(Image Monica Bellucci)
Bandit might have been butch in its day, but that dynamic has changed a lot since 1944. It’s a potent leather with a come-hither lush animalism, the perfect femme-top perfume. I find it easier to read the dynamics of Bandit than many modern dry leathers. It’s calibrated to give the hard and the soft together. When modern dry leathers aim for toughness they often hit the far end of the spectrum. Not a bad thing by any means—the intentionally rough leather is one of modern perfumery’s strengths. They range from searing (Mona di Orio Cuir) and harsh (Orto Parisi Stercus) to smoke (Tauer Perfumes Lonestar Memories) petrol (Santa Maria Novella Nostalgia) and steel (Helmut Lang Cuiron).
Perfumer Germaine Cellier hit on a style that Grès Cabochard and Christian Dior Diorling would follow. The three share a buttery-floral animalic softness and a stern leather. They modulate their leather notes by varying the ratios of birch tar, isobutyl quinoline, castoreum and all the other luscious materials of the era. The use of ‘leather’ materials gives them a passing similarity but slight differences give them distinct personalities.
Cabochard is sometimes called a softer version of Bandit, still a potent leather, but more floral and less jarring. Cabochard famously lead to Aramis and Azurée, which travel further from Bandit by amping the bergamot and using patchouli/herbal accords to create a less overtly animalic leather mood. Smelling Bandit and Cabochard back-to-back, Cabochard is sweeter and the leather note sits a bit further in the background than it does in Bandit. Cabochard has a more easy balance than Bandit, which feel like it veers close to the cliff’s edge at times. From their release dates of 1944 and 1959, the two perfumes paint a different picture of femininity. Suited to the whiplash return to domesticity that many women experienced after WW II, Cabochard is a touch sweeter, more floral and less aggressive than Bandit. As with most gendered aesthetic products of the time, Cabochard is crammed with subtext, but on the surface it is a ‘pretty’ leather. Perhaps this is why Bandit remains shocking even today. It’s meaning isn’t buried—it’s right in your face. Feminine style was presented as aggressive and confident.
I don’t think that Diorling was produced in the quantity that these other perfumes were. It’s much harder to come by these days, and little has been written about it. In a way, though it was released after the others (1963), it is the middle ground between Bandit and Cabochard. Like Bandit, Diorling opens with a slap of hard leather, but it veers away from Bandit and softens into a ‘photorealistic’ leather on the new car/purse-interior axis. Feminine perfumes that progress from aggressiveness to a purr have a coy quality that I find disconcerting, as if feminine forcefulness is a symbolic act that dissolves into retreat. Still, Diorling is beautifully put together—less jagged than Bandit and more sumptuous than Cabochard.
I’d smelled early versions of Bandit in the past, but on getting a vintage bottle of eau de toilette recently, I was surprised at how much common ground it had with Miss Dior. Their olfactory profiles are similar, but more interestingly, they seem to achieve their effects similarly. Bandit’s green chypre and leather combination creates a balance of forces that Miss Dior replicates with parched florals and a good measure of skank. In Miss Dior, animalism is tied to its floral notes where in Bandit, it perches on leather. Bandit has a leathery ‘family resemblance’ to Cabochard and Diorling, but the animalism it has in common with Miss Dior makes them seem like fraternal twin sisters.
The creators of these four perfumes read like a list of the most prominent perfumers of the mid-twentieth century.
* In 1967, Cellier would make Miss Balmain, a ‘baby Bandit.’
* Miss Dior was composed by Paul Vacher and/or Jean Carles. Edmond Roudnitska is purported to have worked on the extrait of the perfume as well.
* Cabochard was composed by Bernard Chant, who later created Aromatics Elixir. The two still stand as the two of the most bad-assed chypres in history.
* Nearly 20 years after Miss Dior, Paul Vacher also composed Diorling.
(Little Edie and Big Edie Beales. Image source unknown.)
The leather chypres, like the aldehydic florals that preceded them historically, were a tight-knit group. Any two might smell virtually the same to the uninitiated, but to the connoisseur, seemingly small differences had significance. Bandit, Cabochard and Diorling are more alike than different, but each has a distinct emphasis. Bandit’s aggressive and slightly chaotic edge give it drama. Cabochard is formal and has a veneer of primness that would have suited the ’50s-’60s. Diorling is arguably the most beautiful and sumptuous of the three, but having followed them by a number of years, seems less inventive. The surprise to me was Bandit’s similarity to Miss Dior, which it preceded by two pivotal years of WW II. From the perspective of 2017, the old leather chypres have a Grey Gardens vibe, but they are a rich alternative to the dry woods and heavy smokers of the current independent line-up.