1933: The Year in Perfume

Guerlain Vol de Nuit perfumeAs far as years go, 1933 doesn’t stand out the way, say, 1492 does. But in many areas — culture, politics, and a new awareness of the larger world — 1933 was extraordinary. The perfumes of 1933 are extraordinary, too.

1933 falls into the Great Depression, between the Roaring ‘20s and World War Two. In America, communities languished in the wake of Black Monday. In Europe, which still reeled from World War One, fascism was growing and Dachau opened its doors. To escape poverty and fear for a few hours, people flocked to the movies and watched the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, Fay Wray in King Kong, and Jean Harlow in bias-cut satin in Dinner at Eight. Billie Holiday’s career began.

In 1933, the Congress passed the 21st amendment, lifting prohibition and providing some salve for the times. Jean Patou added to the intoxication by releasing Divine Folie, a spicy vanillic perfume loaded with orange blossom, styrax, iris, vetiver, rose, and jasmine. Patou’s Ma Collection booklet says it “expresses such pleasures, excesses and delights as are only provided by true luxury...Divine Folie is born of the party spirit, of nights of exquisite and divine madness.” The same year, Ernest Daltroff at Caron created Les Rocailles de Caron, providing another antidote to economic and political despair.

By 1933, societal tastes had moved away from the childlike fashions of the 1920s — bobbed hair, boyish figures, and flapper dresses — and toward womanly dresses with defined waists. In a way, society had lost its innocence. Instead of evenings of raccoon coats and ukeleles, people adopted a more sophisticated, if darker, aesthetic and were fascinated with cabaret and the sexual ambiguity of Marlene Dietrich. This was the year Dietrich commissioned Creed to create Angélique Encens, which she wore the rest of her life. It was also the year Lanvin released Scandal, a leather chypre.

Finally, the public’s interest in other cultures and exotic locales had grown steadily in the years leading to 1933. Charles Lindbergh’s cross-Atlantic flight six years earlier and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s mail flights from Toulouse to Dakar were fresh in the public’s mind. Reflecting these interests, in 1933 Guerlain released Sous le Vent and Vol de Nuit. Jacques Guerlain created Sous le Vent, an aromatic chypre that makes a fascinating transition from tarragon to wet cinnamon, in homage to Josephine Baker. (I bet Baker, as she danced at Paris’s Boeuf Sur le Toit, inspired a more than a few love letters, too.) Vol de Nuit’s name is lifted directly from the title of Saint-Exupéry’s 1931 book and beautifully expresses the strength and emotion a pilot must have felt, crossing the Mediterranean at night with only the cold wind, piercing stars, and whir of the engine for company.

1933, of course, led to the mid-1930s and the Dust Bowl, and, eventually, a more horrific deprivation, that of war. For a little while, though, the western world could fear the worst but hope for the best and, for those who could afford it, smell fabulous.

Patou’s Divine Folie is discontinued, but was part of Ma Collection and still can be found here and there online in eau de toilette and extrait. Caron’s Les Rocailles de Caron is long discontinued (please comment if you’re familiar with it!). Creed’s Angélique Encens is still in production. I haven’t yet smelled it, but I’m longing to. Lanvin’s Scandal was discontinued in the early 1970s — another I’m longing to try and on which I’d love to hear your comments. Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit is widely available, and I’d recommend the parfum over the eau de toilette for its stealthy, soft depth. Sous le Vent, recently reissued for a limited time, is available by contacting or visiting Guerlain’s flagship store in Paris.

Note: image via Parfum de Pub.

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13 Comments

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  1. Anonymous says:

    What a wonderful overveiw! It wasa real joy to read, thank you!

    Lanvin’s Scandal is certainly worth an effort to find. Dark, sophisticated leather, it's wonderful. Definitely smells liek a product of its time but absolutely not out of place here and now.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks! If I could get in a time machine, I would definitely stop by a perfume store in 1933 to stock up. Of course, I'd have to take the machine to a few other years, too, to pick up more vintage perfume…Coty's Chypre, a disappeared Balenciaga by Cellier that is supposed to smell like thyme and jasmine (Fuite des Heures?), so many more…

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great post. I'm laughing about the Scandal b/c I bought a bottle on eBay worldwide and when it got here I discovered it was empty — which it said right there in French on the listing… I need to take a bit more care with my translation.
    I had a sample of the Creed until last week, shoot! I would have sent it to you. It was wonderful/horrible and I was never sure which I'd get when I wore it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Wonderful/horrible–funny and intriguing! Kind of like Marlene herself. I'll have to get started tracking down a sample of it. And I'm so sorry about the Scandal, I probably would have held the bottle upside down and wept.

  5. Anonymous says:

    PS Forgot to add — the Creed they sell all over eBay in samples. I've never had a problem with my sample purchases, and you can buy a little one for $5… there's a buttery (?) aspect to the angelica, and when that came on strong it nauseated me. The rest of the time it's a great incense.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the tip! I've bought samples from Patty before, and it was, of course, a terrific experience, but I'm one of those techno-slugs who doesn't even have a paypal account set up yet. I'll have to change that.

  7. Anonymous says:

    1933 was the year my Dad was born, to parents who immigrated during the height of the depression. My grandfather found a job ten days after the lucky baby was born — their first — fixing typewriters at an upstate New York college for women, a college that, I, his granddaughter, would later attend to complete the cycle. My grandmother wore Sous le Vent, which lingers yet on my father's Christening gown, which I have kept with my own.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I love this story–and I love how Sous le Vent still lingers on the christening gown over the generations. Isn't life strange and beautiful how it unrolls? Thank you for your comment!

  9. Anonymous says:

    What a wonderful and thoughtful post. Thank you very much. 1933 was the year when my aunt left Germany to Switzerland for ever. She would return sporadically for visits after the war, but never to live there again.

    the early thirties were a turning point, quite easily detectable looking back; in a sense it is like a parabolic curve…you need to go beyond the turning point to realize that it indeed was a turning point.

    I find it thrilling that there, at these turning points in history there happens such much in art, too. Thank you for this food for thought.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I so much agree with your remark that life is like a “parabolic curve”, and I wonder where we are now? It would be so interesting to see our lives today from a distance of 70 years–hip-hop music, the last days of splurging on oil, the boom of the internet, Johnny Depp (timeless). Perfume-wise, it's hard to say what will shake out.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I haven't smelled Scandal in years, but it is truly a fur scent- trailing Russian sables, it's designed for amply endowed women with panache and attitude…it reeks sex and the possibility of infinite variety…

    Thanks, Angela, for your retrospective.

    I adore and wear many of these scents!

  12. Anonymous says:

    I haven't smelled Scandal in years, but it is truly a fur scent- trailing Russian sables, it's designed for amply endowed women with panache and attitude…it reeks sex and the possibility of infinite variety…

    Thanks, Angela, for your retrospective.

    I adore and wear many of these scents!

  13. Anonymous says:

    Fabulous description of Scandal! I see the Scandal-wearing woman's shoes and handbook and can even guess what she had for breakfast (soft-boiled egg, black coffee in cracked but beautiful spode cup). Thank you.

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