Leaving the house without putting on perfume? You may as well have asked me to leave my shoes at home while I’m at it. I’ve worn perfume every single day of lockdown, without fail. I’ve worn perfume near enough every single day for as long as I can remember. From pinching indulgent sprays of White Linen from my mum’s dresser to the sharp slice of Light Blue at the back of a school bus my every day is earmarked in olfactory moments – bold and intrusive, slightly obnoxious, and impossible to forget. With scent being tied so closely to memory and nostalgia though how do we begin to reexamine our personal relationship with fragrance?
Fragrance isn’t something you typically buy without smelling it first. Maybe it’s the stickiness of it on someone else’s skin or the heady atmosphere of department stores, layering jasmine with sandalwood and lemon and vanilla and trying to find the crook in your arm where something transcendent comes to nest. My purse overspilled with tester strips. Vanille 44 for the sticky sweet gourmand like brushing croissant flakes from between your fingers. Or Iris Prima – a powdery scent reminiscent of an old bookstore captured with the sound of an orchestra tuning and working to a steady swell. Or the intoxicating Shalimar which somehow felt like candlelight, a bustling marketplace, and the full-throated laugh at a dinner party. Perfume should feel like poetry – in your mouth and on your skin. If it doesn’t make you feel something, then what’s the point?
We’re less likely to buy something new, instead harking back to those safe steady slivers of familiarity, chasing “a la recherche du temps perdu” – that Proustian moment of recapturing lost time. Scent can bring you back to a time or a place but for me, it’s always felt more like establishing a sense of self – a shorthand manifesto acting as both armor and extension. If you smell amazing there’s at least for me, the mental implication that you have your shit together. It’s a sense of polish. Then there’s me. I am the exception that proves the rule or that destroys my entire hypothesis altogether. When things feel uncertain, the blanket of a recognizable perfume can feel like an act of preservation. Even with bare skin and bedridden hair you’re done. This small private luxury restores a feeling of normalcy.
Home fragrances continue to see an upwards swing – with candles and diffuser sales going up, perhaps because it’s easier to take a chance on creating a sense of ambiance and atmosphere in your living room than on your skin. Fragrance houses though can still guide you through finding a perfume that “fits” through online personality tests that feel a little bit like some sort of epicurean quiz from the back of teen magazines. Atelier Cologne ask you to take part in a tinder-like swipe of fragrances and pick from a mood wheel, Penhaligons meanwhile lean in to creating a sense of time or place with questions like where you’d wear this, how do you want to feel, and are you drinking tea or coffee. And then of course there’s the Le Labo Proust questionnaire – part fragrance profile, part therapy session with questions like when do you lie, which natural talent do you wish you had and, my personal favorite – how would you like to die?
I don’t know how much merit I put on online quizzes as a sales mechanic – though perhaps I should put my results online alongside my Myers Brigg and star sign because fragrance can tell you as much about a person as those. Perfume is a cloak and a dagger, a statement of intent to a room full of strangers as much as myself. I want to wear perfume to bed, and to the shops and steadily make sure that I romance myself as much as the world. And maybe putting on perfume before a zoom call reminds me of who I am as much as who I could be. But for now, I long for the day when someone leans into you at a party, their warm breathe over your neck and the bubbling question, part laughter, part gentle intrigue – asking “What are you wearing?”