digging (into) vintage: Rochas Femme, 1943

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Perfumer Edmond Roudnitska

Rochas Femme would be interesting if only for the fact that it is a great battle-axe of perfumery. It originated during a time of rations and war, and has survived formulations, trend and fashion, no mean thing. But Femme is interesting for other reasons. It is an early work of the the noted 20th-century perfumer Edmond Roudnitska, and it is an early and stellar example of the dark fruity chypre, one of the best styles of 20th-century perfumery.

From castoreum to methyl ionone (the chemical Roudnitska apparently made use of when he found it in a factory during WW II) to oakmoss, Femme has had its ingredient list maimed over the decades. I can’t say how much the current model resembles the original, which was apparently quite a dark delicacy. But what I own is a parfum de toilette in a one ounce round bottle (the “Byzance” bottle) that probably dates from the 1990s. I’ve also had a few carded samples from an old perfume shop of what was labeled eau de parfum. They smell similar enough to my nose. I suspect Femme’s saving grace has been its dark, boozy plum note. It is enhanced by a cumin note that I believe was ostensibly added to replace animalic elements as they became unavailable.  Here Femme is luckier than many of the other animalic perfumes to have been reformulated. The woody cumin works fits the darkness of the fruit. Used strictly as a spurious animalic, a cumin note is generally unsuccessful. Reformulations that use this sort of crude bait and switch are one of the reasons reformulation is so demonized.

Look at the great mid-20th century chypres, with their great lung-buckets full of oakmoss and other toxins.  If you line up Miss Dior, Ma Griffe, Miss Balmain & Jolie Madame the vintage and current models, it’s hard to see the modern bottles as anything other than a fall from greatness. Femme and the other fruity chypres of the time appear to have enough grit and chutzpah to survive the criminalization of oakmoss. To my nose Femme as well as Guerlain Mitsouko and the underestimated Y by YSL, are in better shape currently than the others mentioned above.

A well-done reformulation certainly helps, but Femme’s other advantage is context. Forget the old chypres, Femme could be seen today as a smart, boozy version of the generally vapid fruity floral. Femme fits right in line with Badgley Mischka by Badgely Mischka.

Femme isn’t what she used to be, but who among us is? I hope I can find a context in which I’ll still shine as she does at her age. She’s a tough old broad and I’m still honored to wear la Vieille Femme.


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