My mother wore perfume; her two “signature” scents were Anais Anais and Fidji. I vaguely remember her scented and ready to go out. Is it even my memory, or is it such a trope, something I’ve heard about so many times, that it seems like a memory? Implanted into my brain by 20th-century fragrance advertising?
As a teen laden with glasses and braces, I yearned after atomizer bottles, potpourri (it was the ’80s) and incense (I repeat: the ’80s!). Around age 18, I was given a bottle of Crabtree and Evelyn’s rose fragrance Evelyn, and felt a milestone of femininity was achieved.
In the ’90s, I was young and broke. So were all my friends. Perfume was something that happened to other people. From my compeers, I caught the occasional whiff of patchouli or vetiver oil.
Then, in 2003, something made personal fragrance relevant for my demographic: Black Phoenix Alchemy Labs. They made the oil vials of the ’90s sophisticated with fresh blends and brilliant nomenclature. I went to some trouble to get a set of 10 sample scent “imps.” Unfortunately, all of them, applied to my skin, smelled like that potpourri from the ’80s. Except for R’lyeh, from their Lovecraft collection. Who knew that aeons of evil under the cold deeps smelled like grapefruit? Frustrated, I started sniffing other fragrances again. Diptyque provided the olfactory opulence I’d dreamed of. I invested in a bottle of the now-defunct smoky rose fragrance Opôné. Probably Diptyque discontinued it for a reason, because every man who got a whiff of it recoiled.
Remembering my total perfume failure, I asked a guy recently whether men really, actually, liked perfume on les femmes. He bit his lip. “Well,” he said, “the thing is, if a woman’s applied perfume right, you can only smell it when you’re close enough to kiss her. And either it’s a success or it’s not. I mean, she’s just wearing it for herself, ya know?”
He nailed it.
And he reminded me of the two things that helped me, at last, learn to really appreciate perfume, instead of floundering in scented waves.
The first thing was so simple: focusing on scents I liked that didn’t come in bottles. Breathing deeply when I leave my abode in the spring, to inhale green humid coolness overlain by the honey of lemonwood or manuka trees in bloom. Plunging my nose into roses – often I’m disappointed by the lightest smell of celery or printer paper. Nuzzling clean laundry or my cat, who smells like fur. In the kitchen, wanting to rub myself all over with whole vanilla beans, or handfuls of freshly-roasted cacao nibs. I discovered I liked fresh, green scents, and warm touchable ones with some musk. I’m still a big ol’ sap for rose fragrances, too.
The second thing was a generous friend who reached out to share the art of perfume with me. And she is so great that I will be interviewing her here, to be published on August 15th! To get a sniff of her take on perfume, and a preview of the interview, visit her scent blog.