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In which I come to terms with Shalimar.

To paraphrase a Whitney Houston pop song, I don’t know why I want to like it, I just do.

Shalimar is one of the few perfumes I knew first by reputation. It’s iconic, like Chanel No. 5, like Mata Hari, like the Art Deco movement that inspired its bottle. You don’t have to know what it is to know that it’s cool, and it’s been cool for a very, very long time.

I assumed, when I started getting to know perfume, that Shalimar would be one of the ones best served old. Because most of the really classic perfumes have changed over the years, and few of them for better. They may still be good, but they aren’t necessarily still great. If you want to know why your grandmother went apeshit for it in 1937, you might need to sniff a vintage version.

I was, of course, right. Shalimar came out in 1925; it has quite literally been through the wars. It was originally based on an artificial vanilla that produced a very strong, rich scent; the other notes, and probably that original type of vanillin, have been changed over the years, to be cheaper, to be less allergenic, whatever you want to say, it isn’t exactly the same. You may still love it, but you might LOVE it if you smelled what it originally was.

I found this to be true of Diorissimo, and to a certain extent true of Chanel No. 5, so I even tried a vintage extrait (the purest perfume formulation) of Shalimar to really get to “know” it.

And you know what? I still found myself making “enh” and “ergh” and other unattractive noises when I smelled the thing. I just didn’t like it.

I don’t remember where I read the explanation, but someone somewhere finally explained Shalimar to me. It begins with a lemony bergamot opening, very typical of a classical cologne. It shifts into something dark and vanilla-y, something that previously hadn’t existed, something that defined the category of “oriental” perfume.

It’s the magical change, and the refracting facets around the change, that make Shalimar so unique. Nothing else smells quite like Shalimar. Nowadays perfumes are strikingly linear. People do not want their perfumes to change on them; it’s even considered a sign of poor workmanship. But when Shalimar came out, in an era where you often listened to your friends and family members singing or talking for entertainment, in an era where the middle class had arrived and consumer goods were just taking off, in an era where women were having sex and getting jobs and doing all kinds of unheard of things, there was time to notice a change and time to be shocked by it.

Knowing the explanation, I can smell it, and smelling it, I can respect it.

But I still don’t really like it.

When Shalimar Ode a la Vanille was announced, I suspected, rightly, that I would eventually drive myself to try it. I don’t like the first half of Shalimar; but if I like anything about it, I like the last half. I can’t stop sniffing the vanilla drydown, even if it’s kind of odd and annoying more than delightful and decadent. It’s fascinating, in the original sense: it bewitches me. Not like a beautiful woman. Kind of like a snake.

I hauled myself over to Bergdorf Goodman (literally, walking up and down the stairs at the 59th street subway station even on my recently damaged thigh muscles) to try this puppy. Arriving twenty minutes before closing, I had time to try on a spritz and tour the beauty floor, hoping and desperately not hoping that Shalimar would unveil a brand new facet to me, that I would in fact be floored by a glorious vanilla that could not be denied.

Instead, I hiked around the room, warm, sniffing my wrist, for a good fifteen minutes. No vanilla. I mean none. Even the sales associate couldn’t smell any vanilla on me, and she’d been touting the vanilla-ness since I walked in the door. Zero vanilla in Ode a la Vanille.

Depressed, I bought a bottle of Spiritueuse Double Vanille that I neither really wanted nor needed (I still haven’t come to terms with this – someone convince me to take it back), just because I felt so vanilla-deprived. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t experience the vanilla? What exactly did Shalimar have against me that it always, always refused to meet me halfway?

Coming back up out of the subway on 34th street, I was suddenly hit by a cloud of vanilla. Hit is not too strong a word. VANILLA. On me. Yep, the vanilla had arrived, it was on my wrist, and lordy.

I gave in. I’m not stronger than the Shalimar. I ended up buying a bottle. But just to split- I’m keeping less than a third of it, and that’s about right too.

I feel like I need to own a little Shalimar. It’s like a badge of perfumista-hood. But I’m also -ista enough to admit that I don’t much like Shalimar. It’s Shalimar’s very Shalimar-ness that I like the least. That little twisting maneuver it does in the middle, like a particularly deft diver doing a gainer with a half-twist in it, is, frankly, unpleasant. There’s a soap note to it that I find particularly unattractive; I don’t like it up my nose. It’s the stage the bergamot/lemon has to travel through, somehow, to get to the vanilla. It’s odd, and I don’t like it. However, I’ve also never smelled anything else like it. As a trick, it’s the perfumer’s equivalent of Houdini slipping out of the cuffs. It’s magical, if a little unpleasant to actually experience. And you can’t help wondering how it was done.

I’m happy to have my little vintage extrait bottle of the “real” Shalimar, and some of its younger plastic-surgeried descendant, Ode a la Vanille – blowsier, more obvious, more immediately lickable for a society that can’t wait for the good parts. I’m happy to stop here with Shalimar. I’ve come to terms with it, and hopefully it’s come to terms with me.

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