Susan Irvine: Of Spies and Scatter Cushions

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Post by Anne-Marie

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There is so much online information about perfume these days that books, especially slightly older ones like these two by Susan Irvine, may seem redundant. But there is still much pleasure to be had from holding a well-produced book in your hands, and from being in the presence of a knowledgeable writer who can convey a love of her subject.

Susan Irvine: Book Reviews

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Susan Irvine: Perfume: The Creation and Allure of Classic Fragrances

Susan Irvine is a journalist and writer who specialised in perfume and fashion for many years. Her book Perfume: The Creation and Allure of Classic Fragrances is a broad sweep across the history of perfume and its production, presentation and marketing. I confess I have only marginal interest in the chemistry of scent, and the production of raw materials. Irvine covers these subjects admirably, but her chapters on how perfume is promoted fascinated me the most.

‘Selling perfume’, she writes, ‘is about selling something indefinable, invisible and covetable: glamour.’ So the philosophy, the brief, the bottle design, the name, the advertising and the launch party are all about creating desire for a slice of this glamour.

Irvine herself is apparently a veteran of many a launch party. ‘Concorde is the journalists’ equivalent of a school bus for transatlantic events’, she writes, laconically. ‘If it’s Monday, it must be the Paris Opéra, filled with 8,000 Casablanca lilies for the re-launch of Yves Saint Laurent’s Y.’ On Thursday its Giorgio Armani’s Giò in Manhattan … and so on. For the haps and mishaps of the launch of Dior’s Dune in Biarritz, you will have to read the book!

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Susan Irvine: The Perfume Guide

By contrast, The Perfume Guide is a guide to individual (mostly feminine) perfumes, arranged in families: floral, fruity, herbaceous, chypre, and oriental. It’s always fun to ‘look up’ one’s favourites (and ‘scrubbers’) in books like this to see what the author makes of them. Funny also to note discontinued gems, like All About Eve by Joop!, and obscurities like Smell This by James Berard (what? who?).

By 2000, when this book came out, niche perfume was starting to make a difference, so works by L’Artisan, Diptyque, Annick Goutal and Serge Lutens are mentioned. But of course the great classics are there too: Chanel No 5, Guerlain Shalimar, Lanvin Arpège, Patou Joy. ‘It’s impossible to imagine Chanel No 19 on a badly dressed woman’, Irvine proclaims, making me bite my lip and shuffle my feet in scuffed shoes.

If you have ever wondered where that great comment about Rive Gauche came from – ‘what KGB agents would have worn to seduce James Bond’ – it is Irvine’s. Dana Tabu is ‘for women who wear their knickers on their heads’. But my favourite is this remark on Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds, one of the best-selling perfumes of all time:
‘For women who are not afraid of scatter cushions’.

Both books are out of print, but are still available from online second-hand book sellers.
Susan Irvine, Perfume: the creation and allure of classic fragrances (Haldane Mason Ltd, 1995).
Susan Irvine: The Perfume Guide (Haldane Mason, 2000).

 

18 comments on “Susan Irvine: Of Spies and Scatter Cushions

  1. australianperfumejunkies says:

    Hey there Anne-Marie,
    LOVE a good frag book. In the middle of reading The Perfume Garden by Kate Lord Byron. It is an easy read, lives entwined, multi generational perfumers, a little like the Annick/Camille Goutal story.
    Thanks for these new ideas.
    Portia xx

  2. Tara says:

    I love Susan Irvine’s Perfume Guide so was really happy to see you cover it here, Anne-Marie. Lots of gems in there.
    Tara recently posted…Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances by Michael EdwardsMy Profile

    • annemariec says:

      Thanks Tara, of the ‘encyclopedic’ perfume books, it’s probably my favourite (after the Turin/Sanchez guide, of course, but that’s in a class of its own!).

  3. Azar says:

    Hi Anne-Marie,
    The Perfume Guide is on my perfume bookshelf too! I like the way Susan Irvine writes and so just ordered an old copy of The Creation and Allure…Looks like fun. Thank you once again for sharing your reading list.
    Azar xx

  4. I feel sure I actually possessed one of these though not the Guide, and love the characterization of Tabu as something foir women who wore their knickers on their heads! Yes! Exactly. What to make of the mid century American perfume dispensers stocked with Tabu and Heaven Scent?

    • annemariec says:

      Knickers on their heads! Yes, I really wonder how Irvine got away with that comment.

      She approaches her subject with some panache, and the only other writer to do that at the time was Luca Turin (who of course pushed the boundaries a lot further) but he was still writing in French then.

      I’ve read something recently about those perfume dispensers. Where was it? Lizzie Ostrom’s book? Must check.

  5. Lindaloo says:

    I really enjoyed Susan Irvine’s Perfume Guide. It is indeed well-produced and interesting. The one thing that startled me was the picture of Bal a Versailles — shown with the name side facing front (which seems sensible) and a note about the Fragonard image on the “back.” Startling to me as I have never, ever seen a picture of it showing anything other than Fragonard image.

    I’d love to read Creation & Allure.

    Poking around, I see that she also wrote Vogue’s book on Cristobal Balenciaga (only in French).

    I also see a number of books on Roses by her, (or someone with the same name?) including one on rose gardens in Australia and one called Fragrant Roses.

    • annemarie says:

      Yes, that’s a completely different author. I’ve read some of her books about buying old properties and planting rose gardens. Nice, though I’m not quite enough of a rose devotee to keep up with all the cultivars and stuff. 🙂

  6. I love Susan Irvine, both of these books are cherished tomes. Her articles for British Vogue were part of the original seduction for me into the world of fragrances.
    Great review Anne Marie. Hah! When you wear no 19, no one notices your shoes!
    Today, thanks to Jaques Polge; I am smelling Haughty but Flushed 😉

    • annemarie says:

      I hope my shoes go unoticed. I like shoes but I’m not fanatical. Couldn’t afford to be, with all the perfume I buy as well!

  7. Fazal says:

    I have the first book (creation and allure of classic fragrances). It is amazing and full of information that has basically been repeated later on the internet.

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