Two Madames [perfume]

 I haven’t reviewed a perfume for a while, so I thought I’d introduce you to Rochas Madame Rochas and Balmain Jolie Madame. Both were first made midcentury, 1960 and 1953 respectively. My bottles are of the more recent formulations, though by all accounts the older stuff is even better - but then, isn’t it always?

I got both these fairly early on in my perfume-accumulating adventures, when my beloved Mitsouko was reformulated and I was investigating the whole world of other scents out there. Both of these had very good reputations and were being sold very cheap through Fragrance Direct. (I heartily recommend Fragrance Direct if you’re in the UK; their stuff is the real deal, and you can pick up a good discontinued bargain - cosmetics as well as perfume. They also do very good deals on gift sets after Christmas.)

What a shock the perfumes were! Perfumes from particular eras have styles, just as clothes do. Moreover, just as you can shorten a vintage dress or take off the sleeves or whatever and still have it retain something of its original era, so a perfume can be reformulated but never quite lose its place in time. These midcentury Madames smelled, to my nose, quite dated. They were also quite strident. Even though I’d got both very cheap, I started to think I’d made a massive mistake...

I warmed to Jolie Madame first. It’s a strange combination of leather and violets, an Emma Peel or Miss Moneypenny sort of scent. I think the violet is what helped, it reminded me of the early 20th century fragrances I love, Caron French Can Can in particular. Even so, it was on the wrists only, never too close to my nose. Then, one autumn day, it just worked. The violets were sweet, the leather had a darker quality that worked in the damp weather, and it was splendid. I spray it much more freely now when I wear it. The leather is too much for me in summer, and the violet too cool for winter, but sometimes I wake up in spring or autumn and only Jolie Madame will do.

Madame Rochas was took longer to love. There’s something very Marnie Madden (The Hour) about it: very mannered, beautiful yet somehow artificial, and it holds you at a polite distance even when you’re wearing it. I appreciate it more now, because of its manners, not in spite of them. It’s not a perfume to wear with jeans or even tweeds, it’s a very smart, very urban, very retro scent: a 1960s lady who lunches. Once, walking past Fortnum and Mason in London I saw they had a huge Madame Rochas factice (display bottle, full of coloured water not perfume) in the window. That tells you a lot about it. I only wear it to work, and then only on days when I’ve got my makeup nice and am dressed smartly! 

It’s worth taking the time to get to know a perfume. Of all our senses, smell is often the most neglected, and people who always pick beautiful colour combinations, or who have a real love of the feel of well-cut clothes in high-quality materials, sometimes surprise me by wearing only one or two undemanding scents. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of something brainless, but all the time? It’s the equivalent of living off burgers or wearing nothing but onesies and tracksuit bottoms.

My two Madames might not be my favourite perfumes, but I’m glad I can now appreciate them, and that they’re in my collection. Although I do wonder what people think when they meet me wearing one of them... 

Looking for a vintage scent to love? Check out my Brief Guide to Vintage Perfumes up to 1940, 1940-1959 and 1960-1989.


  1. I have been coveting the violet stuff M & S have in just now, but to be honest it's the packaging I want most, it's so pretty! I like the smell but it didn't seem to last any length of time when I tried a sample squirt. But saying that I don't have perfume skin, and it can smell quite horrid to me a lot of the time. A friend is the same and she describes it in her case as where everything smells of cat's wee when she wears it!


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