digging (into) vintage: Dana Ambush, 1955

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Ambush is a bit of a gender-fuck. It was a perfume for women, based on a perfume first designed for women but then marketed to men, Dana Canoe. Both were composed by perfumer Jean Carles.

Canoe was a fougère initially marketed to women. It turned out that Canoe fit the masculine barbershop style that was taking shape in the USA between the World Wars, so it was repurposed for men, who bought it in droves from 1932 to the present. There’s no record that it was reformulated at the time, just repackaged.

Canoe fits the classic American take on the fougère. It was launched at the end of the Depression and though it was initially produced in France, WW II brought production to the USA, where it became a huge success. It was herbal and floral like the classic fougère but less angular, more harmonious. It emphasized the musky-sweet side of the fougère formula with an oily-powdery quality and would come to define the barbershop sensibility. It became the definitive American fougère.

After the Depression and WW II, American gender lines were drawn in bold and the fougère landed squarely on the masculine side. It became masculinity coded in scent. Carles pulled off an interesting trick in designing Ambush as a women’s perfume. He took a men’s ‘grooming’ scent, touched it up with notes from women’s cosmetics, and called it feminine. Madison Avenue knew how to sell gender with an underlying threat of ridicule, so hygienic/grooming products were marketed with strong gender markers. Carles’s repurposing of the fougère for feminine use should have shown the gender line to be akin to the Emperor’s Clothes. But who in 1955 America would have been tactless enough to point this out?

Ambush’s compositional trick was a heliotrope accord. Heliotropin was a well know material and its vanillic-almond range of tones could be shifted one way and another depending on the context. It gave a matte quality to floral perfumes and a marzipan note to vanilla-orientals. It was also a common component of cosmetics at the time. In Ambush it gives a plasticene quality that fits both the sweet, musky base of the perfume and the aesthetics of the era. It lends Ambush a stiff, molded character appropriate to mid- century fashion and design style, leaving Ambush the furthest thing from a ‘skin scent’. No Jean Carles formula was ever simple and heliotrope is one note among many in Ambush, but it’s a pivotal component. It creates a distance between Ambush and Canoe at the same time that it harmonizes with the fougère accord. It marked the fougère as feminine.

The marketing for Ambush was centered on the suggestive name of the fragrance. It equated gender and sexuality, a largely unquestioned pairing in the mid-’50s. It phrased femininity as predatory heterosexuality. Men were objects to be stalked and taken down. The ads over the years riffed on images of coy women hiding behind palm fronds, peacock feathers, spider webs, etc. with copy such as, “A Romance in Every Bottle. Ambush…The Tender Trap.” and “Take Him Completely by Surprise.” Stereotype? Camp? Yes. There’s even a bit of homoeroticism. An ‘ambush’ implies deception. The unseen man of the ads is caught unawares, taken from behind as it were. Was the predator a woman in wearing Ambush or a man in Canoe? Which would he prefer?

Dana perfumes changed ownership more times than you can shake a stick at, leaving the lasting impression that Dana was a drug store brand pulled out for father’s/mother’s day-Christmas gift packs. The last bit of gender irony is that the company that currently owns Dana (but no longer produces Ambush) is Patriarch Partners, a company named and owned by a woman.

(image wisconsinhistory.org)


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  1. pollytechnic says:

    Great post! Really interesting story and nice analysis.

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