Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Variations on perfume classics, part 6 (Miss Dior)

I did say I'd only do a five part series, but after chatting on the Fragrantica forum, realised that I'd missed out the noble chypre, in particular Miss Dior, which was very remiss of me!

So this is Part 6 of a series of six posts in which I've recommended variations on a classic. Today it's Miss Dior by Christian Dior.

(In Part 1 I explored Shalimar,  in Part 2, Joy, Part 3 was Femme, Part 4, Chanel No. 5 and Part 5 Chanel No. 19 

Because Chypre perfumes have such a fascinating history, and the story of Miss Dior's inspiration is so moving, I'll write about that in this post, then in part 7 I'll recommend contemporary perfumes that may appeal to lovers of Miss Dior

I hope you're in the mood for a good read, because a post about chypre comes with quite a bit of baggage attached these days, since perfumes rarely contain a significant amount of oakmoss (the central note of traditional chypre) because its use is now restricted and is due to be banned in 2015.

This seems nonsensical to say the least, when we can buy sugar drenched drinks and pre-prepared food with additives, stuff our faces with that, wash it down with a gallon or so of alcohol, then smoke ourselves senseless, but from 2015 we're not allowed to wear perfumes with oakmoss.

Why? Because it may cause an allergic reaction. So why not just put a warning on the label? Considering all the illnesses caused by sugar, processed fats, nicotene and alcohol, or the fact that we don't ban, for example,  nuts - despite the fact they can cause an allergic reaction in some people, it seems to me utterly pointless.

Two of oakmoss's molecules – atranol and chloroatranol – are to be banned on the grounds that they could cause up to 3 per cent of the population to suffer an allergic reaction. But there are also 83 other potentially allergenic notes in perfumery, so where would it stop? The offending molecules in oakmoss can in fact be removed, though this may cause some difference in scent, also it's an expensive process which means probably only the most high end perfumes would use this technique.

If you think I seem a bit exercised about the whole subject, you should hear what the perfumers and 'noses' have to say. For many of them, it's like telling a painter they can no longer use their favourite mediums, or a musician their favourite notes. (If you'd like to know more, have a read of this feature in the Independent: 'Will a Ban on Oakmoss Kill the French Perfume Industry?')

Chypre is actually one of the world's most ancient perfumery blends and we know this because remains were found in perfume vats during an archeological dig in Cyprus (hence the name chypre, which means cyprus in French).

The blend always contains oakmoss and cistus labdanum (resin from a Meditteranean shrub), also bergamot.

Once it's been extracted and made into a thick green sticky sludge, the scent of oakmoss is complex: woody, musky, lingering and very slightly salty or smoky. I've smelled it in vintage perfumes (it's one of the notes that can last perfectly if the perfume has been kept well).

My way of describing it would be - twiggy, smoky, like someone has thrown a handful of sap-filled twigs onto a fire where they smoulder gently - slightly salty like driftwood. It's also haunting, not just a literally earthy scent. Sometimes certain facets evoke distant wood smoke. It smells intriguing and the musky quality (not an animalic musk, more a 'haze' for want of a better description) means that on skin it exudes its scent in a way that enhances a perfume's sillage, somehow it has an aura of sophistication. The large musk molecules act as a fixative, hence its popularity as a perfume note over thousands of years.

Nowadays a perfume heavy on chypre smells classic, or you might say 'old school', or old fashioned. But certain perfumes are very enhanced with even a small addition. Those smoky/woody/salty/musk notes, in combination with, say, vanilla or amber can take a perfume into new realms.

Miss Dior was indeed in those realms (finally I get on to the actual perfume!) I say 'was' because it was reformulated when oakmoss began to be restricted. A new version was brought out, and shunned by experienced wearers of Miss Dior.

Then more recently, due to the massive increase of interest in perfume (thanks largely to the internet and perfume forums) it was re-reformulated to smell somewhat more similar to the original.

Annoyingly however, they've replaced oakmoss with notes of patchouli, which we're expected to accept as the new 'chypre'. It's true that a chypre blend may include patchouli, but anyone familiar with patchouli knows that it has almost zero in common with oakmoss.

Patchouli is more earth-bound, dark, heavy, soily, with notes that are enhanced depending on its age. Aged patchouli can smell almost like unsweetened dark chocolate - a dusty, rich note. Less high quality patchouli smells like hippies did in the 70s. If you walk into a vintage clothes shop you can smell the whiff of it still.

The fact that patchouli lasts so long means that for anyone sensitive to patchouli (me included) large amounts can ruin a perfume because that's all that can be smelled after an hour. It's not oakmoss by any stretch of the imagination, so no wonder so many niche, indy perfume companies offer authentic chypre perfumes.

Miss Dior in original formulation is a complex blend that includes most florals except ylang and tuberose (which would make it far more exotic and rich, less soapy). Iris (orris bulb) adds the additional haze of classic perfumery - those haunting notes that exude a sophisticated perfumy aura. Galbanum and leather offer cool green astringency, and 'bite'. It's not a playful or flirty fragrance, hence why it's an icon of its time.

Dior 'the look'
Like almost all the classics, it was designed as an addition or extra note to a fashion house - a signature perfume that echoed the aesthetic of the house style. Dior commissioned two of the perfume industry's most talented 'noses', Paul Vacher and Jean Carles to create the perfume. (Their other creations include Arpege, by Vacher for Lanvin and  Ma Griffe by Carles for Carven). I definitely sense the family resemblance to Arpege and Ma Griffe - both cool, elegant classic in themselves.

Miss Dior also features aldehydic top notes - aroma chemicals first introduced by Chanel in the 30s to lift and enhance a perfume. All of these notes combine to create a perfume with the distinct and umistakable sillage of expensive classic perfume.

Dior himself was originally interested in art, and owned a gallery where he sold work by the likes of Picasso. His clothes designs seem to echo those monochrome, cubist lines and shapes of Picaso's early work. The mood is elegant, poised, stand-offish, avant garde - aesthetics very much echoed in Miss Dior!

Christian Dior
Miss Dior was more than a fashion statement however. In 1947 Dior commissioned this first perfume with the instruction to Carles and Vache to create a fragrance that is like love.

In the post war years Dior's sister Catherine (who had been captured by the Gestapo and sent to Ravensbrück were she was treated brutally) was finally released.

On her return, Christian cooked her favourite dish to welcome her home, but she was exhausted and traumatised by her experience and unable to eat properly. It was many months before she managed to eat rich food again. He was deeply affected by this, and so he created something she could enjoy - a beautiful perfume made especially for her - Miss Dior. 

As a member of the French resistance, Catherine Dior's bravery was recognised with the Croix de Guerre; the Combatant Volunteer Cross of the Resistance; the Combatant Cross; the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom (from Britain); and she was named a chevalière of the Légion d’Honneur. She lived until 2008.

Catherine Dior


  1. Since I do not see it in your post (and the picture you used confirms my suspicion), I have to ask: you do know that the current Miss Dior has absolutely nothing to do with the original Miss Dior other than the brand and the name that Dior took from the original perfume and put on the next reformulation of Miss Dior Cherie, don't you? (If you're interested, I wrote about the topic here.

  2. Let me help you out Undina: My post shows the original Miss Dior at the top of the post. Further down, next to the part where I say this - "Miss Dior was indeed in those realms (finally I get on to the actual perfume!) I say 'was' because it was reformulated when oakmoss began to be restricted. A new version was brought out, and shunned by experienced wearers of Miss Dior." you see the reformulated Dior which you mention.
    Have a nice day, if you can.

    1. Sorry, I didn't mean to criticize your writing. I was trying to point out something that you seemed not to be aware of. I wasn't clear in my explanation probably. Let me try one more time. But if no, you can just remove these comments.

      I do see the picture of the original Miss Dior in the beginning of your post. And everything you described is probably correct if we are talking about the original Miss Dior. Yes, that perfume went through multiple reformulations and you could be correct that one of the later reformulation might have been better than the previous one (I don't know that part, I liked many of the versions without really understanding which one was which). What I was trying to point out was that the perfume on the second picture isn't actually Miss Dior. I'm not talking as a Miss Dior purist. It's not Miss Dior because it's a picture of the flanker, known before as Miss Dior Cherie, which was recently given Miss Dior name. Miss Dior - in one of its re-incarnations but still recognizable - is still available under Miss Dior Original name (see for example here ). I don't know if a similar "name swap" has ever happened before. But because it happened to the perfume that I liked I noticed it and now just trying to keep that knowledge from disappearing. Sorry if I upset you and, as I said, feel free to just delete my comments after reading (absolutely no hard feelings from my side).

  3. Hi Undina,

    Yes the second bottle is the reformulated Miss Dior Cherie, which has nothing in common with the original Miss Dior. The confusion is due to the wrong photo and not enough detail for you on all the reformulations. I could have gone into more detail about it and included all the bottles - the Miss Dior Originale and so on. But even writing this reply is boring me shitless! My apologies are due for not giving precise detail - just vaguely including a photo and not giving a full explanation of why they called another reformulation Miss Dior Originale (though that too is not like the original) . The most expert blog on all the Miss Diors is on Perfume Shrine. Elena Vosnaki has a few excellent posts on what happened to all the Miss Diors.
    Thansk for your contribution