulously fine muslin scarves and shawls which the Empress Josephine wore with such incomparable grace. Fifty years later cashmere shawls were worn with equal grace by another French Empress, Eugenie, and by women of all degrees, in varying degrees of elegance. The finest were collectors’ pieces, more valuable than furs. They were woven in Kashmir; beneath the giant ranges of the Himalayas, whole families spent whole lives weaving legends and symbolism into their traditional patterns. The best were always bordered with silken threads, but the main shawl was woven from the underbelly fleece of Tibetan or Kashmirian goats. This retained a rather Pan-like odour, disagreeable to the sophisticated West, so that it became customary to steep the finished article in patchouli essence. Thus patchouli became the signature of a cashmere shawl, part of its particular quality, like the faint odour of sandalwood, from the boxes in which it travelled — often by the shorter, overland route across Russia — to reach the capitals of Europe. Gradually, the shawls came to be copied, more cheaply, by French manufacturers, or at Paisley in Scotland and the deception was almost perfect. But not quite. That elusive, exotic perfume of the genuine article was lacking. It was only when this was traced to the patchouli plant and the essential oil or dried leaves were imported, that the copies took on the same convincing fragrance and could be palmed off as genuine. But by then patchouli had become the rage in its own right, the signature of a whole age.
It is a long stretch from Bengal or Malaya where pucha-pat, this sage-like green plant, grows along the river reaches, to the febrile gaieties of Paris in the Second Empire. Yet this — curiously haunting, musty, almost mouldy perfume spanned it. Perfume experts describe patchouli — pogostèmon to them — as woodsy, in contrast to floral or musky scents. To me, it has what I can only describe as a greenish scent, infinitely seductive.
Once it burned with sandalwood and flower petals before altars to Hindu gods; then it scented the bonnet strings and boudoirs of that Paris which Constantin Guys and Manet painted; which Baudelaire and the Goncourt brothers knew . . . To the music of Offenbach the Parisians parade under the chestnut trees of the Bois de Boulogne, where the leaves grow as green and ordered as cardboard scenery. Here bearded dandies in stovepipe hats promenade, judging horse flesh and woman flesh, as the vastly crinolined women — “hetaerae of the pavement” — sweep past, lifting their skirts to display white stockings and tiny kid boots — for that is the gesture of coquetry most typical of this moment. In the spangled dust of a summer’s afternoon the équipages bowl along green allées and more of these painted, easy women are glimpsed sitting high in their glittering Daumonts, or calèches, under doll-like parasols, their cambric handkerchiefs and pouting bosoms drenched in patchouli. Some of the charmers are known as lionnes; they adopt men’s clothes, carry canes and impudently smoke cigars. Their hair is frizzed and tousled, mane-like, and dyed a violent orange; but patchouli conquers the cigar-smoke, for it is a powerful, all-pervading scent — with erotic or aphrodisiac connotations, too, it is believed. Both sides of the Channel reek of patchouli at this moment. In the “flash cribs” of the Haymarket, such as Kate Hamilton’s night house, like the Maison Tellier of the provinces, the Faubourg, or that Belgravia which Eugène Lami drew, where languid ladies fan themselves under the great chandeliers, or are handed into their emblazoned family coaches for a Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace — patchouli prevails. Its perfume rises from old bill-heads, billets-doux and the pages of contemporary memoirs.
These nineteenth-century women knew their business — the business of pleasing — and perfumes were first among their wiles. Among the hetaerae of the demi-monde it was of prime importance. In mid-Victorian London, ‘Sweet Nelly Fowler’ was one of the most sought-after of the pretty horsebreakers who cantered up and down Rotten Row, falling to the highest bidder. ‘Sweet Nelly Fowler’ boasted a natural perfume so delicate, so universally admired, that her suitors paid large sums of money for her to keep their handkerchiefs about her person or under her pillow, for upon being returned to them they remained exquisitely redolent.
The muslin-hung dressing tables of the age were overcrowded with cut-glass, gold-stoppered scent bottles and pomade pots, a pungent batterie de beauté: Dix Pétales de Roses, Bouquet de la Néva, Mimosa Esterhazy, Poudre de Cygne, Lait des Perles, Stephanotis and, of course, Patchouli. We read of one siren’s four hundred and thirty-six pairs of scented glacé kid gloves, in all shades of lemon, gris perle, lavender and ivoire, buttoned and tasselled and all scented with patchouli. Gloves were then worn Indoors as well as in the street — a second skin; it was essential for them to be so moulded that the nail was clearly defined. In violent contrast, some of the grandes cocottes, as audacious as vicious, were occasionally served up without any trimmings. Cora Pearl, the English strumpet, queen of the demi-monde, lay sumptuously naked on a chaise longue, surrounded by a silent circle of admirers gathered there as audience, rather than participators.
But naked or clothed, patchouli is her aura, as Offenbach is her music. From faraway, carried on the evening breeze, we hear the overture to La Belle Hélène, or a polka from La Vie Parisienne, being played at the Bal Mabille, or a café concert along the Champs Elysées, conducted by an unknown young musician, Richard Wagner (who himself is addicted to strong perfumes). To Paris he is just a German bandleader; the glories of Siegfried are yet to come, barely stirring in his brain . . . He raises his baton and we hear the kick-up folly of the cancan, or one of those tearaway polkas, or redowas which have made Offenbach the rage — as much the rage as patchouli.
But at last the winds of change blow through the lace-hung boudoirs and along the Bois, scattering the chestnut leaves and rattling at the shutters of Compiègne, the Imperial château, deserted since the French army fell at Sedan. The Court, with those ladies who followed the Empress, shuttling between Compiègne, and the Tuileries, and Trouville, (where Boudin painted them, on the beach, muffled against the sea breezes in voluminous shawls), have abandoned Paris, gone to earth, during the uneasy days of the Commune, on their estates. Life has changed, fashions have changed. Shawls have fallen from favour and are worn only by drabs, or old ladies, and at last are not worn at all, lying discarded and moth-eaten, in second-hand rag shops, yet still breathing a ghostly odour of their heyday.
Patchouli shares their decline, failing from favour until it too becomes associated only with vulgarity. As morals straighten, so perhaps its aphrodisiac associations hasten its disgrace. “A reek of patchouli” became the cliché by which lesser novelists evoked a third-rate ambience. Perfume — almost any kind, had become bad style. Make-up, too, was out. “Nice” women contented themselves with eau de cologne and a dab of rice powder. But they continued to scent their rooms with potpourri, of which patchouli was an ingredient, among the orrisroot and dried flower petals. A lighter kind of potpourri, home-produced, like the best hams, was the mark of a well run house.
At the turn of the century, with the establishment of organic chemistry, the whole range of synthetic perfumes was devised and became the fashion. But patchouli, although for so many years forgotten by the public, remained a valuable ingredient in the manufacture of many kinds of perfumes, a substance treasured and sought by the perfume industry. It is obtained from India, Haiti, the Seychelles and Indonesia. With the curious rhythm of supply and demand, no sooner was the Far Eastern market disrupted by the ravages of war — which made the importation of patchouli essential oil, or its dried leaves, extremely difficult, their prices soaring — than a sudden, inexplicable surge of interest was manifested.
Patchouli began to be demanded for itself — in short, as an unadulterated perfume. Perfume brokers — I find it hard to believe that so volatile a product as scent could have brokers — now tell of pressing demands for it. But they offer no explanation. Perhaps I can.
Surely, this shows a subconscious urge on the part of women towards an exotic perfume which complements the exotic trend of today’s fashion. At this moment, western women have never appeared more extravagantly exotic, or Oriental, in the caftans and harem trousers, turbaned and adorned with barbaric jewellery, gilded nails and all the painted seductions of the harem. Patchouli, the pucha-pat of the East, is in fact more suited to this mood than to the crinolines and corsets of the nineteenth century . . . Or could its aphrodisiac legend have something to do with its resurgence? Since pleasing has always been women’s business, reviving patchouli as their perfume, wearing it, or using it about their houses, they might be said to be minding their own business, a most desirable state of affairs.
Where to find and how to use Patchouli . . .
Patchouli, fallen India idol of perfumery, wafts again into respectability. Today, it is most charming as a sachet to place in linen closets, in drawers, to tuck in the corners of upholstered furniture so that the fragrance pours out into the warmth of a room. It must be a heady scent, of a strength to take the place of three perfume burners, a scent which asserts, allures, seduces.
A great beauty, who often uses patchouli pure, gives this sachet recipe with the non-measured nonchalance of a good cook: “First it is put in muslin bags, then covered in silk. Sometimes I put with it Mary Chess’s Kentucky Spice or Potpourri, or any sachet I happen to have in the house or have taken a fancy to.” The point is, of course, that she achieves an individual scent, a fragrance that is her own.
The base of the sachet mixture, or what amounts to a patchouli potpourri, is the dried patchouli stems and leaves. To this you add the patchouli essential oil much as you add dressing to a salad. You may add other perfume oils to the base ‘salad’ of patchouli — the final effect will he one of patchouli plus any odds and ends of scents that are pleasing to you. (The fragrance of the leafy twigs, like that of any perfumed leaves or petals, will pale, and needs to be freshened with more oils occasionally to maintain the desired level of pungency.) Sew the mixture into little muslin or cheesecloth bags, pack it loosely in a perforated container so air can circulate through it — a potpourri jar is perfect.
Two perfumes with strong notes of patchouli are Kenneth’s Ramu and Lanvin’s Rumeur, both of which are also available as colognes. Some people also like Caswell-Massey’s men’s cologne and toilet water called, appropriately, Patchouly.
Lesley Blanch / British Vogue © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd. Published 1 October, 1967. All rights reserved.
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The lead photos are of the patchouli plant and Countess Castiglione by Nadar. It is not permitted to change the image, to add to it, reproduce or modify it in any other way. In case of violation, we reserve the right to withdraw the right of use.