Perfume, by nature, lurks in the background, often exerting unconscious effects on mood, attraction, and even cognitive function. So it makes sense that perfume may hover over people's memories of their lives like pale spirits, largely ignored or unacknowledged. Some may feel as if perfume had no effect on them at all — until prompted to remember. And then suddenly, there's the memory of what Mother or Father wore. Or their first fragrance. Or what someone's hair or skin smelled like the first time they kissed them.
I've always loved perfume, but I seem to have been more of a kid perfumista than an adult one. (Until recently, of course.) My mother was a wearer of grand fragrances, so I had a head-start there (Femme, Scherrer, Magie Noire, etc.) And I associated perfume with freedom and exploration, because it was at the mall where I was dropped off as a kid/tween that I sprayed perfume with abandon, trying everything I could get my little paws on. Between the Sanrio store, Waldenbooks, and whatever department store with a perfume counter there was in the early 80s in Fayetteville, Arkansas — it was there that my constellation of desires was borne.
There was a long period of my adult life when I wore whatever came my way, without particular gusto. My renewed interest in perfume came through reading Perfumes: The Guide, and needing to smell everything Tania and Luca wrote about. (I imagine this was many a perfume lover's gateway book.) My gateway drug perfumes? Vintage Diorella and Lutens' Muscs Koublai Khan.
So without further ado, here is a list of perfumes that have marked my life thus far. (I'm sure I'm leaving something out.) I'd love to see your list as well!
• Earliest memory of perfume: I'm five, and my father has brought back from Hawaii three "island flower" perfumes whose plastic caps are in the shape of a flower. The perfumes smell exotic. The liquid inside is viscous and sticks to the cap like egg whites.
• My mother wears Charlie and goes to university. It smells smart and daring to me.
• At the mall during one of my explorations at the perfume counter, I discover Calvin Klein's first eponymous fragrance. It smells like apples and fall to me. I'm in love with the simple bottle, too, and put it on every chance I can get.
• My beloved grandmother wears L'Air du Temps, until the very end. I can't smell it without thinking of her.
• My piano teacher smokes menthol cigarettes and wears a very strong, indolic floral that to this day I'm trying to remember. (Fracas? Joy?) Whatever it is, the combination of her mentholated cigarette breath and smokey clothes plus that perfume (plus the spearmint gum she chews to try to cover up the cigarette smell!) leave a lasting olfactory impression on me. Perhaps the most pungent one! Combined with her raspy voice, wild glasses, and smart polyester pant suits, Mrs. Foley, if she could be olfactorily summed up, smelled to me like diesel fuel and flowers.
• A cousin gives me a violet soliflore for a present. Its sweetness depresses me, and I never wear it.
• A cousin I admire wears Oscar de la Renta. My favorite aunt wears Charles of the Ritz.
• In high school, I decide I love Grey Flannel and don't care if it's for men. I feel daring wearing it with my private school jumper and little white socks. (It definitely competes with Ralph Lauren's Polo, which all the boys are wearing.) I also love Lauren, and flirt with Chanel's Cristalle, which I'm given on a trip to Paris by a family friend. I'm sure Giorgio is in the picture somewhere...
• When I move away from home, my mother sends me off with a giant bottle of Diva, with the crystal stopper. I don't (can't?) wear it.
• In my 20s in New York, at college, I'm waitressing at a restaurant and the bartender, who really wants to be a jewelry designer, brings in a perfume blotter with an odd, refreshing scent I don't know what to make of. It's Bulgari Green Tea. A waitress at an earlier job wore Calyx, which made me swoon; I loved its fruity/sour/floral personality. I'd never smelled anything like it before.
• I move to San Francisco, and a succession of perfumes worn by women I have crushes on remain favorites to this day: Angel and Gucci Rush. A girlfriend wore Aveda's Creme Brilliant hair pomade and CKOne. (Strangely, I was more fond of the Aveda than the CKOne.)
• I start wearing Poison as if it's the 80s all over again, when I'm in the mood to get into some trouble. (It always works.)
• My partner in crime/best friend at the time, Susan T., wears Hanae Mori, a wispy vanillic floral that's way too powdery and feminine to me. She insists it's better than Angel, which she thinks is the most disgusting perfume she's ever smelled.
• The only perfume I remember on a boyfriend is one I still don't know the name of. It's his mother's perfume, and it's odd and resiny and incongruous with his looks. (I'd also never met a dude who wore women's — vintage! — perfume.) Maybe that's why it sticks with me so much. So strange that I can still conjure up the memory of a perfume with no name, so many years later.
• I wear Gucci Rush, Angel, Bulgari Green Tea. And I discover Bulgari Black, which seems sexy and wild.
• Before I read Perfumes: The Guide and go perfume crazy, the last perfumes I purchase and wear are Tom Ford Black Orchid, Bulgari Eau Parfumée Au Thé Rouge, and some weird MAC perfume that smells like vanilla and booze.
And....the rest is history! I wear everything now, from vintage to niche to mainstream. But I'm about to get me some Gucci Rush. I miss that stuff, and it's going to be my summer fragrance.
What would your life look like measured out in perfume? Anything you'd still wear?
Artist Louise Bourgeois's installation Cell II, 1991 (in the above photo) is, to me, the most beautiful rendition in art of perfume's power. The first thing you see is a series of French doors. They're connected together to almost fully enclose what's inside: the table with empty/almost empty Shalimar bottles, next to which is a sculpture of hands held together as if fretful or worrying. In order to see what's inside (the doors seem to want to protect what's inside) you have to peek through an opening. You really feel like you're invading someone's privacy. The solid marble hands seem more fragile, somehow, than the empty bottles, one of the many paradoxes of perfume — how it endures like memory.