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Shocking by Schiaparelli

Having been a human pinball for the last 10 days – if-it’s-Wednesday-it-must-be-Bangor – The Scent Critic was super-keen to come home, in more ways than one:  home to my bed, home to my beloved, and home to a familiar fragrance.  Shocking has had a very special place in my heart for 20 years.  So let me share with you a love story, because without this particular perfume it might have had a very different ending.

It was Paris, city of parfumeries.  November, rainy.  And there began our quest, for a bottle of an almost-forgotten scent which my lover longed to buy me.  Strolling in and out of department stores, fragrance boutiques, even a fragrance exhibition in the Louvre, until – under the arches of the Rue de Rivoli – we bagged the quarry:  Shocking, by Schiaparelli.  (Slightly dusty, and simply the eau de toilette, but what the heck).  Its label read ‘Place Vendôme’.  Just around the corner.  What were a few more metres to our weary feet?  The once-famous Schiaparelli boutique was gone, replaced by a bijouterie. But there, nestling among the jewels, remained a few bottles of the perfume, curvily modelled on a couturier’s dummy.  (Long, long before Jean-Paul Gaultier borrowed the idea for his slightly more pneumatic bottle.  Some say Mae West’s body was the inspiration for this version, which was designed by Dali.)  My paramour bought me one:  deliciously oriental, spicy, sexy.  Quelle extravagance.  It made me see him in a whole new light.  Any man prepared to devote a whole day to the search for one magical, memory-stirring fragrance had earned his place in my heart.

Once upon a fragrant time, Shocking was a bestseller.  Now, the original is rare as hen’s teeth -and the ‘extrait‘ is actually extinct, except on eBay. (In recent times, Shocking has been reworked.  To be honest, although scent snobs may be appalled, I like the new version, too.)  It was launched in 1937 by the so-daring couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, the creation of Jean Carles (who also worked on Dana’s Tabu, of which there’s also a bottle on my dressing table, and which I’ll get around to reviewing about the time the leaves turn to gold.  He was involved in the creation of Miss Dior, too.  In terms of fragrances I own and wear often, that gives Monsieur Carles a hat-trick.)  In an echo of Chanel No. 5, there are plenty of aldehydes, with a beating heart of honeyed rose and jasmine so intense you can almost hear it humming.  Both No. 5 and Shocking are both super-sophisticated – but unlike Chanel’s (which you can pair with jeans) this is purely dress-up – not even smart casual.  It’s swags of pearls.  It’s silk Agent Provocateur underwear, beneath a tweed suit.  More than anything, this is a divine vintage handbag that you stumble upon in a secondhand dress store, snap open – and not only breathe in the perfume of its former owner, but delightedly find an origami-ed and monogrammed linen handkerchief folded in the pocket.  (Which happened to me, not long ago.  Paydirt!)  Despite its ladylike elements, it’s very sexy.  Often, in fact, referred to as ‘dirty’.  (In a good way.  The very best, actually.)

In perfume genealogy, Shocking is a descendent of Shalimar (another love of mine), and an ancestor of Youth Dew.  (Like that, too.)  I get more of the second than the first, once it’s warmed by my body:  a clove-y spiciness, alongside quite a bit of patchouli.  (If you do stumble upon an old bottle, and some drops remain, you’ll also encounter civet in there.  The famously banned civet, from the civet cat.  None of us really wants civet in a fragrance any more, not now we know how it’s extracted from its musk glands, but you can see – or rather smell – why it was once such a powerful weapon in the perfumer’s armoury.)  To my mind, Shocking is one of the great fragrances of the 20th Century, and I will wear it forever.  I’ve several bottles, some of them vintage:  the flacons are real collector’s items, and having a few in my possession, it’s amazing how well this fragrance lasts.  (If kept in a dark place.  Preferably an underwear drawer, where it belongs.)  And in case you’re wondering how the love story ended – it hasn’t.  Having earned his Scout badge for perfume perseverance in Paris – then uncomplainingly sacrificed his half of the bathroom shelf to my fragrance collection – how could I let my lover go?  The bride wore Shocking.  Not just the perfume, but – throwing caution to the Schiaparelli-scented wind – a shocking pink dress, in homage to the scent quest of a lifetime.  That’s the power of fragrance for you.

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