Nostalgia and the Rose Chypre

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70s gay

(originally posted on katiepuckriksmells.com)

Nostalgia is not the same as retro. Retro is light role-playing with stylistic imagery. The danger is that it can appear authentic without in fact being genuine. Nostalgia has its dangers as well: when a notion of the past becomes more desirable than the experience of the present. But in order to understand nostalgia, sometimes we must embrace it.

I embrace nostalgia for the following: 1) The idealized dream of the pre-AIDS gay urban 1970s. 2) New York’s affordable art scene (cheap lofts, cheap rent, cheap social life, non-targeted creativity), which effectively ended in the 1970s. 3) The rose chypre.

The rose chypre genre, as much a creature of the 80s as the 70s, lives on both as retro/redo (Agent Provocateur by Agent Provocateur, 2000) and as the vestige of another era (YSL Rive Gauche, 1971; La Perla by La Perla, 1987). The late 20th century rose chypre is the logical outcome of both the diminishing restraint that generally defines the styles of the 70s-80s and some heavy new aromachemicals.

For the time being at least, the rose chypre is still with us. Many are still in production (Estee Lauder KnowingUngaro DivaPaloma Picasso Mon Parfum, La Perla). Aramis 900 is revived/reissued. The fate of others, a few steps down the reformulation path, is less certain (Montana Parfum de Peau Rive Gauche). Some of the discontinued perfumes are quickly getting out of affordable reach (Paco Rabanne La Nuit and Paco Rabanne Calandre, l’Arte di Gucci). Where so many historical chypres are dying on the vine due to reformulation and restriction of components, the rose chypre soldiers on. I suspect that rose’s affinity for patchouli has always allowed some sidestepping of oakmoss, and that current restrictions have selected this trait for survival in perfumery’s evolution. However it has come about, bask in it. And if you’ve never really tried one, give it a go.

Rose chypres are easily found, mostly inexpensive, and express a wide range of sub-genre variations (i.e. aldehydic, skanky, earthy). Examine them through the lens of the contemporary leather perfume, the 80s power fragrance or historic animalic perfumes. They’re ripe for interpretation. The rose is perhaps the broadest flower in perfumery — there are a million different tones that we’d call “rosy”. The chypre framework can contain or emphasize so many of its different properties. Together they can highlight the animalic (La Nuit, Agent Provocateur), the pissy (Parfum de Peau), booziness (Diva, Aramis 900), ice queeniness (Paloma, Rive Gauche), earthiness (La Perla) or sheer power (Knowing).

The rose chypres can be approached from any number of angles. For you green chypre/leather chypre fans, there is an angularity and a starkness that might appeal — try Paloma or La Nuit. If aldehydes and florals are your thing, try Rive Gauche or Calandre. If you dig an amber/floriental bent, look at Diva and Parfum de Peau. Sure, you could spring for Serge Lutens or Frédéric Malle if you want, but the designer models are inexpensive and define the truism that quality in perfumery need not be expensive.

I’ve read that rose chypres are definitively feminine. I disagree. I find that these chypres carry with them both the 1970s chic of bisexuality and the gender-blurring of the early 1980s. Historically, this genre immediately precedes the through-the-looking-glass hypergender of the power frags of the mid-80’s (eg Dior Poison). Though some of these rose chypres, like Parfum de Peau and La Nuit, can actually be considered 80s power frags, there is a strong sense of gender neutrality. In all cases, you’ll find classical perfume evolution (not a lot of linearity in this bunch), extravagance and a menacing sense of beauty.

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