I was young, out of town at my first work conference, feeling shy and unschooled in what were clearly rituals of the occasion—the swag room where people tried to sell you their stuff, the schmoozy continental breakfast, the politics, the hookups…. On the first long break, I nipped into a nearby store and sniffed a few perfumes, just to feel frivolous and defiant. I returned wearing a sample of Ysatis, and I stayed awake through all the panel discussions by inhaling my wrist. The fragrance transported me. It took me out of the awkward, unfamiliar setting; it surrounded me with a cloud of loveliness. (The Ysatis I raced to buy when I got home was nowhere near as magical; all I could afford was eau de commode.)
In a recent Paris Review discussion, Sianne Ngai says, “When I’d perform in public I’d wear something for me to smell, like a halo of protection.” That was exactly it. “Perfume can be a kind of invisible armor,” adds Jude Stewart, who organized this conversation after writing Revelations in Air: A Guidebook to Smell.
Ngai is an English professor at the University of Chicago, and the third friend in the conversation is Anna Kornbluh, an English professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. They both have a Marxist critical bent, and they are more than willing to explore the dark side of scent. Good perfume is clearly a luxury—is it “a fantasy of hyperconsumption”? Or is that one more misogynist dismissal, because there has been a “long historical, artistic, and rhetorical association of women with too much consumption, with uselessness and ornament”?
There has indeed. Though the uncompromising edge of many Marxist critiques makes me nervous, I applaud the quote from Herbert Marcuse: “Nothing is too good for the people.” Luxury all round! Perfume need not be an elitist power play. Although it can be passive-aggressive—witness the women who deliberately spritz too much heavy perfume, nose-blind while everyone seated around them at the opera heaves or sneezes. Ngai mentions a woman who wore strong perfume to shop for clothes because she liked leaving her scent on every garment she tried on, which rather reminds me of a dog lifting his leg to mark his journey, though I doubt she would equate her Chanel No. 5 with a urinating mastiff.
“Part of what one is choosing with perfume is to create a nimbus,” Stewart points out. “The question is, how social or private should that nimbus be?” Scent worn for my husband can be subtle, because he will come close. But scent is also self-expression, an aura you carry with you to set a certain mood, evoke a certain response.
Unfortunately, my favorites smell like Gregorian chant. Heavy on oud, they suggest incense, and my formerly Catholic soul finds deep peace in that resonance. My Jewish husband does not. This is one of the gaps in our marriage: he likes light, sweet, florals that give me a headache. For almost three decades, I have searched for a perfume we would both like; the bottles are lined up on a shelf, all nearly full.
Vanilla seemed promising; we both love the smell. So I tried all the foodie perfumes that were heavy on vanilla, only to realize that what we both love is the smell of cookies baking. As I am not a cookie, smelling like one is inevitably a disappointment. These new perfumes are far too literal. Reproducing a single smell is fine if you are a citrus room freshener, but perfume should be abstract and evocative. Not gimmicky, like that high-concept beef perfume that will probably last about as long as Thanksgiving turkey sodapop did. And not stealing wholesale from a different experience, either. “Nori Cyan smells like the sea,” Stewart notes, “but not in a Jean Naté, fresh, clean, overly simplistic way. It’s more like the actual sea, with a little rot and that live, hunger-making quality of ocean air.” A great description, but not something I want to dab behind my ears.
Perfume is complicated; it layers itself in time, warming on our skin, releasing base notes and top notes and remixing itself in the air. Those who grasp the subtleties risk sounding as silly as wine-tasters to the uninitiated. Jasmine may indeed have a slight note of fecal decay, but calling that out in casual conversation is both pompous and gross.
Sentiment is also risky. I still love Polo because one of my first boyfriends soaked himself in it—but I adored the fragrance far more than I adored him. I often wear Shalimar because my mother wore it, and when she smoothed my fevered brow, it smelled like love. To those around me, I suspect it smells like old-lady perfume. (“It has leather notes,” I want to snap.)
I am still, at this late day, hunting for a signature scent. Something people will associate with me and not gag. Smells can so easily disgust or sicken us; our noses are capable of smelling fear, disease, rot. But smells can also conjure joy: baking bread is homey, baby powder is tender, lavender is calming; coffee means good morning; spring has the damp, mossy smell of new life, summer the tingle of fresh-mowed grass. Once you know more about scents and their history, you can inhale jasmine, Stewart tells us, and smell civilization, well-ordered beauty, and luxury. Not just poop.
“Even though smell is our most sensitive sense,” Kornbluh remarks, “it’s the one around which we have the least cultural apparatus. You can’t traffic in smell the way we traffic in images or sounds.” When we try, it is often a disaster: cheap scents in detergents and air fresheners, the Smell-o-Vision cinema debacle, the ladies ambushing you at the entrance to a department store and spritzing you with free and usually vile fragrance, the overscented magazines readers begged to stop. Perfume ads are often vapid—a woman in a gauzy dress riding a white horse through the mist. They are flattened and painfully White, Ngai notes, and they tell you nothing about how the stuff actually smells. Partly, I suspect, because they are not selling the scent; they are selling stuff that is far pricier: romance and confidence and mystery. But partly, too, because when you try to capture a scent, the words break.
Perfume is an intimate commodity, something you have to hunt for and save up for. When you find the right one, you are brought back to your senses, happy to be in your body, protected from anything noxious you might encounter. For better or for worse, your smell “extends your personal space,” Ngai points out. An equal-opportunity version of manspreading, it captures attention and makes you bigger. It also lives in time, so if someone picks up your favorite sweater and breathes in, they will feel like they are holding you close again. We are like other animals, in that our scent identifies us. The trick is making recognition a pleasure.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.