– a review of vintage Balmain Jolie Madame
Once upon a storied time in the early Nineties, I found myself by happy accident in a very exclusive consignment shop in Copenhagen. So expensive was this shop, in fact, there was nothing I could afford at the time, something I came to rue that moment I located a stupendous 1950s strapless black velvet cocktail dress that might have actually fitted yours truly, nothing to sneeze at if you’re in the category of Really Serious Cleavage.
Then, as I checked the lining, I saw the label – Atelier Balmain.
The dress was haute couture, made to measure for some fortunate lady who cared enough to look her superlative best, even if she were – like me to this day – short, short-waisted and stacked.
Yet the genius of that fairly simple dress, or 1950s haute couture itself for that matter, lay not so much in its outer glory – that super-plush silk velvet! The heavy silk satin lining! The peerless workmanship! – but in its inner construction, for this was a dress with everything built in, shapewear and brassiere included, with cunning and surprising nips, tucks, seams and folds to conceal any multitude of sins and accentuate that thing the French did so well, once upon a time; la ligne. The Line! Say what you will about modern fashion and its love of ectomorph bodies – one common theme of the fashions of the 1930s to 1950s was precisely that they looked great on many different body types.
The shop owner was having a slow day. She offered that I could try it on. Lo and behold, it fit me like a glove, which was the first eye-opener, and the second was the way I looked in that dress. For this, dear readers, was THE dress, that much-vaunted LBD you could take anywhere; a fancy dinner party, the theater, or a Very Important White-Hot Date. It would not have looked at all out of place in any of those locations, not in 1992 and certainly not in 2016. I was instantly five inches taller, 15 pounds lighter and my girls had not been so prominently or lusciously displayed since my mid-Eighties Goth days of partying in not much else but net skirts, knee-length Doc Martens, a veiled fascinator, a black satin Merry Widow and a few metric tons of sooty eyeliner.
I never did buy that dress, for all I wanted to so badly, but I also never forgot it.
Last week, I was reminded of that dress and that moment – through a perfume. Not just any perfume, but one of those famous vintage glories any perfumista really should sniff, if only to determine the many reasons why its creatrix Germaine Cellier is one of the 20th-century’s greatest noses.
The perfume was an adorable mini of vintage Balmain Jolie Madame (in, I’m guessing, the extrait), Bakelite cap included, a kind offer from a perfumista friend, and I was over the moon for another and highly personal reason.
Jolie Madame was the first perfume I can remember my late mother wore, so much so I always remembered that glorious sillage, even if I didn’t know the name for many, many years. Yet I remembered the way her sheared beaver fur coat – a 1950s ‘swinger’ coat in a leopard print my present self would have loved to death and beyond – would smell when I was collected at the babysitter’s after parties and I was wrapped up half-asleep in that coat.
This was, so concluded my three-year-old self, what a lady should smell like. What it contained, I couldn’t know at the time, but in rural Virginia in the 1960s, I knew enough to know that most of my playmates’ mothers didn’t wear expensive French perfume every day and my mother did, yet another thing that set her apart.
This was another moment that brought me back in a heartbeat as soon as I’d applied two smidges of Jolie Madame. While I can’t honestly say this is precisely as I remembered it, given that memory is fifty years old this year, I can say this:
Vintage Jolie Madame, dear readers, is heartstopping stuff.
To my own surprise, it checked very many of my own favorite boxes: it was a very green leather chypre, it had one of the superlative best leather notes in perfumery and a violet/floral note to die for, and last but never, ever least: it was a Cellier, damn it.
Let me begin, as this should have begun, with the big one: I own bottles of vintage Bandit and Fracas, and now this mini, the third in my private Mlle. Cellier Perfumer Hall of Fame trifecta. (The Vent Vert tetralogy can’t be too far behind.)
Just as you can sniff something of the creator’s/originator’s DNA in ALL truly spectacular perfumes, or at least I believe so, Jolie Madame could not be anything but a Cellier creation. Green in the opening like Vent Vert, a feline leather and feminine floral bouquet that somehow all adds up to ‘violet and leather’ purring away in perfect harmony in the heart and base, and a mossy, bossy and exceedingly smexy drydown somewhat akin to Bandit some long, long time later.
It’s a tad disheartening to stoop to modern slang for this writer who specializes in 19th-century purple prose, but the best description of the one common element of all the three Celliers I’ve tried so far is ‘smexy’, meaning smart and sexy. You might argue her use of perfume ‘bases/accords’ (according to Luca Turin) instead of raw materials is questionable, whereas I would argue that is precisely what makes them so stunning: each and every Germaine Cellier perfume is nearly impossible to pick apart, much like those complex ladies who lunched in the 1950s. And just as they were – any Cellier adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts.
Jolie Madame – Beautiful Lady – is no exception.
She is the perfect embodiment of the bien élévée, well-mannered 1950s woman, not a hair out of place, stocking seams dead-straight, fetching hat, chic flannel suit and shoes, gloves and matching handbag included.
Feminine, despite the rather severe cut of her form-fitting suit as the violet blooms to sing its tale, a violet born and bred not in Parma with all its sweet connotations nor Toulouse, which is sweeter still, but only in Paris, a violet that knows to flirt with that bad-gal leather just right, just enough to charm rather than titillate, and how could you not be charmed by a violet? What are you – heartless?
Of course not. You are simply a very intelligent, immaculately put together woman, from the angle of your hat to the shade of your lipstick. Any one of these details – the limited but elegant makeup, the gleam of your jewelry, the violet leather of your gloves, the line of your handbag and even your shoes has been carefully considered as a flourish to accentuate rather than advertise, to stand on its own, and sometime in a magic hour between midnight and dawn, to fall away like the pearls that slither from your neck to the floor in the moonlight.
(The divine Dovima, in other words, only this time without the elephants. Jolie is all too short a word for the multitudes she contains, and Madame?
“Oh, please.” I seem to hear her say. “I am a woman. Mademoiselle sounds so… adolescent after a certain age, don’t you think?”
Indeed I do. Because when the drydown arrives to dazzle, I begin to understand something about why my late mother might have chosen Jolie Madame to define herself, and something about that prototypical Parisian femme du bon famille those tailored-to-within-an-inch-of-their-sillage 1950s perfumes, as well as the current perfumes they have inspired.
Leather, tobacco, vetiver, cedar, patchouli, oakmoss and musk, states the notes list, which is a bit like saying the Mona Lisa was painted in sepia hues. On my skin, I smell the leather, the oakmoss, a whiff of the green, grassy violet leaf, and lo and behold, the drydown sent me off to locate that vintage Bandit to confirm what I suspect is present in this vintage incarnation of Jolie Madame: those uncanny, glorious (and now banned) nitro musks that growl beneath the basenotes, giving a rather different, animalic and not at all prissy spin on such a tailored perfume.
Just as I can marvel at my own audacity aged fourteen in choosing the rather naughty Jicky for my first perfume, I can wonder that my mother chose Jolie Madame. I suspect like all twenty-one-year-olds, she wanted to define herself in better, more glamorous terms, to set herself aside and apart from the common run of 1960s housewife, to show her fragrant story just enough not to give the game away. She never did.
Jolie Madame is still in rather limited production, reformulated, revised and rewritten for an IFRA-compliant age. I haven’t tried it, so I’m unable to compare the modern version with the vintage.
What I can say is this: I really need to hunt down a vintage bottle of just about any incarnation I can find. It will be neither easy nor cheap (one vintage bottle I saw sells for 198$), but such is the price of divinity, and the echo of Pierre Balmain’s famous words:
Always dress women in the right look for the right moment.
Just don’t forget this perfume, and that moment will always be right.
With special thanks to Dagmar for the mini that made this review possible.
Notes: Artemisia, coriander, gardenia, neroli, bergamot, petitgrain, cloves, tuberose, narcissus, orris, jasmine, rose, orange blossom, violet leaf, lilac, leather, patchouli, musk, coconut, civet, oakmoss, vetiver, cedar and tobacco.
Photo of Dovima in violet by Edwin Blumenfield via My Vintage Vogue. Dovima with elephants by Richard Alvedon, 1955. Balmain haute couture dress, 1953 via Balmain.