10 February 2017

A Black Perfume

What does the colour black smell like? Whenever I read a book, I usually find myself imagining what the wardrobe of each character looks like (past whatever descriptions the author has given). What shoes are they wearing? What is their favourite piece of clothing? What makes up the majority of their wardrobe? A surprising number of actors say that their character development begins with the shoes - once you know what footwear your character would wear, you are able to quite literally stand in their shoes. This gives you a feel for what their physical presence would be, both when standing and when in movement. The body and the mind are connected, so in understanding how your character feels on their feet, how steady they are, how they are able to move, you also gain some insight into their ways of being. Of course in film or theatre the clothes of the character are there for you see, and indeed, costume design is an incredibly important part of film. It situates us within the narrative and imagined period, and also gives us insight into the roles and positions of each character.

In both instances, whether literary or visual, my mind then connects clothing to smell. What would each character smell like? What type of perfume would they wear? What are their favourite smells? If I watch a film, or read a book, I like to imagine what the characters smell like. This is something I also carry across to fashion shows, because each and every season the designer is essentially presenting characters for the runway. I think of it like a theatre performance, with characters for each show, and while I can see what they are wearing, my mind then jumps to imagining what perfume they would wear, if any at all. It is not something I think of straight away, but once I have been looking at a collection for a while, I find myself imagining a backstory for each character and comparing that to what the designer says about the collection. It is actually far easier with some collections than other, depending on the theatricality of the designer in the first place, but I think that it is just a fun way for me to think about things from a different perspective.

How does that apply to my own experiences? Well I also happen to link the clothing I wear to perfumes. While I do not have specific pairing rules, I do find myself drawn more to certain perfumes depending on what I happen to be wearing. I got to thinking whether I could actually find the connective thread running through this habit, which arose quite accidentally, and explore the idea further. I do not think that there is any specific rule of correlation to be found, but I did start thinking more broadly about the link between what I wear in terms of garments and what I wear in terms of perfume. It is always best to start simply, and that is exactly what I did. I am usually dressed in black, with some white outfits slowly creeping into my wardrobe, so I thought to myself - what does black smell like? And if I can find a range of what I consider to be black perfumes, then could I pair them with different black outfits? It would be absolutely impossible for anybody else to decipher the relationship, because it would be entirely built upon my subjective experience, but even so, I liked the idea of it.

So where does one start with finding a black perfume? Most popular designer fragrances usually have a black (evening or extreme) version that is supposedly darker and sold in a darker bottle, but I find that all rather meaningless. Adding a loud note of oud or incense to the composition does not automatically make a perfume black, even if it might make it darker for the most parts. In fact when it comes to a deep, thick, rich oud, I actually find myself picturing a velvety gold or a polished dark carnelian red. And when it comes to incense, I think of either a warm grey-brown mortar (think of a Gothic church), or picture myself standing in shade while looking at afternoon sunlight hitting a sandy desert for as far as the eye can see. Even so, I am fascinated by how perfumers interpret the colour black for perfumes they compose. So I thought I might just explore some of the "black" named perfumes I own.

Brand: Bulgari
Perfume: Black

How it smells: A masterpiece in terms of perfume composition. A solid base of leather, vanilla and amber, with a heavy dose of smoky lapsang souchong and that infamous rubber note. The opening is rather brash with burning rubber and a spicy sandalwood blast. However this quickly mellows with a smoky tea that dances lightly above a warm blend of vanilla and leather. There is some manner of clean musk in there as well that some might happen to be anosmic to, which is probably why the amber and vanilla also feature so heavily, but it helps give a nice powdery warmth.

How I picture it: A blue tinted glass cube with grey smoke inside, displayed in the foyer of some glass and metal skyscraper on a sunny Winter's day.

Colour: Gunmetal grey

Brand: By Kilian
Perfume: Back To Black

How it smells: Smooth, dark, sweet and fruity. A rich honey melts into strong pipe tobacco, with a cherry/raspberry accord that cuts through it all quite nicely. There is also some vanilla there in the background that is livened up with ginger and other spices. You would assume that this would enter gourmand territory with all those berries and spices, but the tobacco means that it steers well clear. A comforting and inviting perfume overall. I do not particularly care for gender divisions in perfume, but this has a definite masculine feel for me. I sometimes think I might be too young to be wearing this, but it just works too well to miss.

How I picture it: A beautifully aged, but neatly polished, brown leather and dark wood chair nestled in a living room filled with a diverse mix of twentieth century art.

Colour: Mahogany brown

Brand: Nasomatto
Perfume: Black Afgano

How it smells: This is apparently based on hashish. I have no experience of hashish, but if this is what it smells like, I guess I can understand why people would try to smoke it. Oddly enough, to me it just smells of lavish mosques. It has a rich earthy smell with lots of smoke and incense. The opening is sharp and in your face, with coffee grounds and an almost green wood, but it smooths out relatively quickly and becomes softer and slightly sweeter. The base is apparently built on oud and incense, but I would say that the oud is drier and more resinous than usual. That almost sickly sweetness you get with a proper oud is not there at all, so it smells dry and dark, rather than warm and sweet. Simultaneously inviting and aloof.

How I picture it: A black velvet hanging with golden embroidery hung inside a newly built mosque.

Colour: Black marble

Do you associate certain colours with smells or certain smells with colours?



  1. I absolutely love the sort of synesthesia you're putting into words here. I also find it quite interesting how scent plays a roll in your perception of a character, and using it to better understand identity. I don't find myself using that sense commonly, but it most definitely attributes to individuality.

  2. Nice writing! As I'm slowing moving to a total black look fashion-wise (or more like 90% with little touches of color here and there), it's funny how, me being a perfume collector, my tastes in perfumes is evolving too, unconsciously... I used to like a little bit of everything when it came to fragrances notes, now I enjoy sweeter/vanillic/fruity scents less and less and I'm more and more attracted to incensey/oudy/leathery and even rosey scents more and more. It goes to shows how living in black literally affects our perception of things, even our senses. It's a weird experience...
    now as for suggestions for scents that would smell "black" I think many of the Comme Des Garçons scents nail it : the Incense series (Avignon, Ouarzazate, Kyoto, Zagorsk), Black of course (with a nice licorice and incense blend) and the more mainstream Wonderwood (woody) and CdG man (incense and woods)... Amouage have some interesting 'dark' scents, especially Memoir (absynth note? Yesss!) and Interlude (the best incense imho and one of the longest lasting scents ever)... for warmer days, vetiver provides my shot of "darkness" scent-wise... "Encre Noire" by Lalique is a good choice (or the fresher version "Encre Noire Sport").

  3. As always, love the writing! Personally, I find myself reaching for cheerier scents whenever I dress in head to toe black, and more somber scents when dressed in color. I find counterbalance super interesting in fashion and i try to incorprate it into my daily dress in simple ways.