I thought I was doing pretty well at the thrift store this weekend. I'd already scored a sapphire blue quilted bathrobe from the 1950s with a full skirt and black passementerie and I'd snagged a 1960s soap dish made of laminate with tiny shells suspended in it, but my big find was around the corner: a bottle of Schiaparelli Shocking "Eau de Parfum Mist" for two bucks. "Shocking" was scrawled across its hot pink label in the same kind of font that came out of the back of Samantha's broom in the opening credits of Bewitched. Even better, it still smelled all right.
That night before I settled in to watch an old movie (in my new robe, naturally) I sprayed the vintage Shocking on one arm and the new Shocking on my other arm. "Shocking" is right! They were two different fragrances with only a vague family resemblance, more like cousins than sisters. Charming cousins, for sure, but you wouldn't mistake one for the other.
Schiaparelli Shocking was released in 1937 and was developed by perfumer Jean Carles, one of the creators of Christian Dior Miss Dior and the nose behind Dana Tabu and many of the Lucien Lelong fragrances. Shocking was packaged in a bottle shaped like a torso, and supposedly modeled after a dress form of Mae West that Schiaparelli had in storage.
Vintage Shocking is a diffusive floral oriental, and wearing it is like standing inside a room with the notes all spaced in the air around you. At the center of the room is rose, but a buzzing, fresh white floral halo that I first pegged as gardenia but now think might be narcissus. What could be a dash of civet — or maybe just tired topnotes — appears and fades within five minutes of spraying the fragrance on. Floating up near the level of your head are wisps of herbs here and there, but if you try to pin them down they hide. After half an hour, sandalwood and honey start to rise, but the honey is quiet. It is at this point that the old Shocking smells most like the new. Eventually the honey fades, too, and a warm cloak of oakmoss and wood remain.
Although vintage Shocking is more feminine and light than I had expected, it feels like a true "composition", as if an entire orchestra would be needed to play it well. It feels important, but also delicate and full of character. I'm going to be heartbroken when my bottle runs dry. Unfortunately, it doesn't last long on my skin — three hours tops.
In 1997, perfumer Martin Gras of Dragoco redesigned Shocking. It is the same amber color as vintage Shocking and also comes in a bottle shaped like a torso, but rather than being spacious, it feels dense and focused. Once the aldehydes and hint of bergamot dissipate, the new Shocking smells like hot jasmine tea with a clove, a few dried rose petals, and double dose of honey mixed in. After a while, a furry base of patchouli melds seamlessly with the honey. It's the sort of fragrance that I think some people would love and others would find nauseating. When I'm in the mood for it — when it's cold out and I want something big and warm to wear — I reach for it. It has a demanding sillage and lasts all day. The new Shocking is still in production and a relative bargain at $55 for 50 ml of Eau de Parfum.
As an aside, I think I talked to Martin Gras, author of the new Shocking, about ten years ago. I was at the Nordstrom in downtown Portland, and a tall, distinguished French man was crammed on a folding chair behind what could have been a TV tray on a busy aisle facing the perfume counter. He said he was the creator of Vivienne Westwood Libertine, and he had vials and blank scent strips on his table. Shoppers squeezed past him as they hurried up to the MAC counter, but no one stopped to talk. In those days, I liked perfume, but I couldn't tell L'Heure Bleue from Drakkar Noir if my life depended on it.
The perfumer seemed so out of place. He was charming and dotted some of the contents of his vials on strips for me to smell and seemed happy that I was interested. Finally, he put what I'm assuming was a musk on a scent strip and handed it to me. "Some people cannot smell this," he said. I put it to my nose, eager to pass the test. I didn't smell a thing.
I think about that afternoon sometimes and wish I could talk to Gras again now — that is, if I'm not mistaken and it really was him. I'd have so many questions. Some of them would be about Shocking.