Sultry Perfumes and Hollywood Glamour Fragrances

What is the hallmark of the ultimate bombshell perfume? I wonder this as I’m enraptured by the first glimpse of Ava Gardner in The Killers, a 1946 film noir. She sits at the piano, wearing a black satin gown that elegantly drapes over her curvy figure. She gives Burt Lancaster one look, and he is ready to follow her anywhere, even it will all lead to trouble. Such is the power of a bombshell.

My average day is more about routine than glamour, but perfume is my way to pretend otherwise. When I wear Etat Libre d’Orange Jasmin et Cigarette, a smoldering potion reminiscent of a smoky jazz bar straight from a film noir set, I feel like a femme fatale.  It seems like bombshell material to me, but to find out for sure I turn to a couple of experts on the subject of the temptress—Farran Smith Nehme and Laren Stover, who also happen to be perfume connoisseurs.

The film critic and writer Farran Smith Nehme has encyclopedic knowledge about the bombshells of classical Hollywood. That she blogs under the name of The Self-Styled Siren should reveal that she’s intimately familiar with the subject.  According to her, a touch of mystery is an essential component for a bombshell. “She possesses the undeniable sex appeal—think Marlene Dietrich, rather than Grace Kelly, but a bombshell withholds just enough to intrigue you,” says Nehme. How does it translate into perfume, then? “It should be nothing that reads too prim, but it cannot be overtly sexy and dramatic. A real bombshell does not announce herself with perfume.”

Guerlain’s Mitsouko is one of Nehme’s favorite bombshell perfumes for its velvety, sensual drydown of musky peaches and moss. She also loves Serge Lutens’s Tubéreuse Criminelle for its unpredictable personality. The fragrance opens up on an icy note of wintergreen before revealing its warm, creamy layers of white petals. Lutens is a fragrance line slightly off the beaten path, but this is perfect for a bombshell.  “While her perfume need not be completely obscure, it is not something that you smell everywhere.” In other words, a bombshell might pick Chanel Coco, rather than Coco Mademoiselle.

Author Laren Stover has researched the topic of bombshells enough to write a definitive guide, “The Bombshell Manual of Style.” As she notes, a bombshell uses perfume to embellish her moods, and first and foremost, to seduce herself. This is refreshing advice when it seems most perfume ads suggest wearing scents to make the opposite sex swoon before us.

“A bombshell believes in her fantasies,” emphasizes Stover. “She behaves as if all life is a movie and she is the star, and her perfumes are part of her wardrobe and her emotional set design.” When discussing fragrances with bombshell potential, Guerlain classics like Mitsouko and Nahéma also get top billing from Stover.  Sous Le Vent, originally created by Jacques Guerlain in 1933 for Josephine Baker and reintroduced in 2006, is another of her picks. “While not loud, it is certainly not shy. It is sensuous and optimistic at the same time.”

Among the more contemporary bombshell fragrances, Stover selects Tom Ford’s wistful Ombre de Hyacinth. “It is disarmingly feminine, with a poignant delicacy.” Since Ombre de Hyacinth has been discontinued since Stover and I spoke, Chanel Cristalle Eau de Parfum would be a good choice. Another option is Frédéric Malle’s Le Parfum de Thérèse, a mélange of rich jasmine and soft leather. “So elegant, modern, luxurious, luminous and sensual!” I believe that even the ultimate bombshell, Marilyn Monroe, would approve.

What would be your ultimate sultry and confident perfume? We don’t have to limit the selection to feminine fragrances, of course. 

Images: Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart; Marlene Dietrich

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63 Comments

  • maja: I entirely agree upon Mitsouko. It just evokes a different era, something grandiose, a world of warm possibilities, if that makes any sense.

    I’d add Faubourg, 24 and Iris Silver Mist. The latter for me is so special. February 15, 2021 at 7:55am Reply

    • Carla: I feel so confident when I wear Iris Silver Mist – I guess confidence is a key bombshell quality. It’s the confidence that is style, the knowledge you have taken just one extra moment, one extra effort, with what perfume you wear, what clothes you wear and how you wear them. Rather than just throwing on what everyone else wears, whether that is Coco Mademoiselle or knit pom-pom hats (I prefer my faux fur Russian style hat in frigid temps).
      You describe Mitsouko very well. February 15, 2021 at 9:17am Reply

  • MxChrx: Caron’s Narcisse Noir. February 15, 2021 at 8:09am Reply

    • Peter: I finally saw the original “Black Narcissus” film. It’s very sensual and beautiful, with the perfume causing an incitement. February 17, 2021 at 5:24am Reply

  • Jovana: I would also like to add Narciso Rodriguez for Her in the tall black bottle. There’s something very intoxicating about it. February 15, 2021 at 8:12am Reply

  • rosarita: Chanel Coco, Allure Sensuelle, Shalimar edc. February 15, 2021 at 8:42am Reply

  • Kamila: Shalimar, Cartier La Panthere, Must de Cartier😊 February 15, 2021 at 9:05am Reply

    • Tati: I second Must de Cartier! Especially the original in the 80s. February 15, 2021 at 1:35pm Reply

  • Fazal: Your choice of Etat Libre d’Orange Jasmin et Cigarette is excellent. It is probably the only ELDO fragrance that impressed me among those I smelled from the brand. But it has been reformulated and is much lighter now (one could probably say cleaner, too). I treasure the bottles I have from the first version.

    It seems Smith Nehme’s classic taste is very much like yours. All the fragrances she seems to like are those you have lavishly praised in the past such as Cristalle, Mitsouko, Nahema, and Tubereuse Criminelle (the last one being probably your mom’s signature fragrance or something close to that if I am not mistaken). February 15, 2021 at 9:11am Reply

    • Fazal: Pardon my mistake. Nahema and Cristalle are Stover’s choices, not Nehme’s. Anyways, experts on noir films tend to suggest classic fragrances you have already declared as timeless. February 15, 2021 at 9:15am Reply

    • Carla: That is disappointing news about Jasmin et Cigarette! February 15, 2021 at 9:19am Reply

      • Fazal: Have you tried Jasmin et Cigarette in the original version?

        I think ELDO took an outside investor later (if I remember correctly, it is Middle East-based) and since then I have noticed that ELDO has become more conventional and less-riskier in its perfumes. After all, investors are concerned with return on their investment. And that may be why ELDO has not only introduced less daring creations since then but also has polished up its original catalogue which may be why Jasmin et Cigarette is cleaner so that it can sell more. I suspect this has happened to other perfumes in original catalogue, too that might have been a bit too daring in their original versions. February 15, 2021 at 9:50am Reply

        • Carla: I had a decant maybe five years ago, maybe more, and I liked it very much. But I never bought it February 15, 2021 at 10:45am Reply

          • Fazal: If you smelled it five years ago, def. the original version. I am not sure when the reformulation occurred but I think it was around 2017 or so. February 15, 2021 at 12:47pm Reply

  • Christine: For femme fatale, Tubereuse Criminelle and Le Parfum de Therese hit the mark on all counts. Both are favorites of mine that elicit complements from men. Nahema is also one of my favorites though for me it is more Monroe than Dietrich. I’d like to add TF Shanghai Lily to the list of femme fatale perfumes: spicy, brooding, and inviting all at once. I have yet to try Jasmin et Cigarette. Can’t wait to sample it! February 15, 2021 at 9:17am Reply

  • Heidi Czerwiec: Always Mitsouko! Also vintage Tabac Blond, Dioressence, Chanel Cuir de Russie, and SL Fleur d’Oranger. February 15, 2021 at 9:21am Reply

    • Christine: Vero Kern….awww I mourn her exquisite Rubj and Onda. I have only a sampling left of each. I have to say that either of those are smoking hot choices for a film noir vixen. February 15, 2021 at 1:35pm Reply

      • Lisa: There has been a new release of Vero’s Eaux de Parfum by Campomarzio, the Italian firm that owns the production rights (I think – I do know there’s a legal doodad involved). Anyway, they have made some more.
        https://shop.campomarzio70.it/en/collections/vero-profumo February 15, 2021 at 4:11pm Reply

        • Christine: Wow!! This is great news! Thank you for letting me know! February 16, 2021 at 7:35am Reply

  • Carla: Lumiere Noire Femme by Francis Kurkdjian is a bombshell scent for me February 15, 2021 at 9:21am Reply

    • Tati: Absolutely one of my favorites, and I believe discontinued. I had a hard time finding a new bottle this last month. February 15, 2021 at 1:38pm Reply

      • Carla: Another one! I have a FB and wear it rarely so it’s ok, but that’s a shame. Yes the ultimate bombshell for me. Also Jubilation 25. February 15, 2021 at 5:48pm Reply

  • Tara C: Vero Kern’s Onda is my big bombshell fragrance. I think Absolue pour le Soir and Salome would be in that category too. February 15, 2021 at 9:53am Reply

  • Sandra: Shalimar-bad girl in a flapper dress
    31 Rue Cambon for elegance-long black dress and gloves up to the mid arms. February 15, 2021 at 10:53am Reply

    • Carla: Those are good ones February 15, 2021 at 5:49pm Reply

  • Gentiana: Cristalle, I agree.
    Rochas Femme, J, acomo Silences, Dior Hypnotic Poison, Nasomatto Narcotic Venus, Rochas Absolu, Le Parfum se Therese , Gucci the sadly discontinued Envy and EDP 2002. These worked for me, as triggering feminine self confidence and huge
    compliments from the opposite sex. February 15, 2021 at 11:02am Reply

  • Elizabeth: Vero Kern’s ROZY Extrait is my bombshell perfume. Love the photos in your article. February 15, 2021 at 12:27pm Reply

  • Nancy Chan: Dior’s Poison. February 15, 2021 at 12:48pm Reply

  • Nora Sz.: Jasmin et cigarette, Mitsouko, Tubéreuse Criminelle, Coco all are my beloved scents! I must a bombshell then 🙂 (my partner thinks I’m rather a sweet girl next door than a femme fatale though).
    I was wearing Coco today (vintage and extrait) it surely has a character but remains close to one’s body. Cristalle EDP is also great but to me it’s more an equestrian and aristocratic scent. I second Lumiere Noire and Vero Kern’s beautiful creations.
    I feel like a bombshell when I wear Dita by Dita von Teese (strong yet elegant scent), I also received compliments on it by male friends. Poison and Midnight Poison are my picks from Dior, along with J’adore which my partner loves on me.
    Portrait of a Lady and Carnal Flower (for cold and hot weather respectively) are bombshell to me.
    As well as Cruel Intentions by Kilian. February 15, 2021 at 1:01pm Reply

    • Carla: How could I forget Portrait of a Lady and Carnal Flower – Ropion does loud and beautiful so well, but they are so absolutely beautiful they are almost too perfect! My bombshell needs a human flaw! A little more animalic or dark is what I want for bombshell, thus Lumiere Noire and Jubilation 25 rather than those two February 15, 2021 at 5:52pm Reply

  • rickyrebarco: For me, the ultimate femme fatale fragrance is Serge Lutens’ Une Voix Noire, his tribute to Billie Holliday. It has notes of gardenia and tuberose, sensual and rounded notes, with depth from tobacco, a bit of smoke and a soupcon of leather. This fragrance is SO beautiful and it oozes retro Hollywood glamour and sexiness.

    I’m also partial to Shalimar EDP, vintage being the best, and Blocki’s This Grand Affair, a full on oriental spicy ambery floral sexy beast. February 15, 2021 at 1:12pm Reply

  • Christine: Vero Kern….awww I mourn her exquisite Rubj and Onda. I have only a sampling left of each. I have to say that either of those are smoking hot choices for a film noir vixen. February 15, 2021 at 1:36pm Reply

  • John: Thank you for this evocative introduction! When I think of a bombshell I primarily think of the 40’s…the ideal silhouette for women’s bodies had dramatically changed from the decade before and so had hairstyles: a woman of average height with the lingering slimness of the boyish flapper coiffed in a bob of marcel waves dancing the foxtrot in a bias-cut silk dress by Madeleine Vionnet had abruptly been replaced by a statuesque, voluptuous woman with long, come-hither hair (think Veronica Lake’s coy ‘peek-a-boo’ or Lauren Bacall’s tilted chin ‘look’ pioneered in To Have and Have Not) wearing a dress that exposed a lot of neck and maybe a flash (or more than a flash per Rita Hayworth’s scandalous dance in Gilda) of something more. Gloves (like the ones Hayworth uses to devastating effect) and heels are everywhere because they are not subject to wartime rationing; seamed nylons (a novel luxury in response to the same strictures) are a newly added part of silver screen glamour.

    Sex was a huge component of visual messaging as never before, but it was mixed with danger and a curious dash masculinity. Why? What’s important to consider is that the bombshell was a direct response to WWII…women were off to work in factories (some in trousers!), which helps to explain the powerful body but also the paradoxical, textural temptations of skin, glitter, gloss and sheen. Young men away from home, spiffed up in uniforms and given free cigarettes in their rations, were sold a libidinous promise of feminine reward; Alberto Vargas’ ‘pin-up girls’ and their counterparts painted onto the sides of WWII bombers – sometimes cited as the origin of the term ‘bombshell – being key examples.

    Crucial to all of this is film noir, the genre of existential crime thriller that emerged in earnest in the 40’s. The returning soldier who had often experienced a baptism of (literally) unspeakable violence now navigated a peacetime world from which he was alienated by both the fragmentation of esprit de corps and suppressed trauma. The film noir’s classic tug-of-war in which the protagonist must choose between a redemptive angelic saviour and a femme fatal who truly knows what he is capable of (often representing both a criminal and mythical underworld) is a common feature that further highlights the mystery of the bombshell; smoky and tenebrous, she was filmed in the style of German Expressionist directors like Fritz Lang who had come to Hollywood to escape the purges or lures of fascism, bringing with her a hint of European exoticism. Keep in mind that these films were also a reaction to the Prohibition and Hayes codes censorship of the 1930’s both of which must have seemed like moral hypocrisy of the highest order to soldiers returning from the battles, bars and brothels of Europe.

    I guess to my mind (more informed by cinema than by a sound understanding of women’s perfume!) a bombshell perfume would be both smoky (those Chanel-esque ‘snuffed candle’ aldehydes) and alluring (indolic white flowers playing peak-a-boo), with an unexpected masculine twist of leather (Bacall’s jawline or Dietrich’s low voice and square-shouldered uniform in Seven Sinners) and, of course, an animalic twist of civet, castoreum or musk (heat, furs, day-after-bedsheets…) This all sounds a little like a perfume I’ve read about but never myself tried, Robert Piguet’s Bandit (apparently Dietrich’s signature); the Bandit advertisements with their velvety backgrounds and novelty typefaces also look very 40’s Hollywood. Probably the closest visual connection I can find between film noir visual tropes and perfumery is an old Rochas Moustache (1949) advertisement featuring a gun-toting bombshell deluxe (cleavage, a flash of leg, cascading locks and a drop-dead stare) and the slogan, “celui qui n’est pas avec moi est contre moi.” It all looks like a recruiting poster for the special existentialist unit of the French Resistance(!) and was clearly aimed at men who wanted to picture themselves as equal to the desire & death cocktail of bombshell-noir ideal. Can anyone think of other examples? February 15, 2021 at 3:02pm Reply

    • Christine: John, I am smitten with your commentary! Thank you for illuminating for us this gorgeous and beguiling era of fashion, film and perfume. February 15, 2021 at 5:28pm Reply

      • John: I’m happy you enjoyed it! I must admit that since subscribing to Criterion over the pandemic, I’ve had the chance to take in a lot more noir… February 19, 2021 at 2:55am Reply

    • Silvermoon: Hello John, that was perfect! I could picture what you wrote every step of the way. February 16, 2021 at 5:05pm Reply

      • John: I’m so glad! One thing I enjoy so much about these discussions about perfume is how many other senses (sight, texture, hearing a tone of voice) become part of the story. February 19, 2021 at 2:56am Reply

    • Peter: Mahalo John, for your illuminating essay. You always have wonderful shares. February 17, 2021 at 3:26pm Reply

      • John: Thank you for those kind words Peter. It did turn out to be kind of an essay, so thank you for your patience! February 19, 2021 at 2:58am Reply

    • ClareObscure: Hi John. Wow! The ‘pictures’ you painted with your words were so poignant. As a film noir fan I was gripped by your comments. Thanks. I also really liked your break down of the probable components of a femme fatale’s perfume. February 17, 2021 at 9:30pm Reply

      • John: Thank you! I think it would be an awful lot of fun to make similar summations of fragrances suited to other filmic types. I’ve always pictured Gregory Peck in The Man in the Grey Flannel suit of smelling just a little like Chanel Pour Monsieur; it would be fun try to attach those kinds of accords to features of his character in that film. February 19, 2021 at 3:02am Reply

    • WARA: I smell a very good book in the making!!!! Or perhaps more than one book!!! Thank you for turning a Friday night full of ice, snow and frigid cold temperatures into a cozy night full of candles, agua de canela (cinammon tea), home made fig jam and sour dough bread as I read your fantastic essay. Oud perfume from Oman completes my happy place! February 19, 2021 at 9:53pm Reply

  • Janet: Cartier La Panthere. February 15, 2021 at 3:34pm Reply

  • Courant: Bal a Versailles February 15, 2021 at 4:05pm Reply

  • Lisa: For me it’s Dioressence, Vol de Nuit, vintage Opium or L’Air de Rien (Miller Harris) that I wear when I’m in bombshell mood. February 15, 2021 at 4:13pm Reply

  • Gloria Swanson: FM’s Lipstick Rose (Ralf Schweiger) is my va-va-voom scent for dates (though these days, there’s not a lot of va-va left to my voom…lmao). Its demure little sister, L’artisan Parfumeur’s Drole de Rose, works for day and their naughty cousin, Guerlain’s L’Instant Magic, will preside if I ever actually have sex again, which isn’t looking very promising…☺… February 15, 2021 at 4:34pm Reply

    • ClareObscure: 😄 Gloria Swanson of Sunset Boulevard, you are so funny. Thanks for brightening my day. We aging bombshells know a thing or two even if we rarely get the chance to swagger it. Top comment, lady. lmao back at you. February 17, 2021 at 9:36pm Reply

  • Lisa: The classic Diors. Diorella especially- that animalic almost skanky note! Similarly, Femme by Rochas…Cabochard…Paloma Picasso…Fracas ..Bandit…

    I don’t think Chanel does bombshell..Chanel does grande dame class and style.

    To be bombshell a perfume needs a hint of something a bit seedy. February 15, 2021 at 5:17pm Reply

    • Christine: Agreed. I haven’t tried a Chanel that reads smoldering… February 16, 2021 at 7:36am Reply

      • Victoria: Coco, Bois des Iles, Misia, Coco Noir.
        That being said, for Stover, bombshell’s sensuality is not overt and smoldering. It’s much more complex than that. And it’s much more subtle, hence more intriguing. February 16, 2021 at 8:58am Reply

  • EuroNewYorker: I would also second Mitsouko, and add Tabac Blond, Femme and Ormonde Jayne Woman, which is intriguing. February 15, 2021 at 5:43pm Reply

  • Kathy: Ever in favor of Estee Lauder’s perfumes, I suggest Tuscany per donna. February 15, 2021 at 6:00pm Reply

  • Anne: Baby great scenes! I eould like to add Bandit. February 16, 2021 at 1:52am Reply

  • Christine: I agree with you what Stover says. I have Coco but I find it more a comforting sensuality like a soft cashmere wrap…I don’t care for Coco Noir. I think I need to try Bois des Iles and see. I guess it’s all subjective!! How the perfume interacts with one’s skin and how one feels when wearing it!! Seducing oneself as you often say. Thank you for this intriguing article and for your comments. February 16, 2021 at 9:07am Reply

    • Victoria: That’s very true. That’s why I liked my interviews with both writers. Bombshell as a concept can easily become too simple and stereotypical. February 16, 2021 at 9:41am Reply

  • ClareObscure: Wow! What a fascinating topic for discussion, Victoria. I so agree with your last two comments. A bombshell or femme fatale would wear her perfume, like her hats & clothes, with personal style, flair & confident femininity. Any perfume with depth, sillage & complexity could be her fragrance. So many intriguing perfumes have been mentioned.
    Please tell me if possible, where I can order decants of rarer perfumes that can be sent to the UK? February 17, 2021 at 9:50pm Reply

  • Gloria Swansong: Clare, thank you, but after I posted it, I was afraid my comment was a bit…declasse for this lovely site. (I guess at 59, I don’t expect anyone to take my Phyllis Diller-esque commentary seriously.) True confessions: I’m a powdery-lipsticky-makeup-scent addict! Costco is offering a huge 3.4 oz bottle of Narciso Rodriguez’s Poudrée Eau de Parfum for a stunning $60 & I just ordered two. Plus I just got Keiko Mecheri’s Peau de Peche & Kilian’s Flower of Immortality is on the way. Those will be in heavy rotation w/ L’Instant Magic, Drole & 💄🌹. There’s something about those fluffy skin scents that does make me still feel…if not sexy, per se, then at least still human, lol… February 17, 2021 at 10:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: We’re not prudes here, and we certainly have a sense of humor. 🙂
      I can’t agree more with you on those powdery, lipstick-reminiscent scents. So alluring. February 18, 2021 at 2:46am Reply

      • “Gloria” (Elaine): You are always so unfailingly kind & charmingly diplomatic, dear lovely Victoria! 🌸🧚🏻‍♀️💐🦄 At least several times a month, I come to your site to read your thoughtful reviews of different scents, plus your expert tutorials on different fragrance categories & special features such as this. You have guided me into a wonderful collection that brings me much happiness – – Thank You! 😙🌹🏅💖 February 18, 2021 at 12:13pm Reply

  • Kev: Reading this article and the comments has just prompted me to spray on some Carnal Flower! February 18, 2021 at 4:04am Reply

    • Elle: Kevin! I rec’d samples of Carnal Flower, Une Rose, & PoaL a few weeks ago. I’ve known for a couple years now that I don’t like tuberose, but kept thinking that maybe I just hadn’t found the RIGHT tuberose. Welp! I can tell from FM’s CF that the materials and blending are masterful, concluding that I just can’t handle that particular flower’s scent in quantity, no matter how beautifully done. I’ll be happy to mail my sample to you (though you likely have VATS of the stuff!). 😀 February 18, 2021 at 12:03pm Reply

  • Rhinda: Dear Victoria,
    There are so many wonderful suggestions here, as usual.
    I will add Eau du Soir as my choice.
    Thank you for keeping me entertained. I’m grateful! February 19, 2021 at 6:09pm Reply

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