Schiaparelli Shocking : Vintage and Modern Perfume Review

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Star rating: 5 stars–outstanding/potential classic, 4 stars–very good, 3 stars–adequate, 2 stars–disappointing, 1 star–poor.

The Muse

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.

The Perfume

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”!

1970s bottle

1990s spray bottle

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.

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33 Comments

  • Suzanna: The ads for Shocking have always been my favorites. Surely the torso bottle was inspiration for JPG Classique’s female form!

    Shocking is a fantastic introduction to old-school fragrances. Although perhaps the most outre, it serves as a model of how frags used to be built (hint: not as dryer sheets). They had personalities, motives, and guts, and they really did say something.

    “…reformulations…behave just as badly as Jean Carles’s original.” Wonderful! May 14, 2012 at 8:48am Reply

    • Victoria: I bet that Shocking bottle inspired JPG’s. I love the ads for this perfume, which are so whimsical and well, are the works of art in themselves. I really don’t wish to go on and on about the good old days of perfumery (which frankly, were not always that good), but I love that in the past the marketing worked closely with the perfumers. These days, the juice and the images/bottles are created separately, so they often bear no relationship to each other. May 14, 2012 at 11:22am Reply

  • Amer: “like many great fragrances, it’s an invitation to dream”

    How very true V! And to that I may add “an invitation to transform”.

    I am a person who rarely wears perfume and I don’t feel the need to own many perfume bottles. The few bottles I buy are almost never used up. However, when I choose to use them I do it with enjoyment and thought. I never reach for them casually but instead think through the process as if picking a disguise. I feel that trully great perfumes have the ability to push that disguise a bit further, to the limits of transformation. Transformation requires a certain energy and preparation, it is not something that someone can go through every day. Many of the great creations can sit on someones shelf for a whole lifetime, waiting for the right moment when the stars are right for them to reveal their power. One has to be grateful when that time comes, to the factors that brought them to the world. May 14, 2012 at 10:10am Reply

    • Victoria: You know, I was reorganizing my office the other day, and I found an old bottle of Miss Dior. On the bottom of it was a price sticker and a date “1989,” which made me wonder what was going on in the world when it was purchased. I opened it, sprayed some perfume on my wrist, and it still smelled amazing. May 14, 2012 at 11:31am Reply

  • Liz: Great review, V! Ok, here it goes… I can’t stand Shocking, it just smells so cloying and pungent to me. But at least it doesn’t smell boring, right?

    I’m glad to see you mention your timidity about animalic notes. It makes me feel better about my own reluctance to smell like cat’s butt. Skank is alright with me, but only in small doses. 🙂 May 14, 2012 at 1:11pm Reply

    • marsi: Ha ha! You and me both, Liz! I like musk, but civet is usually a no-no for me. But after V’s review, I want to smell Shocking anyway. If she likes something, she makes it sound so good. May 14, 2012 at 2:33pm Reply

      • Victoria: 🙂 Thank you, Marsi. Hope that you will try Shocking, and even if you hate it, at least the perfume will be something worth remembering. May 14, 2012 at 3:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, it sure isn’t boring! 🙂 I admire fragrances that are love or hate perfumes, that elicit a strong emotion. By contrast, I dislike reviewing new launches, because there is nothing much to say about them. As my dance teacher used to say, “it’s better to make a wrong step, rather than to be boring.” In today’s fragrance industry, the motto is exactly the opposite. May 14, 2012 at 3:16pm Reply

  • nikki: How interesting! I read that Marisa Berenson is her granddaughter. I like her style! May 14, 2012 at 2:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: She is so striking! The Met originally wanted to feature Berenson as Schiap in their film made especially for the exhibit, but for some reason, it was not possible. She would have been great. May 14, 2012 at 3:09pm Reply

  • marsi: I really want to see the exhibit. Did you think that it worked, or was Prada totally overshadowed by Schiap? May 14, 2012 at 2:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: I think that it worked. Prada provided the context for Schiaparelli’s work, and Schiaparelli’s designs enlivened Prada’s. There are so many similarities between them, although in many cases, it was not because Prada looked to Schiaparelli for inspiration, but because she looked to other designers like Yves Saint Laurent who were strongly influenced by Schiap. May 14, 2012 at 3:12pm Reply

  • Austenfan: My mother used to wear this. I can’t remember the smell, but I do vividly remember the bottle. Which to me as a 4- 5 year old seemed a bit odd. You have made it sound very enticing, but it will be a bit of a struggle to find it.

    On another note, did you watch The Return? May 14, 2012 at 3:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: I think that the main reason I got interested in Shocking was because of the bottle. It’s so odd! A headless torso covered with flowers? Who would have imagined something like that? Shocking minis (and simple purse bottles from the 1970s and 1980s) are easy enough to find on Ebay, and they aren’t expensive. The old bottles with the full presentation, on the other hand, are very valuable.
      I still haven’t watched The Return. This past week was so ridiculously stressful and busy that if I got a moment to watch some TV in the evening, I craved something lighthearted. But I already received it from Netflix, so I’m planning to watch this weekend. May 14, 2012 at 4:50pm Reply

  • Anne: I haven’t tried Schiaparelli’s perfume although I love fragrance and think her designs are brilliant. I used to own a large volume about her life with so many beautiful pictures of her clothes.

    As my main beats are beauty and fashion, I blogged away about the opening gala at the Met. It was stunning to see so many celebrities wearing Prada.

    But now that I am interested, if I were to try all three versions of the perfume, how would I go about procuring them? Advice from the community would be much appreciated. May 14, 2012 at 5:30pm Reply

    • Victoria: I was so impressed by Schiaparelli’s designs–the workmanship, the cuts, the embellishments. I love Prada’s work, and it was great to see it in the context of Schiaparelli’s creations.
      So, if you would like to find the different versions of Shocking, I recommend that you try Ebay. Anything with a spray nozzle is likely to be more modern (please see the images I posted). If you search on Ebay right now by “Shocking de Schiparelli” (mispelling is intentional on my part), you will see a mini from the 1970s-early 1980s. If you search by the correct spelling, you will find a mini torso bottle, which should also be old. The bottles from the 1990s and anything more modern are very easy to find. You can even buy individual carded samples, if you only want to try a perfume. May 14, 2012 at 8:36pm Reply

  • annemariec: Thanks for such an evocative an informative review. I especially love your ‘inviation to dream’ remark I think that might just sum up why I love perfume so much!

    Shocking pink is a colour I abhor, so I have never gone near Shocking. And yet it sounds like something I would love. And I understand the thinking behind the choice of colour now. That is a wonderful quote from Schiap.

    I love civet; I even bought a little sample of it from the Perfumers Apprentice, so that I would understand what it smells like in isolation. Well, it smells ghastly! But the trace on my fingertips left over from opening the vial is lovely. May 15, 2012 at 6:30am Reply

    • Victoria: Anne-Marie, it’s great that you looked for civet, because now you will spot it easily in Shocking (and other perfumes). (he first time I’ve smelled civet out of a bottle, I thought that it was the worst thing ever–so pungent, sweet and fecal. In dilution, on the other hand, it was sensual, warm, reminiscent of vintage fur coats.

      I’m not that big on huge animalic note in my perfumes, but Shocking is just so strange and memorable, I find it irresistible. May 15, 2012 at 10:12am Reply

  • eminere: “An invitation to dream”: the mark of a successful couturier – and perfumer indeed. May 15, 2012 at 9:08am Reply

    • Victoria: You’re right, it’s just as essential for fashion. Now, I really wish for a elephant embroidered jacket from Schiap. 🙂 May 15, 2012 at 10:14am Reply

  • Isis: Very interesting. I have a special interest for vintage perfumes and I always enjoy reading how modern versions compare with older ones. I have samples of Shocking from the 80’s and I agree on the hyacinth and the lilly of the valley. I’d love to smell it with more civet, though. May 15, 2012 at 2:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: If you can imagine the 1980s version you have and then amplify the animalic part, you will have a close version to the original. The newer version is heavier on honey as Minette noted, and I actually find it a bit more difficult to wear. I prefer the warmth of civet to the sharp pungency of honey. Either way, Shocking is a great fragrance. May 15, 2012 at 6:52pm Reply

  • minette: i’m guessing my version is from the 1990s. it’s plenty raunchy for me! i love civet, but in this one the honey takes over. it’s almost suffocating. and yet, i like it.

    i also have the plastic advertising panel the company put out when they relaunched this, “S” and zut.

    also have zut, which i really like, and is much easier to wear than shocking. but i’d love to know the original zut, because a perfumer in florida told me it was her signature for years and she mourned its loss. she says the current version doesn’t hold a candle to the old one. where have we heard that before, right?! sad but so often true. May 15, 2012 at 2:59pm Reply

    • Victoria: I need to try Zut, which I haven’t smelled yet. I can imagine that it’s very different from what it used to be, but as you say, almost everything is altered one way or another these days. May 15, 2012 at 6:50pm Reply

  • neil chapman: I have a miniature vintage parfum from a flea market that smells…SHOCKING: no really; mushroomy, foul, like dead sex; wilted flowers, on plump ancient satin (I think the bottle is just simply too old)

    Wait: I should run upstairs, get it, and smell it again while reading your luxuriant description.

    …yes! Exactly how I remembered it!
    Would love to smell how it was designed to be experienced…..I remember there was that quote from the Susan Irvine book Perfume, (in which she refers to Luca Turin as ‘she’, but anyway); don’t have it to hand, but it was something along the lines of ‘ Any moment now he knew she would come back into the room fragranced with No 5…..instead she came in wearing Shocking….and he fell to his knees…… May 16, 2012 at 11:24am Reply

    • Victoria: Mushroomy notes that you mention definitely make me think that your bottle might have turned, or at least, the top notes have degraded. The good news for Shocking and other fragrances that have rich, animalic base notes is that the drydown should be fine.

      Thank you for mentioning that quote from Irvine’s book (and yes, that book has so many mistakes and typos!) Chanel No 5 and Shocking are two completely different worlds! May 16, 2012 at 6:10pm Reply

  • neil chapman: (and on the subject of Tabu; for some reason, that scent pushes my boundaries beyond bearability; I feel as if my cerebral cortex is being drowned in something cake-like and stupid; so crass it beggars belief……amazing for that reason alone) May 16, 2012 at 11:26am Reply

    • Victoria: Ah, Tabu is a bombshell, but it isn’t necessarily something I want to wear and smell much around me. It has a huge presence, unbearable even. The original version which I’ve smelled at the Osmotheque seems smoother and warmer. I bet Tabu was reformulated countless times. May 16, 2012 at 6:14pm Reply

  • Barbara: Thanks for these notes, Victoria. Shocking was one of the first perfumes I acquired when I started getting interested in vintage perfume, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Now that I resmell it (and have multiple older versions), I notice something that I didn’t before and which your set of notes helps confirm: something light and green (lily of the valley), and something hyacinth-like. Thank you!

    Where did you get this set of notes? I’ll have to update my writeup. June 3, 2012 at 4:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: Barbara, you’re welcome. They’re from my personal archives, from the marketing documents. I have at one point researched fragrances from that period, and Shocking in particularly intrigued me. Such a wonderful fragrance! June 3, 2012 at 4:52pm Reply

  • Sue Burkey: Thanks for this. In the early 70’s, the mother of a friend of mine worked for the Avon company. One of the perfume chemists made up a bottle of bootleg Shocking for me. I loved it. I think my version was a little heavy on the patchouli though. The nearest thing to it I’ve ever found was Lancome’s Majie Noir. August 26, 2012 at 1:01am Reply

  • Cathy: My mother and grandmother both wore Shocking and it made a devastating impact when worn by a well-groomed woman! Just inherited an unopened bottle from Mum that must be 40 years old. Glorious. Now hunting for the modern version to compare. But it will always be a nostalgic experience for me, full of love and glamour. December 8, 2013 at 4:57am Reply

  • Verna van Wijngaarden: I received a sexy bottle for my 19th birthday from the current boyfriend, 1960, I loved the perfume and have never forgotten it, I kept the empty bottle in my undies drawer for years!! Is it still produced as I would love to purchase some for old memories sake? August 25, 2015 at 8:32pm Reply

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