I just finished reading Alyssa Harad’s Coming to My Senses, about her discovery of perfume, and was inspired to set forth my own approach toward arming oneself against the world with scent. I rank perfume up there with recorded music and books when it comes to tools for mental health. Approximately every four years I will forget to put perfume on in the morning and three hours later I will stop short and think, Oh-my-god-I’m-not-wearing-perfume-is-it-Alzheimer’s?
For those of you who were not convinced of the power of scent by my earlier post on the psychoactive properties of frankincense, allow me to address a few potential barriers to perfume appreciation.
- It doesn’t have to be expensive. Decant services such as The Perfumed Court allow you to buy samples starting at about $3.00. Some perfume stores also offer samples — Harad’s book mentions Aedes de Venustus for one. Once you decide you like something, buy a bigger decant for longer-term use. I haven’t bought a full bottle in ages.
The drugstore also has plenty of options, the most famous among perfumistas being Tocade. One of my favorites, now discontinued, was Burt’s Bees Baby Bee perfume — roses, grapefruit, lemon and beeswax. It was about $12. I have to say though that since the ones I wore until my 20s were reformulated by their manufacturers for profit margin reasons, I haven’t had the heart to revisit them, because …
- Perfume is a time machine. It will take you back to
1. the time you first wore it
2. the way it made you feel when you first wore it
3. and, in some freakish way that no scientist could ever explain, periods in history you never lived through and circumstances you never experienced, especially the great perfumes
- Perfume is not silly. Ms. Harad points out that some women avoid perfume because of the negative stereotypes attached to the made-up, bejeweled, feminized woman. Well, okay, but I’ve never worn perfume for anyone but me. It’s a sensory experience. People have been indulging themselves that way for thousands of years, dudes included, especially in the Middle East. I am particularly in awe of the ancient Egyptians, who wore cones of scented
waxanimal fat on their heads at important functions (see illustration). The cones slowly melted over their hair. (Okay, maybe that’s not the best example for this bullet point.) Of course some of those cultures were scent-crazy because of bathing/sewage issues.
- You gotta explore and experiment. I go through about 30 samples before I find one I know I’ll wear a lot.
- It’s for men, too. Many US men’s colognes are appalling — there is a special place in hell for the person responsible for the smell blasting out of Abercrombie & Fitch stores — so you have to look harder for good ones, but they’re there. Plenty of women’s scents would actually work for men
, including one of my favorites, Encre Noire. Plenty of women wear men’s scents, too. Such as moi, who just discovered that one of my favorites, Encre Noire, is marketed for men.
- Perfume is often occasion-specific. Most of the perfumes I like I wear only during a specific time of day or season or mood or holiday. I would never wear Dans tes Bras in the winter. I only wear Shaal Nur at Christmas. I wear Bombay Bling the way I used to listen to George Thorogood – when I’m really having trouble waking up and facing the day.
- You don’t actually have to wear it. You can find room scents, sheet sprays, and incense so far beyond drugstore/Spencer Gifts/health food store crap that you won’t believe it. You can also just buy perfume to sniff when your brain needs to go off in a different direction, or when you love a perfume but just can’t wear it.
I’ve used about six perfumes this way. One was Lutece (1984), a very feminine, powdery, clinging scent that I knew I could never pull off, so I just kept it in a drawer and smelled it occasionally. Bandit (1944) and Blue Grass (1934/reformulated 1989) are two others I do that with now. Bandit is too brazen and Blue Grass is too sad to wear: it makes me feel like I’m remembering some earlier, genteel rural life in a lovely white house. And sometimes I spray the men’s cologne Monsieur Givenchy (1959) in a room, hoping Cary Grant will show up.
- You don’t have to smell like everyone else. There are a gazillion perfumes to choose from out there. The only time I had to refrain from wearing a perfume I liked was when Obsession came out (1985). I loved it, but two weeks after I bought it I realized the entire world had it on and it was approaching the globally-reviled stage. Which came about a week later.
But then again, two of my all-time favorites, that I would wear even now if they hadn’t been discontinued, were popular, mainstream perfumes I first smelled on other people – Love’s Musky Jasmine (1975?) and Charles of the Ritz (1977).
- Perfume can be applied at quiet levels. It takes some experimenting, but it is perfectly possible to apply perfume so that only you smell it, which is especially important for those of us working in cubicle farms.
- You don’t have to be an expert. I’ve been wearing perfume since junior high and I still can’t tell a carnation from an iris. Encre Noire (“black ink”) sure enough smells like fountain pen ink plus a wee bit of something else, but I could not for the life of me tell you what that something else is. I know I don’t like most amber, leather or vanilla scents, I know I love Orientals and frankincense perfumes, and I know the original dates of some of the greats, but that’s about it.
- Perfume “note” descriptions are useless. Shalimar’s notes are lemon, bergamot, jasmine, May rose (?), iris, incense, opoponax (a type of myrrh), tonka bean and vanilla. Does that help you imagine it? Me neither. My perfume hobby got a new lease on life when I found people who could describe perfume in terms of the settings or people it reminded them of. Luca Turin was the first of these, then a bunch of bloggers, and then their commenters. The description “a stone cathedral on a winter morning in Russia,” for example, intrigued me enough to seek out Etro’s Messe de Minuit. It turned out I wasn’t quite into that one, but another blogger wrote about the whole Etro line of perfumes and I decided to try Shaal Nur, sort of a sister to Messe de Minuit. Et voila! A favorite discovered, for maybe $10 in sample costs. Like I said, you gotta explore.