It would come as no surprise to many that a woman as discerning, charismatic and deeply respected as Brooke should choose to launch a project taking Germaine Cellier as its namesake. While I’ll leave the canonic sanctification of Brooke to the future generations, the opportunity to, respectfully, gush veneration for Sainte Cellier herself is hard to pass up. The complication lying at the heart of it then, is how to possibly communicate the contribution of Cellier in 2022, and what that might mean to any given perfume appreciator.
For some, probably many who might read this, Cellier is already a known quantity and the work tends to speak for itself – a highly influential 20th century figure whose handful of formally credited works are touchpoints of mid-century French perfumery - worn by icons across generations, revered by ‘experts’ and critics and prized by vintage collectors. For others who aren’t yet familiar with the work and character of Cellier, there are relatively few sources with a finite amount of information to say about her. Even in its success, her life and career remained obscured by a lack of cultural recognition and familiarity with the role and value of the perfumer, whether as artist OR technician, and so little was said or recorded beyond anecdotes shared by those within or with access to the small and secretive world of perfume.
In 1990, Michael Edwards published Perfume Legends and tells the untold stories of perfume and perfumers in a way that had been absent until then, though in limited print and for a considerable cost (somewhat rectified by a second edition). In the 2000s, a class of dedicated and newly online devotees wrote the perfume blogosphere into existence, setting the stage for fragrance as pop culture and creative form deserving of critical engagement, as well as all of the various click bait and obnoxious trash fires we are blessed with today. Some of those writers become published, and Barbara Herman’s Yesterday’s Perfume blog gives way to Scent and Subversion (2013), a second cornerstone of printed work shedding light on an obscured olfactory world.
For those who hunt for her precious artefacts and strike gold, savour the joy of vintage perfume as time-machine, as fantasy, as history of material relations and social commentary, as a preservation of raw materials that we no longer have access to, and wherever possible share the love. For those who smell a vintage bottle of Vent Vert and don’t really know what all this hallowed fuss is about, know that if you enjoy perfume then you will have experienced her work in some form through its legacy and influence, that the point of all of this isn’t some diatribe about the inherent superiority of the source material but it is about acknowledging that this field has history and icons, and Germaine Cellier is a treasure.
I’m rambling, of course, I just want to fully acknowledge that there are those who are already deeply familiar with Cellier and her work, and for those that aren’t, then the relatively little that there is to definitely know or smell is basically already out there, written by Edwards and Herman and the archivists at the Osmotheque, available to gamble on in the grey markets or otherwise wisely hoarded or lost entirely.
I’m persevering with this piece though, because despite having almost no technical or historical knowledge from which to speak, there’s nothing quite as deeply satisfying, or personal, or unrestrained, as being a fan – fandom gets to newly situate and contextualise its subject matter over and over in the life of each fan, and I am a f*****g fan of Germaine Cellier.
I came to her work through discovering my strong love for galbanum - a green, sharp, bitter and peppery resin hailing from Iran with the capacity to sparkle or brood in a way that tends to strongly polarise people as lovers or haters. For those who appreciate its stern and haughty elegance it’s hard to go past the angular brutalism of Piguet’s Bandit (1944) or the depthless green enchantment of Balmain’s Vent Vert (1947), two perfumes with which Cellier unleashed a legion of green fragrances that followed. It took me longer to appreciate the entirely different magic of Piguet’s Fracas (1948), with its iconic olfactive rendering of society’s Madonna-Whore complex of rich dewy white florals, peach, and a provocative base of voluptuous musks and, popularised by countless femme icons in their time.
There is of course other excellent work that bears mention: Elysees 64 83 (1946) I would argue nails the ‘femininity of wood’ long before Feminite du Bois (1992) and Serge Lutens’ love affair with Marrakech. Jolie Madame (1953) and Miss Balmain (1967) hold their own across their respective decades, but ultimately Bandit, Vent Vert and Fracas form a cultural triptych in my mind from which her genius, skill and power radiates out.
It probably needs to be said that Cellier’s formally credited work would only represent a fraction of her contribution at the Parisian oil house Roure Bertrand Dupont under owner Louis Amic. In a highly competitive and male dominated professional milieu, even a woman of Cellier’s renowned charisma, scathing wit and eccentric creative talent (such that it begot its own private studio to work) will inevitably have suffered some level of indignity and snubbing.
That said, who can know the extent she felt like her work was correctly recognised, valued, credited and paid amongst her peers and within her industry. We are told by Edwards that she moved amongst the Parisian nightlife and socialites – as much as she was an exceptional talent, Cellier may equally have been a highly perceptive woman who worked only to the extent that was sufficient to enjoy a life of privacy and leisure beyond her employment. After all, perfumers at the time were not distinguished as creatives except amongst their peers. If she kept a diary which contained her commentary and story we will likely never know, or otherwise we had it and lost it before we knew its value. Could she have written work on philosophy and aesthetics like Edmond Roudnitska? Intellectually, by all accounts probably yes, but would publishers or readers have paid attention, and would she have wanted or cared to make them pay attention?
This is where a lack of available facts and archival information can lead to projection and conjecture. Occasionally we might see some reference to Cellier as lesbian, and it feels tempting to me to rush to claim her as queer icon and canon. However, Brooke herself has pointed out that reading Cellier as queer could be purely apocryphal – some lazy or even misogynistic reading of an intelligent and creative woman with a career and a tendency to speak her mind. Could she have been? Please, if there is a force for good in this world let her be one of ours, but social history isn’t often helped by claiming truth where there is none. At the end of the day queers by necessity remain expert at weaving complex tapestries of history through fragment, hearsay, appropriation, reclamation, signage, subtext and symbolism – I don’t need to write over Cellier’s life in order for her work to have meaning in mine. In any case, the work of Germaine Cellier reads as unambiguously feminist as any perfume in its context could be, and beyond the formal conventions of perfumery to stand meaningfully alongside contemporary artists and intellectuals of her time.
Cellier evokes the same fiery provocation of women like Simone de Beauvoir and Anais Nin both in output and character, her perfumes a perfect accompaniment to passages from She Came to Stay or Under a Glass Bell. Like both de Beauvoir and Nin, with the much greater detail available about their lives, the bare recorded facts of her existence does little to dictate what I, a queer and a fan, decide to canonize. Indeed, indie darling and integrity watchdog Christophe Laudamiel only recently reminded us all that the cookbook of Alice B. Toklas, life partner of Getrude Stein, contains recipes for ‘Vent Vert chicken’ and ‘Vent Vert salad’ – if that isn’t proof of Cellier as canon, then I’m not sure what is.
But let us return to the triptych. There are of course multiple lenses through which to interpret the work – the skill, the quality of materials and the social context in which it emerges. I appreciate the first two – how simple and refined her compositions appear to be but at the same time how far into them you can wade because of the depth of materials and the irreplicable bases used in her formulas, but it’s not a conversation that I can contribute much to.
The latter lens though, is something I’m endlessly fascinated by. The narrative surrounding Rochas Femme (1944), another icon, involves an Edmond Roudnitska, working in isolation and weary from the troubles of WWII and French occupation, composing accords for a sense of escape and relief until happened upon by Marcel Rochas and Albert Gosset, looking for the right formula for Femme to excite a weary Europe and compliment Rochas’ pretty young wife.
What kind of fatigue, disenchantment and cutting malevolence might a bright and penetrating Cellier have felt, contracted by socialite Couturier men to compose some fresh and stimulating sensory gender play to be taken up by war-weary women called on to revert back to the before times and perform their restorative and regenerative role for war-weary men, desperate for some fresh and transportive novelty?
The Paris, 1944 of Rochas Femme is the same Paris, 1944 as Robert Piguet’s Bandit – both are exceptionally beautiful, but the spirit of fierce rebellion and piercing, austere disdain evoked by the galbanum and isobutyl quinoline in the latter is just breathtaking to me. Fast forward a few years into the postwar recovery and we have Vent Vert (1947) for Pierre Balmain superdosing galbanum into a kind of eerie, enchanting and otherworldly sparkling green escapism to cut through darkened and hazy interiors of the clubs. Then the following year we have Fracas (1948), again for Piguet, taking the fuel of creamy white florals and sensuous musks and pouring it over the smoldering flame of a wounded patriarchal world obsessed with sex, seduction and the subversion of its own contrived morality. When people talk about gender being a social construct, these are the moments in which the construction is shaped, in which new scripts and shifting cultural dynamics emerge and create a legible stage for gendered performance, expression and identity.
Now, that’s not to say that gender and perfume have a perfectly correlated and inextricably linked relationship, or that social construction is *the* way that we can understand gender. If you care about the theory I think there’s value in a mix of critical modernist and post-modernist feminisms, you get me? We experience embodied subjectivity within structures, and we also talk and think (and smell) in ways that shape our power, agency and reality.
As it relates to gender and perfume, I’m not particularly convinced that qualities like feminine, masculine and androgynous have any intrinsic or objective meaning beyond the ideas that we collectively imbue them with. Gendered qualities and their interpretation represent contested ideas that shift and change over time through power and resistance, in dominant and subcultural spaces. Certainly masculinity, femininity and androgyny aren’t simplistic qualities that exclusively and universally define the woman, man, nonbinary, genderfluid or agender person that you are.
This is one of the things that I most appreciate about the reviews of Luca Turin, who seems quite comfortable describing perfume typologies of masculine and feminine that have nothing to do with reductively signposting your gender. He insists, for example, that archetypally masculine and feminine perfumes only ever really work well as an artful counterpoise rather than a facile insistence of insecure social scripts.
Sometimes in perfumery, gendered language gets used out of an absence of anything more interesting or valuable to say – after all, perfumery has always had to borrow language from other frames of reference. At the same time, gender becomes meaningful when it is meaningful to us, when it contributes to our sense of self in relating to ourselves and others, to our participating in and developing cultural knowledge, or to our political language when we seek a way to describe a set of conditions that are unjust or disproportionately favourable to some but not others.
In perfume, aspects of gender and gendered qualities can allow us to explore, express, enhance and subvert through smell – just like fragrance can just as easily express gender neutral or non-gendered thoughts, feelings, moments and ideas as well. The work of Cellier was a supporting player in how Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna and likely countless other gendered icons created and sustained their public selves. Fracas’ femininity is most interesting and beautiful when accompanied with a sense of carefully constructed performance, of masked interiority, of unapologetic self-possession.
Bandit’s tough and spiky exterior speaks to the beauty of masculinity that is more freely expressed while the men are away at war. As Barbara Herman writes, Fracas and Bandit are perhaps a model of the quintessential butch and femme couple whose queer relationship is far more than a reconstitution of rigid heteronormativity, while Vent Vert is perhaps their charismatic ace or enby besty casting hexes in the clurrb. Of course, it should go without saying that these don’t need to be distinctive ‘signatures’ and should be worn by whoever, whenever.
The triptych encompasses punk, resistance, unflinching sexuality and a staunchness to rival Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M manifesto, all without Cellier publicly saying a word. Gender isn’t the only way to experience Cellier, but it helps us understand her work in context alongside her feminist contemporaries. To me, it feels meaningful to perceive Cellier through a feminist lens for its powerful statements about genders of this world and others yet to be discovered, about the society from which it emerged and which it shaped in turn. Long Live Sainte Cellier.
Billie Stimpson is a nonbinary transfemme living on unceded Turrbal and Jagera land in Meanjin/Brisbane, Australia. They first became interested in perfume as a non-visual medium to explore and express gender, and are also compelled by the impact of smell on emotional states, social meaning and mental health. They write about some of these things things when the mood takes them through their IG handle @pinkmanordc, through which they also operate an inconsequential sample service, Pink Manor Decant Club, to try and share what's best about scent culture with people who might not otherwise be exposed to it. You can listen to them on the Institute for Art and Olfaction's Perfume on the Radio podcast in the episode "It's a Man's World".