Most perfume smells fine. That’s, like, the whole point of it. You may catch its sweet, indecipherable scent on the wind; register it for a nanosecond and then move on. There is nothing particularly memorable about it; little that is evocative. It’s more pleasant than air; literally better than nothing (though, sometimes, only marginally). But do I linger in the street to catch its trail? Do I hover uncomfortably close to get another sniff, imagining the fabulous life the wearer of such a delicious scent must live? I do not.
I judge people by the perfume they wear. Should you care about my opinion? Yes! Of course! Not because it’s mine, but because it’s an opinion, and putting something in, on or around your body that provokes no better than a ‘meh’ is a wasted opportunity. Let’s not be scared of judgement: our own or other people’s. The former is instinctual and inevitable; the latter, inescapable. Why else do we put any thought into the clothes we wear, the art we hang on our walls and the images we upload to Instagram if it isn’t in the hope that the world is going to judge us? (And, by judge, I mean admire our excellent taste.)
I can’t think of anywhere where this is more true than in fragrance. We all know that scent, identity, emotions and memory intertwine around each other like ivy; nobody shops for perfume in a rational frame of mind, actively looking for the cheapest (or most expensive), the highest rated or most heavily promoted. (I hope not, anyway; what a chilling idea.) We fall in love with fragrance; wander around the shop sniffing our wrists, unable to get enough of this new, thrilling concoction, and have to return to the perfume counter for a bottle, even though you only popped in for a birthday card and a pair of tights.
And each new bottle contains a potential new you. Here I am, jaded Hollywood starlet, sulkily holidaying in a villa in Capri. Here I am, vulnerable femme fatale, dangerous and divinely feminine. Here I am, blowsy English rose, too fond of gin, flowers and men. (And that’s just the Tom Ford counter.) The industry doesn’t sell you perfume as much as personas – which is why ad breaks in the run up to Christmas can be an odd feverish dream of poetic gibberish by richly recompensed celebrities over disconnected images, which make little sense but speak to some part of our brain that deciphers them as passion, power, adventure.
We should have strong reactions to perfume – that is its genius and purpose. So you can hardly mind if other people have strong reactions to yours, too. If you go to the expense of buying it, and the trouble of applying it, I suppose the aim is that people will like it. And I’m sure I do. But I may also have some other thoughts.
Let’s be clear, I’m not claiming any special insight or unsurpassed taste. I’ve worn some truly wrong perfumes in my life – I don’t think any teenager really has any business wearing a voluptuous oriental like Coco by Chanel, especially when said teenager is a pale geek from Yorkshire. And wearing your ex’s scent might be romantic, in a ridiculous sort of way, but it suited him, not me. But at least there was a reasoning behind these choices, even if the logic was flawed. The only ones I really regret are the mindless picks (couldn’t I have put slightly more thought in my twenties into what might constitute a seductive perfume than simply opting for the one Agent Provocateur put its name to?). They meant
nothing to me, and said nothing about me.
Perfume, like anything, has trends. And, like all art, perfumery reflects a time and place. The brashness of the Eighties was mirrored in big, bold – some might say headache-inducing– scents such as Opium, Poison or Giorgio Beverly Hills. The Nineties had a swathe of palate cleansers like L’Eau d’Issey and the gender-neutral CK One. But the dark flipside to this is the tendency to sameness. The celebrity perfumes of the Noughties all revolved round the same sugary gourmand notes, sweet enough to necessitate an emergency dental appointment.
Even today, we still flock to the same few brands, the same few perfumes, which, in their focus-group-tested, laser-focused mission to be appealing to as many people as possible while offending absolutely nobody, all stick ruthlessly to microscopic variations on similar formulas:a floral top note here; a fresh aquatic there; all drying down to a cake shop vanilla-y base, as universally enjoyable as a bag of Maltesers – and about as satisfying.
Why restrict yourself to something that just smells ‘nice’? Perhaps because we know how important scent is, on a primal, animal level. Smell is how we identify each other; how we connect. This isn’t just cosmetic; it goes right to the core. I’ve known thatr elationships were over because I could no longer stand the smell of the other person and, when my babies were born, I knew their scent before their cry. You might feel relaxed about an out-there dress or a strong eyeshadow colour, but taking risks with the way you smell can seem like higher stakes.
So, of course, it’s natural to seek the safety of the crowd. But get a grip. This is perfume we’re talking about. They let you try it before you buy it. It washes off. And is ‘the same as everyone else’ really the best you can do for yourself? You don’t have to smell weird or madly noticeable, or start turning over vast chunks of cash to furnish your bathroom shelves. Every major perfume house has works of genius in its collection. I would never argue that Chanel No5 is anything short of brilliant, just because you can pick it up on anyhigh street. Though I would say wear it because you love it, not because Marilyn Monroe did.
Less well-known doesn’t mean less good, or forbiddingly specialist. Take my (for today, at least) favourite perfume, Ormonde Woman by Ormonde Jayne, which used to only be sold from a tiny shop in London’s Royal Arcade. (You can get it in Selfridges now. Oh, and this little place you might have heard of, called ‘the internet’.) It is lusciously dark without being at all cloying or claustrophobic; less boudoir, more winter walk in a midnight forest. There’s nothing off-puttingly difficult or obscure about it; it’s completely, roundedly beautiful. You just need to put a bit more thought into obtaining it than opting for whatever brand has the most famous celebrity fronting the campaign. But you’ll probably appreciate it all the more.
Just like there’s a difference between muzak and Mozart,there’s a difference between a pleasant smell and something truly wondrous. And I do slightly (but silently – I might be judgey, but I’m not rude) despair at those who don’t opt for the latter. If you care enough to wear it at all, care enough to find something that makes your heart sing, stop, melt; that tells people who you are, or who you want to be; that captures something you find beautiful in a little bottle that you can take home and keep. It’s not even hard! You have to go to a museum to see a Monet; you only have to go to the shops to get some perfume. If the most your current bottle inspires is ‘nice’, you deserve more. Spend some time on it. Then spend some money. Go on, I won’t judge.
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