Perfumed Pages: Sylvia Plath

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Sylvia Plath on the Yorkshire Moors, September 1956, via Smith College

Earlier today I started noticing Sylvia Plath’s name appearing repeatedly in my Twitter feed. Then I realized that today’s Google Doodle is also a tribute to Plath. It’s the anniversary of her birthdate — October 27, 1932.

I started reading Plath’s writing when I was sixteen or seventeen and she remains one of my favorite poets. Today, then, seems like a fitting date to share a few lines from Plath’s journals, as published in The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (2000).

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Plath on the Queen Elizabeth II, June 25, 1957, via Smith College

The entry below is dated February 17, 1958. From 1957 to 1958, Plath was an instructor at Smith College (her alma mater), teaching English Language and Literature. She had recently completed a fellowship at Cambridge University and married fellow writer Ted Hughes. While she taught at Smith, she and Hughes lived in Northampton, Massachusetts.

In this lushly sensory passage, Plath describes a few minutes alone at home as she waits for her dinner guests (other Smith faculty) to arrive. She describes the effect of the wine she has drunk while preparing dessert, the patterns and colors of her outfit for the evening, and her fragrance:

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The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950–1962, edited by Karen V Kukil (London: Faber & Faber, 2000)

“A moment, caught, in the stillness of waiting for guests — Wendell to come, & Ted gone to pick up Paul & Clarissa. My own tigress perfume & the dull-avocado green of my skirt and bright turquoise & gold-lined & white & black paisley patterned jersey warm & snug on me & the white wine drunk during smoothing on thick white marshmellowy [sic] frosting singing thin in my veins — oh the absolute free willingness unleashed which wine brings.”

It’s a fascinating peek into Plath’s social life at Smith as well as a perfect period-piece moment (the sour-cream-and-onion dip! the paired avocado green and turquoise blue of her outfit!). Of course, you can guess which detail holds my attention the most closely…

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Plath at Oscar Williams’s apartment in New York, June 1958. Photograph via The Lilly Library, Indiana University,

Since this volume is faithful to Plath’s original spelling and punctuation in the journals, the word “tigress” is reproduced with its original lowercase-t spelling. It could suggest her feelings about the perfume that she’s wearing, the way it makes her feel feline and powerful. Or could it be the actual name of the perfume? I wonder…

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The Boston Globe, February 9, 1958

Fabergé Tigress was launched in 1938 and was available in the United States by 1940. It certainly would have been accessible for Plath in early 1958, as documented by this ad in The Boston Globe (above). In that quartet of bottles, Tigress is the with the striped cap, second from left.

The H&R Fragrance Guide (Feminine Notes) categorizes Tigress as an aldehydic composition with topnotes of bergamot, lemon, rosewood, and rosemary; sweet floral heartnotes of rose, geranium, jasmine, ylang ylang, lilac, and lily of the valley; and powdery-balsamic basenotes of vanilla, vetiver, opoponax, civet, benzoin, and tolu.

With this assortment of rich florals and deep resins (not to mention that animalic civet note!), Tigress could have packed some serious spicy allure.

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The Wilkes-Barre Record, October 8, 1948

How long had Plath been wearing Tigress at this point? She certainly could have adopted it earlier than her return to the United States in 1957. This 1948 ad from a Pennsylvania newspaper shows how it was promoted by one department store as the “fragrance that pu-r-rs on beautiful furs.”

The copy goes on to add, “He’s easy to tame if you realize the fame of Fabergé’s Tigress perfume.” (Say it out loud — it scans pretty nicely as a bit of verse.)

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Times Record (Troy, N.Y.), October 2, 1957

And here’s an advertisement put together by Frear’s department store in Troy, New York. Although this store falls further outside Plath’s orbit, I couldn’t resist including it.

I love that sly striped cat and the description of this “purry jungle bouquet” as a “tawny topaz touch to your golden fashions, your golden hours.”

Tigress was discontinued in the mid-1980s. Recent recreations of this perfume, according to people who have smelled the original, just aren’t the same. That’s a shame, but I’m glad to have learned this fact (?) about Plath nonetheless.

(If you’d like to read a review of Fabergè’s Tigress, you can visit Now Smell This to see what my colleague Angie thought.)



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