I’m staring at my bottle of Rochas Femme right now, and try as I might, I can’t see its reputed resemblance to Mae West. To me, it looks a lot more like Mighty Mouse. Not only does Femme’s bottle not look like Mae West, but its fragrance wings past the fusty, comic actress and lands straight on Marilyn Monroe: Marilyn as she rises from an afternoon nap, intimate, warm, hair mussed.
Femme smells voluptuous and intensely personal. It is the smell of your mother on her still-warm bed when you were a girl, or the scent that a maid in a posh resort shakes from the sheets every day. If I were in an elevator with someone I didn’t know who wore more than a dab of Femme, I might be uncomfortable, as if I had an unexpected window into her private life. Femme demands that you shed your social armor and relate to its wearer on a closer level. Femme isn’t an easy scent to wear.
Since Femme is so personal, you might expect it to be quiet, too, but it is big and lush, with impressive sillage. Mixed with the scent of woman are plums and peaches so ripe that if you don’t eat them now they’ll be no good tomorrow. I don’t want you to get the impression that it’s just another fruity scent, because calling Femme “fruity” is like calling Ravel’s Valse a “dance tune”. When you turn your arm to get another sniff, wafts of sandalwood just barely detectable escape from the fragrance’s main theme, lending a counterintuitive, almost soapy edge. Grounding Femme is an animalic, chypre base. The combination is disturbingly beautiful and impossible to ignore.
Perfumer Edmond Roudnitska created Femme in 1944 for Marcel Rochas to present to his wife; for Roudnitska's own wife Thérèse, he later created Parfum de Thérèse, released by Frédéric Malle after her death. (She sure hit the husband jackpot.) Olivier Cresp, the author of Thierry Mugler Angel and Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue, retooled Femme in 1989. Femme’s fragrance notes include peach, plum, sandalwood, rosewood, lemon, rose, jasmine, oakmoss, patchouli, musk, amber, civet, and leather. Despite’s Femme’s update, it is still firmly rooted in the 1950s.
“But wait!” the astute reader says now, “What about the cumin? Doesn’t the new Femme have cumin?” I didn’t mention it, because I was afraid it might scare you off, but, yep, it does. It has definite cumin in the top, and it doesn’t fade for a good hour. But the cumin is gloriously unexpected and at the same time harmonious, like a girl with one brown eye and one blue eye. The original Femme smells more of lemon and aldehydes where the new Femme has cumin, but the feel of both versions over a few hours is similar. The old Femme is easier to wear than the new Femme, and I have to wonder if Cresp’s changes to Femme were to replicate the original’s surprise and carnality with an eye toward today’s blasé market. While I’d love to have a bottle of the original Femme, I adore today’s version, too.
My review is for the Eau de Toilette, which can be had online for less than $17 for 50 ml. (I’m aching to buy the perfume — can anyone comment on how it differs from the Eau de Toilette?) Chances are that four out of five of you who try Femme will reject it as old-fashioned, or even repulsive. But for that fifth person, Femme might lead to a whole different understanding of what perfume can be.