MOST FIRST MEMORIES of perfume for girls come from female relations—mothers, grandmothers, aunts. The cluster of bottles on the vanity, a drop on the back of the hand, or the cloud of scent that was the final touch of magical adult rite of getting dressed up to go somewhere fancy. Mine came solely from my father. My mother, who is Japanese and doesn’t like what she considers ‘loud’ scents, never showed anything but polite interest. To her, loud was anything but the scent of one’s own skin and soap, although later she professed a nostalgic love for L’air du Temps soap—a soft aldehydic floral—something one of her older sisters in Japan would occasionally buy for her. This polite interest extended to occasional gifts bestowed on her by my father or myself and my sister: an expensive bottle of Guerlain’s famous oriental, Shalimar; a less expensive bottle of Revlon’s aldehydic floral Charlie; and Bluebell by Victoria’s Secret. Instead, I became the one who found myself in love with scents, thanks to my father. One of my first memories was of him getting ready in the morning: like a magician’s trick, I never actually saw the process, only the before and after. I would watch him enter the bathroom tired and emerge sometime later from a cloud of steam, awake and smelling of old-fashioned shaving soap, Listerine and cologne. Observing his life through scent made me interested in the real and made up stories behind them; the ritual of buying, giving and wearing it; and later, how personal chemistry and scent are so entwined in the magic of attraction.
I would sit across from my father at the square oak kitchen table and watch him quietly as he added dried and fresh lavender and sandalwood to an alcohol mixture, steeping them for days, maybe even weeks before straining out the original ingredients and transferring the liquid by way of a small silver funnel into old crystal stopper bottles he would find at antique stores. He was no perfumer, but he was curious about everything and possessed a fantastic talent to create; if something captured his imagination, he would want to try and duplicate it. So besides bottles of handmade cologne, he made a beautiful working harp for my sister, and a large teak draughtman’s board for me, as well as numerous elaborately carved walking sticks for himself and jewellery for all of us—he wore a carved red coral hand on a silver chain for years; it was only when I was almost thirty that I discovered there was an original, when I was in the Residenz museum in Munich. Aside from curiosity, a lot of this was born from not having much money; so the beautiful things he wanted for himself or for us, he made, as even good materials were cheap enough to come by as scrap back in the 80s.
But my love of scent then was not just from those memories; it also came from his small row of bottles that lined a glass shelf in the bathroom. When he had some money to spare, there was Puig’s mossy-leather Quorum; Geoffrey Beene’s green floral Grey Flannel; or Lagerfeld Classic, an oriental-tobacco. When he didn’t, there was Florida Water—the stuff Scarlett O’Hara washes her mouth out with to cover the scent of brandy in Gone With the Wind. They all smelled mysterious and elaborate in their own way, and he would teach me to pick out individual ‘notes’ and commit them to memory, so I could always identify them: lavender, violet, Mysore sandalwood (sadly now almost non-existent in perfumery—scarcity due to overuse) and bergamot, among many others. He would tell me about colognes he had owned in the past with fondness, thinking them gone forever. Just based on notes and some bottle descriptions, I would later use the internet and the knowledge I accumulated through my own experience to find them and surprise him with them as Christmas gifts: Guerlain’s Eau Impériale, a floral citrus cologne created for Empress Eugénie, and Puig’s Agua Lavanda, a lavender-rosemary cologne supposedly used by Frank Sinatra.
His joy was so great that I would seek out scents I thought he would like: soon his bathroom cabinet (now that my sister and I had moved out and left it full of space) was stocked with more bottles than any Old Hollywood starlet’s vanity. When I discovered Crown Perfumery, brought back to life temporarily by the Clive Christian brand, I bought bottles of Sandringham, a floral-woody scent and Sumare, a mossy-leather as well as Eau de Quinine, Spiced Limes, and Eau de Russe—all variations on the traditional eau de cologne. Eau de Russe he objected to at first due to its sweet, powdery heliotrope. Thanking me on the phone, he said: “but kid, how can I go around smelling like a sugar cookie?” To which I told him: let the note evolve, think of it in the larger context of the scent in order to appreciate it. Very soon he grew to love it. He also found he loved a slightly bitter orange, so I bought him Creed Orange Spice, an orange-ambergris scent and L’Aromarine Orange Santal et Petitgrain. When he died we buried him with a bottle of Eau Impériale, and after he was gone, the one thing my mother couldn’t do was get rid of his scents; they still sit on the shelves and she sniffs them on the days she misses him more than she can bear.
All these scents were a bit exotic and perhaps a bit too elegant for our small Midwestern city. In these parts men wore Coty Stetson, Faberge Brut, Dana English Leather, and of course, Old Spice.
He would sometimes go to Chicago, our nearest large cosmopolitan city, to indulge one of his favourite hobbies: antique shopping (also, it was the only place at the time he could find Muelhens 4711, his preferred cologne). There were quite a few good shops in a large gay neighbourhood near Wrigley Field, and my father, then in his 50s, silver crew cut and moustache, immaculately dressed and always wearing a heavy leather jacket, wafting exquisitely fancy cologne, made not a few men swoon and ask him what he was wearing. He would proudly respond with the name of the scent and tell his admirer ‘my eldest daughter bought it for me’, to which they would swoon again and compliment both of us on our taste. He encouraged my own growing love for perfume, never telling me something was too grown up for me. He would sniff my purchases—our only real source for good perfumes was TJ Maxx, where you could pickup up department store overstock fairly cheaply—and tell me what he liked about them. There isn’t a memory of us being together where I don’t remember what he was wearing. The very last time I saw him was at Heathrow after he came to visit; he wore his beloved 4711 and I wore Trussardi Skin, a fruity-musky wood scent.
I started my own exploration by going to the local drugstore, riding there on my bicycle every week with my allowance to sniff the bottles of Revlon Intimate Musk, the floral-oriental Xia Xiang, Alyssa Ashley Musk and White Musk. Later on when I was allowed to go to the mall with my friends in junior high, I discovered Parfums de Coeur Skin Musk, The Body Shop’s fruity-oriental Ananya and White Musk. Now, white musks are everywhere and tend to smell like fabric softeners, but then, they smelled exotic. These were the height of teenage sex appeal, but not the height of sophistication; that was reserved for the perfumes in ads in Seventeen magazine, all the perfumes that were sold at the brightly lit glass and chrome department store counters where our mothers bought their Estée Lauder and Clinique. This was adult territory, something that held us in awe. My best friend at the time existed on a higher perfume plane than the rest of us: her mother was a perfume fanatic and when she got bored, she would hand them down to her daughters. They quickly accumulated bottles upon bottles of scents like Chanel No. 19, a sharp green leathery floral; Estée Lauder Private Collection, another sharp green floral; Yves Saint Laurent’s famous spicy-oriental Opium, and the rich floral Givenchy Ysatis: undeniably glamorous scents that suggested mystery and intrigue and had us pretending in front of mirrors that we were Jerry Hall, Paulina Porizkova or Carla Bruni.
Seventeen in the 80s contained ads for scents like Prescriptives Calyx, a beautiful tropical green-fruity (guava) scent, slightly bitter, but completely lush—even the ad, simple as it was, was evocative: rich green leaves shadowing a bottle. There was a very high-low mix of advertising: on one page you would find Parfums de Coeur’s ‘Designer Imposters’ sprays in a can—the cheap equivalent of the expensive scents our mothers wore (except mine) with ‘similar’ names: Calvin Klein Obsession was ‘Confess’, Giorgio Beverly Hills was ‘Primo’. We oversprayed in the locker rooms with gleeful abandon—these scents were the female ur-Lynx—although we didn’t attract anyone as much as choke them with clouds of cheap perfume. This ad would then be next to Chanel Coco, when Inès de la Fressange was still a favourite model of Karl Lagerfeld’s—before Vanessa Paradis’ famous bird-in-a-gilded-cage ad campaign—she would be decadently draped in ropes of faux pearls, photographed in profile in black and white. Like Calyx, the simplest of ads, but one that had a huge impact.
I ended up with quite a little collection of my own by the time I was out of high school: Fendi Asja, a rich oriental in a black and gold stripe lacquer style bottle; Calvin Klein Escape, a fruity-ozonic; Dior Poison, a dangerous dark fruit and tuberose scent with an equally mesmerising ad: all dark colours, a woman with closed eyes wrapped like a desert nomad in black and midnight blue proffering a bottle with the tagline “Poison is my potion”; Jean Couturier Coriandre, a herbal-rose chypre (chypre meaning Cyprus, a reference to the great scent Chypre by Coty: chypre scents are usually identified by bergamot/citrus at the top and an oakmoss base—sadly, due to IFRA restrictions, true chypres are almost non-existant and are usually a cleaned up thin patchouli-tree moss base, although Guerlain Mitsouko, another famous chypre, has undergone a very loving reformulation under restrictions); and Chanel Coco, the most beautiful oriental of them all. Thanks to the Inès de la Fressange ads, I pestered my father for some until one Christmas a small, elegant wax-sealed bottle of extrait in a black and gold box appeared under the tree. I broke the seal very carefully and dabbed it on: clove, orange blossom, amber and opoponax; heady and velvety, it made me feel like the most sophisticated of women at 16. My father sniffed and nodded approval, adding with typical understatement: “you smell alright, kid.”
Besides these, there were small bottles of various musk oils to be dabbed on, not sprayed. This was a ritual—musks sometimes came in oil form while most other perfumes did not; Coty Wild Musk, The Body Shop versions, Alyssa Ashley, Parfums de Coeur—all offered tiny 7.5ml or 15ml bottles. There was clearly an unspoken understanding with musk: it was potent, it was animalistic, it was sexy, but it was also a secret. Keep it close to the skin, and whoever was interested in you would have to lean in to catch your scent. One of the reasons Revlon’s Intimate Musk captivated me in the drugstore all those years ago was the packaging illustration: a couple in primary red, entwined in an embrace. Sex was an abstract concept for me at the time, and I as looked at the bottle and smelled the scent of musk on my skin, I could sense something I didn’t quite understand, but liked nevertheless. An 80s ad for Parfums de Coeur Skin Musk had the tagline “Skin on Skin”, the accompanying picture a close-up of a young woman’s face, her body—even though not shown—clearly meant to convey nakedness, as she embraced a faceless man. Recalling it, I found it on the internet and examined it closely. Her face has what can only be described as a damp, post-coital glow: even though her eyes are closed, the look on her face has an ecstasy about it, her full reddened lips parted and the blond tendrils of her hair pressed underneath the man’s hand. You can practically smell the sex. On the advertisement there is an offer for a free poster with purchase—I wonder how many parents tore it off bedroom walls, immediately understanding the blatant suggestiveness with the experience of years their daughters did not have.
Some people stay true to a single perfume for their entire lives; it is a deep emotional attachment as strong as any with a person. Others are completely indifferent to perfume and see it as something that should be put on for a special occasion—as a completion to the outfit, but have no real interest. All perfume is the same to them. Still others change specifically to mark major life moments: marriage, children. And some of us constantly change: we change because memories are too heavy for us to keep wearing a certain scents, because we like having an assortment to choose from; each different mood requiring a different scent, and because we simply are too interested in the various beautiful creations out there. I find that I shift in periods of a few years, with a few favourites out of whatever my collection at the time consists of. In the later 90s, I mainly wore Freesia and also the original Victoria by Victoria’s Secret. The latter was rather description defying, by my standards. It was probably a powdery oriental, but I could never think about it rationally, except in hindsight. In my mind, it was the scent of sex—although that may have had more to do with Stephanie Seymour and Frédérique van der Wal being the eye-popping embodiment of Amazonian femininity in the catalogues. Sometimes I switched over to men’s scents and wore Halston Catalyst, a wood and spice scent in a bottle that looked like a lab flask. A woman wearing a masculine scent appeals to the man in the same way wearing nothing but one of his shirts does: it takes the masculine and imbues it with a hyper-sexuality that comes from feminine possession.
By the time the early 00s came around, I wore Gucci Envy, a sharp metallic lily of the valley scent, icily sexual, CK Be (superior to the more famous CK One), and Guerlain Samsara. I found the latter in one of the many tax-free perfume shops in Guernsey just after Christmas in 1999, when it was still loaded with Mysore sandalwood: heady, hypnotic, and wreaking havoc on my mild asthma, although I stubbornly clung to the bottle for years. Then came the niche perfumes from the independent/small perfumers who created interesting offbeat scents that you couldn’t find in the mainstream. Some of the better known were Philosykos from Diptyque, a dry cedar and fig scent, the fig almost having a coconut aspect to it (my favourite was their Opône, discontinued and brought back to life, although the original was richer: a dark, almost masculine rose and saffron scent), and L’artisan Parfumeur, best known for Mûre et Musc, a light blackberry and musk scent that for anyone who grew up in North America in the 80s, smelled of Strawberry Shortcake doll heads. Most famous of the niche brands is still probably Serge Lutens, an almost mythic character who used to create makeup for Dior and was an art director for Shiseido, producing the most beautiful images of women that looked almost alien—otherworldly, ultra-stylised creatures. There is a legend told by one of his models that they decided to recreate Nero and the burning of Rome, and set the studio on fire in the process. He and Christopher Sheldrake (the latter was the perfumer, the former more the creative director) were responsible for some of the most unique scents in niche: Rahät Loukoum, the scent of Turkish Delight, the almost cherry sweetness of almond and powdered sugar, and Muscs Koublaï Khän, a scent that revolts some and seduces others depending on their tolerance for musk and civet. It is worth noting that musk, civet and castoreum used in perfumery now is all synthetic—or at least in Western perfumery.
I’ve bought and sold so many bottles during this time I can’t even count: as I got bored of one I would sell it to fund another. I amassed a collection that I studied, and when I realised that I didn’t wear them so much as analyse them, I sold them all and didn’t buy anything but small sample vials when I wanted to learn about new ones. The fact is, there is so much out there now that I couldn’t keep up unless it was a full-time job. With IFRA regulations and mainstream companies tweaking formulations constantly to keep profits high while they sell more and many niche brands raising prices to new unaffordable levels, a lot of it isn’t as interesting as it used to be. As far as vintage collecting is concerned, not only does it require a huge amount of patience but it’s a huge gamble. You have to be appreciative of the fact that aside from the possibility of people faking/adulterating contents of bottles, natural degradation means often you end up with a bottle where the only really discernible part of the perfume end up being the base (although if you want to study perfumes from the 30s, 40s or 50s this still yields a lot of rewards). Sometimes it’s worth it: struck by an almost aching nostalgia to smell some vintage 80s Colors de Benetton for Women, I hunted down the original black top splash bottle on Ebay. There was a bit of degradation, but not so much that the beautiful rich orange blossom and basil top notes that hit my nose didn’t fill me with a rush of intense satisfaction.
Scent is an incredibly personal, intimate pleasure. We wear it to please ourselves and seduce others. It’s no accident that advertisements always come back to the idea of scent and memory, scent and seduction—they’re all bound to each other. I love it when lovers can only identify a scent with the memory of me, and likewise, there are scents worn by lovers that I will only ever associate with them. The greatest compliment, of course, is for someone to love your own scent—even better when they know the story of chemistry: how the body attracts another, when you inhale someone’s skin-scent and understand the primal compatibility, revel in that particular aspect of animal attraction. But the next best thing is for someone to love the scent you wear, when you see their eyes light up and know that it leads them to you like a path only they can see. There has been only one time in my life when the memory of a person was so painful that it became permanently bound up with a particular scent. That person wore Miller Harris Feuilles de Tabac, which I also happen to own and wore frequently once. I still have the bottle, but every time I take off the cap to spray it, the wood and tobacco scent drifts up and transports me back to last time I saw him—a cool summer evening in London, standing in the shadows of a hotel near King’s Cross as endless buses and taxis drive by, oblivious to us, and he tells me even though he wants a life with me, there is something else that is more important, something he wouldn’t tell me. I not only smell wood and tobacco, but his skin and hair, the London night, my sadness.
To choose a scent is to let go: let go of what people tell you you should wear and what might suit you. Let it sit on your skin and blend with your chemistry. The best ones always feel like you, but they bring out an aspect of your personality — more sexual, more innocent, more powerful: whatever it is you want to feel at the time you wear it. What do I wear now? I must have a tray of a dozen scents or so still; and I do wear every single one of them. Among those, were I forced to narrow down favourites, I would choose Le Labo Ylang 49, an earthy, mossy humid tropical floral that blooms sultrily in the oppressive heat of summer; Le Labo Cedre 11, the scent of pure bonfire (technically not perfume but an ‘ambient’ scent, but with higher quality brands home scents tend to just be weaker concentration perfumes—although there is nothing weak about this); Chanel Bois des Iles, a woody aldehyde: Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house for adults, but not sweet—spice and rich velvety woods; Vero Profumo Rubj, a carnal white floral—the carnality thanks to the blend of fleshy hot tuberose and passion fruit; and finally Nasomatto Black Afgano: the marketing would like to tell you it is based on hashish, but on my skin it is a dark, rich woody musk, seductive and powerful.
I tell people perfumes are a hobby. While that’s true—I’m an amateur in the old sense, a lover— it is much more than that: it is the connection and creation of memories, a way of linking all the beautiful things and places and people I’ve experienced and loved. It doesn’t have to come from a bottle—it can be the process itself, like watching my father at the kitchen table. It can come from place, like the scent of jasmine in the summer taking me back in my head to Menton on the French Riviera, the salt breeze mixing with the indolic, heavy flowers there, and it can even be imaginary, because the imagination of course is a powerful thing: when you create the scent of someone in your head, out of curiosity and longing, and wonder if the reality of their flesh and chemistry will sing to your own.
Tomoé Hill was born in Wisconsin and after escaping to London, now lives and writes in the South of England. Her pieces have been in The Stockholm Review of Literature, minor literature[s], Open Pen, and LossLit. She is deputy and reviews editor at minor literature[s]. @CuriosoTheGreat.
Beautiful writing, seductive prose, very evocative.