Star rating: 5 stars–outstanding/potential classic, 4 stars–very good, 3 stars–adequate, 2 stars–disappointing, 1 star–poor.
Elsa Schiaparelli was a designer who set lasting trends in fashion with her richly embroidered jackets, shoe shaped hats and lobster dresses, but I discovered her whimsical side through Shocking, a perfume she released in 1937. Shocking was a dazzling collaboration between Schiap, as she was known, Jean Carles, who created the perfume, and the Surrealist artists Marcel Vertes and Salvador Dali through whose drawings the sultry fragrance came to life.
This month, the Metropolitan Museum in New York opened the exhibit “Schiaparelli & Prada, Impossible Conversations.” Running until August 19th, the collection explores the work of two designers in a compare-and-contrast setting. It was the first time I’ve seen Schiaparelli’s work close up, and I was mesmerized. The clothes weren’t simply beautiful; they offered a glimpse into the designer’s vibrant imagination.
Shocking was created in 1937, the same year that Schiaparelli produced her infamous “Circus” collection. Those were the dark years in Europe—the rise of Fascism, a deepening economic crisis, and political upheavals that threatened to change the world. Schiaparelli sought an escape through her work. Shocking was not a simple extension of Schiaparelli’s successful fashion line, it was an integral part of her eccentric universe. When you smell its heady jasmine, honeyed peaches and spicy leather, you are delighted and puzzled, the same way you would be if you were to don Schiaparelli’s bug necklaces and carousel print dresses.
The bold color of the packaging is the first hint as to what lies in store for someone willing to go for a ride with Shocking. In her autobiography, Shocking Life, Schiaparelli describes how she decided to name her perfume. “The color flashed in front of my eyes. Bright, impossible, impudent, becoming, life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world put together, a color of China and Peru but not of the West—a shocking color, pure and undiluted.” Hot pink may not be the first color association with a woody oriental like Shocking, but it works perfectly. Both are exotic and passionate. Even the first burst of metallic aldehydes, peppery tarragon and bergamot in Shocking’s top notes is as dramatic as a splash of vivid pink across a white wall.
The sparkling top notes soon melt into the opulence of ylang-ylang, jasmine and roses. At first, the floral motif is wistful and pretty, but soon I find myself overwhelmed by the heady blossoms and hot honey. I hardly get a moment to reflect as I realize that Shocking now begins to smell distinctly raunchy. It smells of hot skin, leather perfumed with cloves and cinnamon, warm furs, sandalwood incense and wilting jasmine flowers. If you’re familiar with Dana Tabu, you will recognize similar honeyed and animalic elements in Shocking. It’s so raunchy and sultry that it makes me blush. With its huge dollop of civet, it sure isn’t “sexy clean”!
Vintage vs Modern
Most samples of Shocking you find today are reformulated versions, but don’t worry, they behave just as badly as Jean Carles’s original. The first major rework on Shocking was done in 1979 by perfumer Martin Gras, who infused it with fresh hyacinth and lily of the valley accents and toned down the animalic growl in the drydown. The second big reformulation took place in 1997 to update Shocking further. Next to Carles’s Shocking, it’s quite prim and proper, but to most of us it will seem naughty enough. It’s still a femme fatale perfume, with a stronger emphasis on the jasmine and honeyed peaches.
What I enjoy most about Shocking is that it makes me smile. I love its verve and sensuality and the way it smells of another time and place. It isn’t a perfume I can wear on daily basis. Perhaps it’s because I’m timid when it comes to strong animalic notes. Or perhaps, it’s because I don’t have enough dresses with buttons shaped as acrobats nor enough hot pink jackets. Either way, Shocking is not just another pleasant scent; like many great fragrances, it’s an invitation to dream.
What about you? What does Shocking convey to you? Are you an avid fan, or do you run away from its first whiff of civet?
Schiaparelli Shocking includes notes of bergamot, hyacinth, narcissus, ylang-ylang, jasmine, lily of the valley, rose, clove, honey, amber, peach, patchouli, sandalwood, vetiver, oakmoss, and musk.
Samples from my bottles dating to 1950s, 1981 and 1999.