1 May 2015

Dress Well And Smell Nice

Pour Un Homme (first released 1934) and Yatagan (first released 1978), both by Caron.

Each and every morning I have a shower, I groom myself and I get dressed. I then reach for a bottle of perfume to spray on myself, choosing a fragrance that feels right for my outfit and right for what I have to do that day. I have worn perfume pretty much every single day for the past decade, and yet it is not a practice I have ever really given any serious thought to. I find this odd considering the fact that I never feel entirely dressed unless I am wearing perfume, and indeed I own several bottles including everything from the likes of Caron's fearsome Yatagan (a favourite of Iris Apfel), to a fragrance designed for Jane Birkin that was amusingly praised by Luca Turin as smelling of “boozy kisses, stale joss sticks, rising damp, and soiled underwear”.

I have spent the past two years smelling just about every perfume I can get my hands and nose on, learning to recognise notes and figure out exactly what I am smelling and what I enjoy smelling. The deeper I dive, the richer and more interesting things become. I try to remain open-minded in the sense that I do not care whether a perfume is expensive or inexpensive, from a luxury house or a celebrity release, marketed for men or women - all that matters is how it smells. In fact some of my favourite perfumes, and coincidentally the most critically acclaimed, have been relatively cheap to purchase (the fact that you can pick up 125ml of Caron's Pour Un Homme, an exquisitely comforting blend of lavender and vanilla, first formulated in the middle of the Great Depression, for under £30 is insane).

I said that I pick fragrances according to what feels right for my outfit, and that is actually quite a hard decision to describe. As with my general process of getting dressed it is very much centred around feeling, but I have noticed patterns of habit emerging. In fact I can pull sweaters out of my wardrobe and know exactly which perfume, or combination of perfumes, they will smell of before I even pull them up to my nose (I do not spray my clothing, however perfume sprayed on my neck tends to rub off on necklines). I have never been the type of person to wear the same perfume day after day, although I certainly have periods where one scent dominates (this past Winter was mainly the beautifully crafted Au Masculin from Lolita Lempicka - tacky bottle design, but a stunning liquorice, praline and violet leaf scent that is reminiscent of the original formulation of Yohji Homme).

My clothes hold memories and the my perfumes hold memories. Perfume is by nature more ephemeral than clothing, because you need to physically encounter it in order to smell it, and even then, unless you are around for the entire development you only ever get a snapshot. In order to smell a perfume the aroma molecules have to physically interact with the smell receptors in your nose (which would seem to decipher odours in a syllabic manner, although the truth is we still do not fully understand how exactly our sense of smell works), with the shorter chain molecules making up the brief top notes, while the longer chain molecules form the warmer and long-lasting base notes. Perfume is one of the most affordable luxuries there is - a bottle can last a decade, and it costs the fraction of a designer dress, but you can wear it far longer. It is odd that perfume, this ephemeral and invisible luxury, so implicitly tied into the idea of fashion, lasts so much longer and stays far more relevant than fashion. To take one example, I own a bottle of Hammam Bouquet that was originally created in 1872, and assuming the current formulation is at least vaguely faithful to that original, it has a longer life than any fashion could ever hope to have.    

My first bottle of "grown-up" perfume was an original formulation of Dior Homme, first released in 2005 (I either received it that year or the year after). In fact I have been carefully nursing the miniscule amount of juice I have left in that bottle over the past few years. It has been reformulated various times over the intervening years, and what I smell in stores these days is nothing close to my beloved bottle, even accounting for the fact that perfume changes in the bottle as it ages (I should really follow Tania Sanchez's advice: if you find a perfume you love, buy two bottles, because it will invariably end up reformulated or discontinued). That being said, the first perfume I was ever given was the requisite boy scout canteen bottle of Hugo Boss at the age of 13 or 14 (these days I cringe if I smell it on a grown man). Alongside that I remember wearing perfumes owned by my eldest brother, including L'Eau d'Issey Pour Homme, of which I own a bottle, and the red plastic tub of the original formulation of Gucci Rush (marketed for women). But before these (alongside teenage memories of Chanel's Platinum Egoiste, Calvin Klein's Obsession For Men, Dior's Fahrenheit, and numerous other perfumes I doubt I could ever wear again) my experience of perfume was entirely different.  

You see I had a somewhat unorthodox introduction to perfume in childhood, in that before I encountered the eau de toilettes of my teenage years, perfume for me consisted of tiny precious-looking glass vials of dark concentrated oil that came back carefully wrapped with friends and family from the Middle East and South Asia. Unstoppering these tiny vials would unleash a dense wave of exotic smells - Turkish rose oil, Damascus rose oil, Oud oil, vetiver oil, amber oil, jasmine oil, styrax oil. While these were pure oils it should be noted that perfume oils smell different to their diluted counterparts, essentially being a condensed version that is darker and usually missing the lighter top notes. Of all of those oils I most vividly remember oud and rose. I believe Yves Saint Laurent's M7, released in 2002, was one of the first commercially successful oud-based fragrances for men, but years before that I knew the powerful smell of pure oud oil. When it comes to perfume, I was thrown in at the deep end – rich, dense, liquid gold. But to this day smelling oud makes me picture bad hair cuts and cheap polyester suits. Go figure.

My father never wore Old Spice, or Brut, or whichever aftershave most dads wore when I was younger. In fact he never wore any perfume except on special occasions when his preference was for pure rose oil. The best description I have read for the extraction of natural perfume materials is that instead of Seville oranges you always get marmalade. Rose oil is a heady and sweaty scent that differs greatly from the natural aroma of a fresh rose. But then if you smell most flowers in their natural habitat, they never smell anything like the perfumes, natural or not, based on them. In fact most natural flowers have all manner of odd notes, from faecal matter to vomit, because nature has a wicked sense of humour. It is probably thanks to my father, and his love for roses, that I have never paid attention to the “gender” of perfumes. I will wear anything that moves me, regardless of whether it is marketed towards men or women.

For me perfume is an integral part of my dressing process, and is very much a sensory practice, so I thought it would be interesting to introduce the idea here. I have been thinking of writing reviews for some of my favourite perfumes, just to see if I can, because although I have been learning about perfume, writing about it is another matter entirely. Regardless, this is a topic that I will no doubt come back to in the near future.


1 comment:

  1. Thoughtfully observed and told. Perfume is also a daily habit for me, though I'm currently in single scent phase, being Black Orchid. I find perfume fixes time, people and places rigidly in my head/nose. When I maintain a "wardrobe" of scent, I bore of the older bottles in favour of the newest, and then resent the need to "use it up". My solution is to pick one for the now that I can love and leave, before embarking on a new scent chapter. I may not have your discipline!