These are the questions I ask with respect to Colony, Jean Patou's wonderfully weird pineapple-leather/chypre that celebrates France's colonization of the tropics ("Capturing the hushed mystery of far-off isles"). At the same time that Colony celebrates colonialism, it unwittingly exposes — in its juxtaposed notes, its advertising, and its Baccarat-designed bottle — the ambiguity and violence at the heart of the colonial enterprise.
Top notes: pineapple, ylang-ylang
Heart notes: carnation, iris, vetiver and opoponax
Base notes: leather, musk, oakmoss (from Fragrantica)
In the ad to the left, it's unclear if the eyes peering out mysteriously over a pineapple-shaped bottle of perfume belongs to the colonized or to the white colonizer (now made "dark and mysterious" herself thanks to her mere proximity to The Other). Either way, racialized darkness is at the heart of the colonial fantasy. Whether the face emerging from the darkness is black or white, Colony invites its wearer to be touched by the "exotic."
But that's the context. What about the fragrance? Robert Piguet's Bandit meets Dole's canned sliced pineapples, Colony hits my nose with rubber, chypre mossiness/woods, and a tart-turned-golden-sweet pinapple note, finally drying down to rich amber and benzoin. (Not incidentally, pineapple and rubber are two exports from colonized countries.)
Colony anticipates Bandit's leather/rubber accord by about six years. (Imagine that scent, if you've had the pleasure of sniffing it, with pineapple. It doesn't sound like it would work, but it's a weirdly inspired combination.)
In an amazing post on Colony (to which I am indebted) that examines the perfume in the context of France's colonial history, Brian from the blog I Smell Therefore I Am explains that Colony was Jean Patou's homage to the French Colonial Expo of 1931. The "Exposition Coloniale Internationale" had an explicit task: to explain to France and the world — at a time when people were voicing critiques — why France's colonial efforts were positive for all involved, while ignoring the violence done to the language, culture, and autonomy of its territories' inhabitants.(Here's a gimlet-eyed assessment of France's brutal history in tropical Africa.)
Colony, like France's Colonial Expo of 1931, tries to express an uncomplicated synergy between the colonizer and the colonized through its "grafting the fruity tang of pineapple onto classic French school of perfume" (Brian again.) At the same time, the contrast between pineapple (representing the fruit from the tropical colony) and the leather/chypre-esque base shows that there is no easy relationship between the notes. They're interesting together, but you're always aware of the odd juxtaposition.
In an interesting observation on the bottle, Brian notes that the Baccarat-designed bottle is in the shape of a pineapple — but that it also looks like a hand grenade. The design version of a Freudian slip, this visual pun celebrates France's spoils from the tropics while intimating that they were gained through violence.
Too much analysis, you say? Perhaps Jean Patou's Colony cannot bear the weight of what might seem like a belabored deconstruction of its notes, advertising, and bottle, but I agree with Brian that a corrective is needed against viewing perfume as if it existed outside of history or context.
"When people discuss Colony," he says, "they tend to characterize it as a snapshot of a certain period in perfumery, as if perfume were made in a vacuum, untouched by current events and popular trends, and might best be evaluated simply by looking at fragrances themselves...Thus, the imagery used to describe Colony tends to center around blonde women in haute couture khaki, sipping cocktails from decorative coconut shells on the veranda of some unspecified exotic locale..."
I think this raises another interesting point: when cultural context is brought up in connection to perfume, it's often in terms of gender only and not race or politics. (This is mostly because the marketing around perfume tends to play up gender; only a few perfumes I can think of — White Shoulders, Dana's Platine, and Versace Blonde — explicitly reference race as a marketing ploy.) In discussions of Colony, the "blonde women...on the veranda of some unspecified exotic locale" trope combines gender and race in an interesting way. "Blonde women" (read: white women) become the beneficiaries of colonial domination, as many films such as Indochine, Chocolat, and Out of Africa suggest.
For me, knowing Colony's back story doesn't temper my love for the perfume itself. It is an oddly beautiful perfume that takes chances that work; I've smelled nothing like it before. It's both sunny and tough, naturalistic and artificial. It also doesn't resemble any pineapple-scented perfumes I've smelled, such as Scherrer II. (That pineapple chypre, which I'll review soon, is so overwhelmed by pineapple that its chypre quality almost gets lost.)
So if Colony's problematic history doesn't change my feelings for the juice itself — why bother analyzing the rest of it? I would argue that like any text (a film, a song, a photograph, a book), perfume is a cultural artifact that can be read and decoded. The juice hits my heart, but the story feeds my head and enriches my understanding of the perfume and its place within perfume history.