Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Entangled History of Varon Dandy - Part 1

Advertising the "Varon Dandi" product line in the 1950s. Source: Spanish National Library,
European Perfume history tends to be somewhat gallocentric, with brief nods to "KölnischWasser" and the English tradition (the founder of the Guerlain dynasty did learn soapmaking there, after all). But the epicenter of scent (and much other) culture, was, naturellement, France. Well, yes, but - despite this special status, perfume history is really quite a multi- and transnational affair. Just as our understanding of cold war politics has benefitted massively from expanding a scholarly gaze long fixed on the US and the USSR to the complex interaction of local, regional, national and international politics (says the historian) it is worth looking - and smelling - into perfume cultures beyond the fragrance superpower to explore idiosyncracies, patterns and connections in space and time. So here, then, is the national masculine fragrance of Spain: Varón Dandy (occasionally also spelled Dandi), released by the house of Parera in 1920 or 1924. It was one of two masculines from the 1920s listed in the 1989 version of the H&R Genealogy of Perfume- the other is Knize Ten - but later editions dropped it and it is not listed in Michael Edwards' perfume database despite its uninterrupted production to this day. Parera was acquired by the German corporate empire Benckiser / Coty in 1990, famous for its low budget products, many of which were once luxury items (and that chapter of perfume history as part of the postwar development of capitalism is another, scarier, story for another time).


According to a newspaper feature from 1995, Joan Parera Casanovas had a vision of providing Spaniards with the possibility of smelling as distinguished as any French citizen, but at a price more affordable than that of imported French perfume. He began his career in perfume in 1912 in Badalona, Catalonia, one of the more metropolitan regions of Spain, but things only really took off in the Roaring Twenties. For some decades now, fragrance in Europe had shifted from being a genuine luxury item reserved to nobility and the upper middle class to becoming part of a middle class consumer and leisure culture, a product of the techno-industrial revolution with its superior extraction techniques and chemical synthesis embodying the social revolutions of modernization. Ever since, perfume has been a somewhat schizophrenic affair in projecting its desirable former upper-crust exclusivity while representing a prime example of mass production/consumption. Varón Dandy's iconic top hat and gloves emblem, which feature on the packaging to this day, were to signify high style to aspirational male consumers, while the broad product range placed Varon Dandy in the context of a male grooming culture. This positioning also aimed to forestall suspicions of male perfume usage signifying effeminacy or homosexuality which lurked in the minds of a society still largely shaped by a sternly conservative and patriarchal understanding of gender roles. Varón Dandy, by its very name bridged the gap between Spanish masculinity (varón means anything from boy, to man to great man) and the cosmopolitan sophistication of the Anglo-French "Dandy." The time was evidently ripe even in the less urbanized and industrialized south of Europe for this early expression of consumerist metrosexuality and Parera's product struck a chord in Spanish society: Varón Dandy quickly became the emblematic scent of Spanish machismo, Old Spice avant la lettre, to be woven inextricably into the tapestry of Spanish everday life and the collective olfactory consciousness of the Hispanic world. Spanish culture is full of references to and traces of it. Thus, as the Parera brand sponsored radio shows similar to its US counterparts, the well-known singer Carmelita Aubert sang the praises of Varon Dandy in 1934 as well as of communism. It wouldn't be long until the civil war broke out and after the Fascist victory Parera arranged itself with the new order and for coming generations of Spaniards, Varón Dandy inevitably became part of the smellscape of the Franco era. After democratization and with the opening-up of Spanish society in the 1980s - encapsulated for non-Spaniards like myself in the culture of La Movida and the films of Pedro Almodóvar - the scent lost much of its appeal due to its association with a discomforting past, while Parera was now simultaneously exposed to the heavy competition of the European beauty market. This may explain the Parera takeover by Benkiser in 1990. The brand actually recuperated in the following years - I imagine for similar reasons that old East German brands experienced a renaissance after "Ossis" had binged on West-products: it was, after all, the scent of "home" (with all the good, bad and ugly), of Spanish identity, memory, of a world quickly disappearing or at least massively changing in the wake of globalization (and how ironic that globalizers such as Coty should capitalize on that as they acquired that memory and increased their shareholder value by it).

Varón Dandy was by no means a purely national phenomenon, however. Like many Spanish products it diffused into the hispanic markets of the former empire with their close cultural and economic ties and acquired its own meanings there. And from South America or Puerto Rico it migrated to the US. I found this interesting passage in Marta Moreno Vega's memoir of youth culture in 1950s Spanish Harlem, When the Spirits Dance Mambo: Growing up Nuyorican in El Barrio. She writes of her brother:              
"On weekdays, he splashed on Old Spice aftershave, purchased at the local drugstore, but on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and sometimes Sundays, he used Varon Dandy." That was the fragrance to go dancing with, not the gringo perfume, but the emblem of Spanish masculinity (together with Yardley pomade, as Vega points out - a fascinating salad bowl of grooming culture, globalization from below).

Varón Dandy is a wonderful example of how a fragrance can be a window into one - or more - cultures, in that its use and estimation mirrors the complex movement of those cultures through time and space and speaks to how people identify and make sense of themselves in the world. If anybody reading this has Varón Dandy memories, pleasse feel welcome to share them in the commentary section!

In the next part of this article I'll discuss the actual smell of Varón Dandy - a lovely, clearly old-fashioned scent to my nose - and why I believe it is a cousin of the more illustrious and celebrated Knize Ten.    

Friday, August 26, 2016

Thyme of Mani

Thyme of the Mani at Tiganis
The Mani peninsula, second finger from the left of the Peloponnese hand, is an arid place; its inhabitants scraped by for centuries on subsistence agriculture and piracy. The government encouraged olive cultivation in the 19th century and one sees little else there in terms of husbandry. There was in fact a great exodus - to Athens, America and elsewhere and today many villages are deserted. Urbanized Maniots may return from the city for the weekend or holidays and I suppose it is the kind of place that you may leave, but that never leaves you. Kith and Kin reach deep here.

 The Greeks of the Mani, particularly the inner region, were fierce clannish warriors steeped in bloody feuds for centuries until they united to challenge (the somewhat nominal) Ottoman sovereignty, beginning the Greek independence movement. Blood feuds, family towers and the pre-Christian tradition of the myroloja - deeply moving, spontaneous, yet intricate grieving chants performed by the women otherwise relegated to the sidelines of this patriarchal society upon somebody's death - are what the Mani was known for. Patrick Leigh Fermor, the wonderful Anglo-Irish travel writer was so impressed with the region he not only wrote a book about it but settled and concluded his life there, not the least, I believe, because the emotional release of the myroloja spoke to his own deeply buried demons which he had unsuccessfully tried to run from by his profuse travelling and drinking. He writes, most insightfully:
Patrick Leigh Fermor, "Lamentation" in: Mani. Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (London: John Murray, 1958)
Such a harsh society produced such deep wisdom, as the harsh environment of the Mani brings forth incredible beauty and life intensity. Rarely have I been more strongly in the moment, fully aware, mentally, emotionally, sensorily of myself and my surroundings and their interaction than in these landscapes so barren, yet so full of sight, sound and, of course, smell. All places of the Mediterranean have their specific herbal smellscapes and the Mani is no exception. You can taste it in the stern, almost bitter honey the Maniot bees make and its emblem to me became the thyme that flowered with abandon across the stony terrain besides dusty roads and pathways: bright violet blossoms challenging the dusty ochre and washed out green surrounding them and a smell and flavor so wonderfully strong and pungent it outdoes the wild sage and garlic even. Those plants live hard, they have little to go on and their strength is wonderfully evident, inspring and enlivening in the bite of their oil. The thyme of the Mani is like a myroloja of nature, singing of the hardship and loss that is part of existence, yet therein affirming life to the fullest, exuberantly and with a firm, clear voice: here am I, beautiful, unique, safely nested at the bosom of mother earth and brimming with the force of father sun. Mourn the dead to feel you are living. 
Tigani, the "frying pan" which harbors the remains of the old great castle of the Mani, salt pans all across the handle, and bushes of windswept thyme

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

Old flacons in a pharmacy window in Porto Rafti, Greece

Anyone who read my occasional blog in the past, or my perfume reviews elsewhere, knows I'm not too happy about where the perfume industry has been going these last decades (the same could be said about democracy or capitalism, but those are lesser matters --- just kidding). There's an inflation of brands, lines, releases, flankers, all of which have in common that they are made soley for profit, with too little time, quality and aesthetic consideration invested in them and the flacon and PR campaign getting more attention than the juice to boot. Big business and much start-up niche perfumery is aesthetically largely bankrupt (laudable exceptions prove the rule). And yet the digital age has spawned indie perfumers addressing an audience of aficionados who are reinventing and saving the art of perfumery. Great perfume is being made today and it is worth smelling, and, perhaps, writing about. Luca Turin has chosen the wise path of only reviewing perfumes he likes ( I regret that a bit, because he was a master of the scorcher). I won't be doing the same, as I like a good rant and want to fully express how I feel about smelly things in this little space. But I will also keep trying to connect perfume with smell culture in general, which seems to be receiving inreasing attention in academia, the arts and elsewhere, and with broader social concerns and thus try to add a dimension to scent that will hopefully make reading this blog more than a verbal redundancy of actually smelling something (which should always be your first choice). So, here we go again...