M y first perfume — one that wasn’t just the lingering fruity-lily pong of Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific! shampoo — was Intimate by Revlon, snagged from my mother’s dressing table. When I revisited it recently, I was shocked — it smelled so ‘adult’. Proper, triple-X adult: complicated and tear-stained, seasoned with sex and hard-earned smarts and hope against hopes. This was Intimate, its blend of overripe florals and swaggering animalics built to seduce one’s future second ex-husband.
Mad Men-era Intimate was dated by the time I’d filched it in my mid teens, carefully dabbing it behind my ears and in the hollow of my throat as I’d seen my mother do. But all I knew was that I felt nympho-hot when I wore it — and judging from the tiger in his tank, my boyfriend agreed. Thanks to my military dad’s steely-eyed vigilance against his daughter’s unauthorised friskiness, baloney pony action was out of the question. But that wasn’t Intimate’s fault.
Wearing Intimate was my introduction to the power of perfume to transform dubious raw material into the person I was nowhere near being. I was a little girl in pigtails and peasant skirts, and Intimate’s lascivious promise must have been a jolt to anyone who smelled it on me. But to me, the message was clear: wear the perfume and you can be the perfume.
The question of whether our fragrance influences our identity, or the other way around, is teasingly explored by perfume critic Denyse Beaulieu in her memoir, The Perfume Lover. Beaulieu’s account of how a searingly sensual night in Seville (orange blossoms, Holy Week incense, a handsome man, public hanky-panky) inspired the now discontinued L’Artisan Parfumeur creation Séville à l’Aube also addresses the impact of scent on our psyche.
‘Perfume can be a prophecy or magic potion that transforms you into another person — the person you wish you were or the one you didn’t know you’d become,’ Beaulieu tells me. ‘When first I found smoky, insinuating Habanita by Molinard in a boutique in Paris, somehow it drew me to Spain, where I became Habanita, with carnations in my hair, a fan in my hand and a cigarillo between my lips.’
Beauty guru Sali Hughes also seeks the transformation. ‘If I don’t naturally feel something that I want to feel, like if I need extra confidence, I spray on perfume. It helps get me into character,’ she says. ‘If I want a forthright, straight-spine fragrance, I might go for Coco by Chanel because it’s just glamorous and feminine enough, but not remotely girlie. You don’t feel like you can kick it around, it absolutely holds its own.’
Perfumes: the A-Z Guide co-author Tania Sanchez says that deciding what to wear is more than just selecting a scent — it’s choosing a mentor. ‘When I wore Guerlain L’Heure Bleue in university while my peers were in CK One, it was a study in belle époque beauty in the midst of the grunge moment,’ she reflects on the melancholic iris classic. ‘I enjoyed the contrast between me, a punk-haired urban urchin on a bicycle and my sillage, which turned any scene into a Tiffany window.’
Perfume performs a tantalising dance on the knife edge between self-expression and self-deception. You’re only ever one spritz away from a new you: dangerous heartbreaker, innocent angel, tough heroine. ‘Perfumes are our subconscious,’ says Beaulieu. ‘Because they’re invisible and hard to put into words, we think the message they send out won’t be read, so that we often choose scents that express hidden aspirations, forgotten memories, a secret persona.’
‘Definitely ritualistic’ is how guitar-slinger and singer Johnny Marr describes his fragrance routine. ‘I’ve worn Voyage by Hermès for maybe 20 years,’ he tells me. ‘I carry little sample bottles in my pockets and use them during the day. It’s a habit I picked up from Chrissie Hynde. I’m so used to Voyage being in my senses, and it’s part of who I am.’
Electronic goddess Alison Goldfrapp also partakes in ritualistic perfume anointment. ‘The last thing I do before I go on stage is put on Miel de Bois by Serge Lutens, even though no one else will be able to smell it,’ she says of the dark honey scent. ‘I remember being in a hotel lift in New York City and a man noticed my Miel de Bois and said, “I love that perfume you’re wearing.”
‘For him to comment felt so overwhelmingly intimate. But I created the environment for that to happen. Wearing perfume beckons someone into your world. It’s the fast track to that secret you.’
The very effort to live up to our perfume, with its implied romance, or power, or sheer otherness, can reveal hidden strengths. Bonkers About Perfume blogger Vanessa Musson discovered this after the upheaval wrought by the end of a long relationship. Pushing through the static of uncertainty, she mustered her reserves to make a new life for herself, guided by her perfume.
‘My current favourite perfume is Penhaligon’s Juniper Sling, which takes its inspiration from the cocktails and general zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties,’ she tells me. ‘This reflects the “me” who has just bought my dream house from that era, so packed with period features that it wouldn’t surprise me if Helena Bonham Carter popped out of the stair cupboard.’
A dream house, inspired by a dream perfume. As Beaulieu puts it: ‘If a perfume speaks to you, you’ll rewrite its story into yours.’
Molinard Habanita, £80 for 75ml, Guerlain L’Heure Bleue, £109 for 75ml, Chanel Coco, £126 for 100ml, Hermes Voyage d’Hermès, £112 for 100ml, Serge Lutens Miel de Bois, £160 for 75ml, Penhaligon’s Juniper Sling, £152 for 100ml.