Thursday, March 11, 2010

SOTD: Revlon Charlie, and stand-ins

When put to the test, however, it invariably produced a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.
The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
"Daddy, how come in Kansas City the bagels taste like just round bread?"
Abigail, Calvin Trillin's daughter, as quoted by him in Feeding a Yen: Savoring Local Specialties, from Kansas City to Cuzco
Long, long ago, I fulfilled my work study obligation at the Kiltie, our college cafeteria, in Pittsburgh, PA. There was a girl who came to me on Sunday mornings, always looking for sliced raw onions. This being the days before twenty-four hour salad bars, she was always turned away disappointed. One day she explained her need: Back home, far from Pittsburgh, she was accustomed to eating bagels, cream cheese, and lox for breakfast on Sunday mornings. Sunday just wasn't right without that breakfast. So she was trying to duplicate it, and the closest that she had come was bagels, cream cheese, and raw onions.

One of my books, The Rituals Of Dinner, describes a culture's customary meal of soup accompanied by a heap of small balls of bread, which the eater dipped in the soup. When times were hard, and bread was not available, and the soup was the thinnest of broths, the bowl would be accompanied by a heap of round stones, to represent the absent bread.

Calvin Trillin's piece, "A Softball, a Lump" describes the travails of three young lawyers exiled to Omaha, far away from the gastronomic delights of Kansas City, Missouri. They rhapsodize over the shape and dimensions of the steak at a Nebraska steakhouse, in an effort to convince themselves that it's just as good as what they ate back home.

People will go a long way to reproduce the comfort of the familiar. I suspect that this explains the continued existence of perfumes that are reformulated to be almost, but not quite, entirely unlike themselves.

And that's what I thought of when I smelled Charlie. It smells like a memory. A faded memory. An attempt to resemble something else - a something else that was probably Charlie in a past life.

Now, the memory that Charlie is trying to imitate is not in my memories - to the best of my recollection, I have never before smelled Charlie. For all I know, the modern version may be utterly true to Charlie's original inner self, and I may just not be a Charlie fan. But I'm doubtful.

There seems to be some disagreement on the notes for Charlie - if I combine sources, I get aldehydes, citrus oils, lemon blossom, hyacinth, tarragon, jasmine, peach, rose, orrisroot, lily-of-the-valley, cyclamen, carnation, vanilla, sandalwood, oakmoss, musk, and cedar. And, yeah, I can smell it trying to accomplish that, but it just doesn't have the resources to do the job thoroughly.

The top notes smell thin, and jumbled, and prickly. They don't seem to be part of the show, but instead something that you need to wait out, rather like a band tuning up.

The middle is better. Hyacinth, yes. Jasmine, yes. I think that I can even distinguish between them, rather than just getting "shrill mixed floral". The orrisroot is presumably represented by the powder, a bit coarser than the silky powder that I prefer, but it would pass with powder-lovers. And it's not pure sweet or pure floral - I can't pick out the oakmoss or whatever's playing that role, but there is something calming and darkening the mix, just a bit. And the base is better - vanilla and wood, yes, I get that, and the remaining floral notes are deeper in pitch.

The notes list is that of a lovely fragrance. The fragrance itself makes an attempt to present those notes. But there are just too many compromises. This is the round bread, not the bagel.

Review Roundup: Now Smell This and MakeupAlley and Basenotes (I think - what's Charlie Blue?) and Fragrantica and Feminine Things and Yesterday's Perfume.

Link Roundup: The Scented Salamander (a retrospective of Charlie advertisements).

(Edited to expand the Review Roundup.)

Image: By Alnokta. Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Love the Trillin stories.

    Never loved Charlie, not even back in the day - although looking at the notes list it's up my alley. It falls into the category of Cheap Drugstore Crap...

  2. This is a great post. Period. If someone does a collection of great perfume postings to understand what gets said out here in the smell-o-blogs, this should be in that collection.

    I haven't smelled the new "Charlie", but I have such a strongly fixed memory of it-- it was forbidden fruit when I was, like, 11-- I wanted to be a Charlie Girl so bad!! DelRae's "Debut" comes awfully awfully close to the old "Charlie"-- somewhere in that lily-of-the-valley/lilac range.

  3. Hey, Mals! Trillin's one of my very very favorite writers. I always thought of him as a casual sort of writer, but a discussion about him made me realize that, no, Every Single Word of Trillin's prose is absolutely perfect for the effect that he's after.

    Thank you, LCN, I really appreciate that, very much.

    I remember the Charlie ads when I was a kid - they're the only perfume ads that I do remember, so they clearly had an impact. But we were, for some reason, a non-fragrance-wearing family, so I never even thought of owning any.

  4. I've never smelt Charlie from any era, nor read Trillin, though I have skirted round Pittsburgh occasionally.

    I agree with LCN - this is an exquisite, stand out piece of writing by any writerly standards. But as it happens to be about my favourite subject, my pleasure is enhanced!

    Which colour Charlie should one try? There seem to be at least three in my local Boots.

  5. This IS a great post. The analogy of round bread and Charlie is fabulous. I think I wore Charlie in my late teens early 20s! (A while ago ha ha ha)

  6. I really enjoyed this post as well. I did a review of Charlie a while ago and I had a similar experience, too...

  7. Thank you, flittersniffer! As for which Charlie, I think it's just the plain Charlie, except that Basenotes seems to equate that one to Charlie Blue. So I am confused.

    Thanks, Melody! I wish I'd worn fragrance in my Youth - I have almost no perfume associations, which seems sad.

    Thanks, Diana! I make pleased noises at all the compliments. :)

    How'd I miss your Review when gathering the Roundup? It's really good, too. I'm adding it now...