"Like Fur Rubbed With Mint Toothpaste" (A Fabulously Feral Perfume You've Got To Smell To Believe)

PLUS: Finally, a resolution to the "American Hustle" mystery that's been bugging me for MONTHS.
Publish date:
February 25, 2014
shoppables, fragrance, perfume, Dior, beauty, American Hustle, diorella, animalics

"Like fruit on the verge of going bad. Fur rubbed with mint toothpaste. Vietnamese beef salad."

What are we talking about here? Sweaty gym clothes that have been left in a hot car for three days? Or possibly a famous perfume created by one of the most storied fragrance houses in modern history?

The answer is: yes to both (sort of).

The legendary House of Dior was established in late 1946 by designer Christian Dior, though the modern-day Dior corporation actually refers to 1947 as their inaugural year. It was certainly the year that put Monsieur Dior on the map with the incredible success of what's now known as his luxurious New Look. That same year, a collection of fragrances followed with the launch of Miss Dior, a reformulated version of which remains popular to this day. I myself wear it and love it!

Miss Dior is a sweet, smarmy floral spiked with just a soupçon of salted popcorn. It's a light, feminine confection that conjures up images of poufy party dresses worn by slightly mischievous babes. While Miss Dior merely hinted at the rebel within, a freaky fragrance introduced by Dior Parfums some 25 years later left absolutely nothing to the imagination -- it was clearly a scent meant for good girls gone way bad.

It's called Diorella -- and its fruity, floral, savage odor is what lead fragrance experts to refer to it as the aforementioned "fur rubbed with mint toothpaste, vietnamese beef salad, and fruit on the verge of going bad." (The fur/toothpaste metaphor I borrowed for this headline is originally from the brilliant mind of esteemed perfume critic Chandler Burr.)

It all sounds terrifyingly delicious, no?

My grandmother wore the original Diorella -- and it was far, far, more dank and fetid than its current incarnation. Fragrance companies tinker with formulations all the time, they just never talk about it. I guess they think consumers will never notice, which is ridiculous, as scent is very heavily tied to memory. Memories of my grandmother are what caused me look for this long-forgotten fragrance in the first place!

In the case of Diorella, the reason for the reformulation may have had to do with some of its ingredients now being classified as allergens, such as oakmoss. Some perfume experts say that proposed new International Fragrance Association regulations will lead to the end of perfume as we know it. That remains to be seen, but I did recently buy extra bottles of a few of my faves that are on the list, just in case.

I also ended up buying a bottle of the current version of Diorella, and it pretty much holds up to my memory. I still think you are missing out if you go to your grave having never, ever, smelled its slightly creepy stench. It definitely retains the DNA of the original, including, dare I say, a smell not unlike flowers -- but with garbage.

Sound familiar?

Yes, those are the famous words uttered by Jennifer Lawrence in the Oscar-nominated film "American Hustle." Her character, Rosalyn, is referring to a stinky nail polish she can only get in Switzerland. You may remember that I Nancy Drew-ed it up last month and uncovered what I thought was the product she was referring to, Mavala's famed Colorfix. All the clues and dates fit my theory perfectly.But now I'm wondering if maybe I was wrong.

When I began looking to see if Diorella was still being made, I found fragrance expert Barbara Herman, author of the exceptionally well-researched Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfumeand curator of the excellent vintage scent blog, Yesterday's Perfume.

Herman agrees that Diorella is quite a strange fragrance. It's a bright floral that adds just a few strange “off” notes to contrast with the more conventionally beautiful ones. The somewhat overripe melon essence of Diorella is exactly what pushes it into that sweet and sickly, flowers-but-with-garbage territory. Hey, just like the nail polish in "American Hustle"!

But where did that clever description really come from? The mind of the film's screenwriters, David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer? Or was it perhaps lifted from the musings of perfume aficionado Herman? I'll let you be the judge.

Here's an excerpt from Herman's 2009 post on the fragrance, wherein she states:

"At its heart, Diorella smells like garbage on the verge of going bad that someone has thrown a pile of flowers onto. Diorella shows you how to find beauty in the intersection of garbage and flowers. I know this doesn't sound like an endorsement, but it is!

Gorgeous fragrances often contain notes of something nasty. Even jasmine perfumes contain indole, which perfumer Christopher Brosius of I Hate Perfume likens to the smell of dead mice."

What's that they say about imitation? Sincere flattery, etc.? It would seem that "American Hustle"'sOscar-nominated screenwriters spent more than a little time surfing around on Herman's blog. Here's exactly what Rosalyn said when she described the scent of her beloved nail polish in the movie:

“There's something, this topcoat, it’s like perfume-y, but there’s also something rotten. And I know that sounds crazy but I can’t get enough of it. Smell it, its true! Historically, the best perfumes in the world -- they’re all laced with something nasty. It’s true! Irving loves it. He can’t get enough of it. Sweet and sour, rotten and delicious. Like flowers, but with garbage!"

But the similarities don't stop there. From Herman's 2009 Diorella post:

"One day, sitting at my desk, I could have sworn I smelled the coriander and fish sauce that serve as the marinade for a Vietnamese beef salad."

As Jeremy Renner's "American Hustle" character sniffs Rosalyn's nails in the dinner scene, he remarks:

"You know what that is for me? It's coriander."

I wrote Herman to see what she had to say on the matter, and she replied:

"A long-time reader tipped me off to this. She was like, "Did you ghost-write that?" I took a closer look and the similarities were too great for me not to conclude that it had been copied. It's gratifying to me that a reasonable person need only look at these things side by side to be like, wait, what?! So thank you for that."

Whether or not the film's screenwriters were truly inspired by Herman's post, we'll never know. But it's now exceedingly clear to me that the seductively scented product Rosalyn was referring to in the movie wasn't based on a real nail polish at all -- it's simply an amalgamation of a bunch of different references and inspirations. Whatever it's meant to be, it doesn't really exist. Case closed.

Back to the Diorella. The version Herman was referring to in her post (and what my grandmother wore) is not quite the same as the version available today. Herman was kind enough to send me a decant of the vintage version, and I was instantly transported back to my childhood, sitting on the floor beside my grandmother's dressing table as she got ready, breathing in what I now realize was a truly carnal, slightly animalistic and thoroughly rotten scent.

The updated Diorella does retain a bit of its legendary savageness, and is still a strange, classic Dior fragrance -- one well worth investing in. But if you want the real deal, ultra-stinky vintage version, you're going to have to hunt for a vintage bottle, buy a sample for $5.00, or just get lucky, as Barbara Herman is actually giving away three 1.0ml decants of the original, vintage Diorella (like the one she sent me) on her blog. The winners will be announced on Sunday, March 2nd -- Oscar night.

What is it about slightly gross fragrances that thrills the senses and sparks the imagination? I tend to think it's just as the term for them implies: that there is something inherently animalistic and seductive in scents spiked with decay, much like Tom Ford's cult classic Black Orchid. Just like Diorella, it's slightly rotten and sweetly delicious -- and way more than a little sexy. Like flowers and garbage, indeed.

I'm on Twitter: @IveyAlison.