‘I like your perfume. I can tell when you’ve been in. It always smells clean and fresh afterwards.’
Taken at face value, this is a reasonably nice complement. If I were to add that it was paid to me by a man – a burly, white-haired security guard, to be precise – whose uniform, worn on a daily basis, exudes a mild whiff of body odour, the complement becomes cringe worthy, if not downright bizarre. I have become accustomed to the occasional remark about my dress from male and female colleagues, which for reasons of low-esteem I frequently Tweet, but another man remarking about my scent put me on edge. And this was not the first time, and it has not been the last time, that my apparently pleasant odour has aroused the olfactory senses of my fellow sex. Not that I am necessarily averse to the attentions of men, you understand.
On another occasion, a female friend and colleague asked me about the application of perfume, as she complained that hers never seemed to last the day. Originally from continental Europe, the lady in question expressed surprise that I smelt so nice when Englishmen generally did not, or else smelt of nothing in particular. I explained that I apply my fragrance directly to my body after showering in the morning. Impressed, and eager to experiment for herself, several days later my friend reported that the tip had worked and she could now enjoy satisfying whiffs of her perfume throughout the day.
I am not alone in noticing people’s increasing interest in scent. Whilst style magazines have always advertised fragrances, samples of which are impregnated on fold-out tabs that are universally non-descript and sneeze-inducing, a large number now include editorial commentary on the latest and most sensuous of these smells. In Esquire’s first UK edition of the Black Book, one of their ten pages of ‘Essentials’ is devoted to scents.[i] Our obsession with smell – and I think ‘obsession’ is the right word – is age-old and sociological. In his seminal study of human manners and behaviour, German sociologist Norbert Elias noted how people’s inclination to regulate their behaviour increased in tandem with the density and complexity of their society. As commercial and political developments made personal and professional relationships more common, and commensurately more important, so people began to worry (more) about how they presented and represented themselves. Personal hygiene and etiquette became an immediate focus of attention, especially for those who inhabited the ever-mobile and malevolent world of the princely court.[ii]
Decorum-induced dilemmas created a rich literature in guides that advised readers – almost invariably princes – on correct comportment, which included dining etiquette, dress and personal hygiene. These were the very first self-help books. We know that England’s ‘evil’ King John (1199-1216) bathed roughly every two weeks.[iii] In the later medieval period, the Order of the Bath drew on the cleansing and purifying associations of washing to bind newly dubbed knights to England’s monarch.[iv] But as so often the case with matters of elegance and appearance, it was the French monarchs Louis XIV (1638-1715) and Louis XVI (1774-1792) who made cleanliness, and sweet smelling unguents, de rigueur among the elite.[v]
Seductive Serge Lutens
In her recent book, The Perfume Lover, fragrance writer and perfume consultant Denyse Beaulieu admits to being a bouquet bigamist, among other things. As she cheated on her husband with the ‘Monsieur’, so she began to cheat on her perfumer, Serge Lutens.[vi] I have worn a large number of fragrances, but my redolent relationships have always been monogamous. Currently, I wear Lutens’ Serge noire.
Un choix porte au cœur tous les dangers:
celui d’être vous meme.
Merci avec nous de prendre ce risque![vii]
So reads the provocative complimentary card that accompanied my recent Serge Lutens purchase. The words are well chosen. The evocative names of Luten’s fifty-plus fragrances, and the olfactory descriptions that accompany them, reveal his scents are not conventional: Nuit de cellophane (transparent thrill), Muscs Koublaï Khän (a radiant fur), Bornéo 1834 (if it has to be said, a patchouli), Mandarine – mandarin (sparkling citrus), and my two personal favourites, Five o’clock gingembre (candied, peppar) and Serge noire (incense stirred by the smell of burnt wood). Lutens is relatively new to the world of fine fragrance – his first collection, which included four perfumes, was launched in 1992 – but his complex and idiosyncratic scents, undoubtedly inspired by Morocco where he is now based, give wearers a thrill and a sublime satisfaction that feels truly unique, even though this is increasingly unlikely to be the case.
Serge noire, which conjures two of my favourite smells, leather and tobacco, is far removed from Davidoff’s GoodLife, which is floral, citrus, oh-so-fresh and one of the first fragrances that I can remember wearing, probably fifteen plus years ago. I still have a small amount of the perfume left, which I doubt I shall ever wear. I’ll preserve what remains for the memories. My move from a floral to a foggy fragrance could be age-related. As with many presentational experiments, first forays tend to be loud and piercing, and GoodLife is certainly pungent. Subtly – I hesitate to say sophistication – tends to come with maturity and experience. On the other hand, my change in scent may not be personal at all. It is entirely possible that my preference for something a little spicier has been subconsciously influenced by societal mores.
The Spice Of Life
Financial Times’ columnist Caroline Brien is one of the many commentators who have remarked on the intensified interest in fragrance, among men and women. Brien’s analysis is subtler than most, for she argues that there is a particular prevalence for scents with an oriental twist.[viii] She argues that the rise of Arabic and Asian perfumers is a reflection of the geographical shift in luxury markets. This is undoubtedly a significant point. According to Mark Tungate, 40 per cent of all luxury consumers now reside in Asia.[ix] But I think there is more to it than this. The relative ubiquity of oud (‘a rich scent from the resin of the Agar tree’) and nude (‘rich, sensual and, while not quite in the 1980s “enters a room before you do” category, makes an obvious statement’[x]) make eastern, or eastern-inspired, fragrances distinct. Western fragrances are typically floral. It seems plausible that the relative ubiquity of these oriental ‘olfactory themes’ is as likely to reflect society’s current economic ennui as much as the location of the world’s new luxury buyers. The edgy, perhaps slightly odd, scents that eastern perfumers provide parallels the very obviously edgy and angular designs that have been such a prominent feature of catwalks in London, Milan and New York. Remember Craig Green’s collection at London Collections: Men in January? (the picture will jog your memory). The scents and clothes that we are being encouraged to wear, really do focus on the notion a second skin, for purposes of defence.
Exotic scent is also transporting. It can take its wearer, mentally if not physically, to warmer and more pleasant shores. The effects of this can be twofold. For the wearer, the fragrance comforts by offering a fleeting escape from their recession-based woes. It could also boost confidence. A passer-by, who might have similar thoughts of travel on breathing the bouquet, could associate the wearer with disposal income and the ‘high life’, thus making them appear resilient to the doldrums of debt. This is not (necessarily) extravagant theorising. Various commentators have noted that people are generally inclined to exalt their wealth during times of economic stringency. A rise in the number of men booking into tanning salons has been attributed to their desire to appear well travelled and economically secure.[xi] Again, we come back to defence.
Message In A Bottle
Fortunately, fragrance, like tanning appointments or headwear, which also appears to be selling well in our straitened times, is a reasonably cheap way of making a noticeable statement about wealth. Quite deliberately. Ever since couturier Paul Poiret launched Rosine in 1911, luxury brands have sold perfume as a canny way of enticing more consumers. As Mark Tungate observes, the ‘pretty glass bottles were prisms through which everyday consumers could glimpse a life of luxury.’[xii] But the evanescent elixir is more powerful than this, for as Tom Payne has noted with reference to Mariah Carey’s M perfume, it can give expression to the celebrity’s name its bears:
Had you presented [the perfume] as a gift, then you were presenting Mariah Carey, and offering your beneficiary the chance to smell like her. In this way a famous person becomes reproducible and has the power to be everywhere. This is something more pervasive and subliminal than other sorts of merchandise, such as Desperate Housewives dolls or a Martha Stewart fitted sheet. Even so, it is successful because it is fleeting. As we inhale it, we are aware of moments to be seized.[xiii]
Men are no less subject to this subtle psychology than women, as the Christmas launch of a new James Bond fragrance revealed. According to British GQ, the fragrance is ‘the most dangerously sophisticated fragrance in the world.’ No comment. In buying fragrance, be it celebrity endorsed, spicy or floral, many of us would probably agree with designer Edward Meadham, who has said that fragrance completes a story and ‘makes the ‘character’ of [a clothing] collection more three-dimensional.’[xiv]
A Poisoned Chalice?
But lifting the lid, or plunging the vaporiser, of our favourite bottled fragrances carries a risk that is perhaps far greater than that of any item of apparel that we wear. As Denyse Beaulieu realised when making Seville à l’Aube with perfumer Betrand Duchaufour, a significant quantity of the components within perfume are pheromones that frequently smell of the primal and the base, of unwashed body parts and detritus. When the balance of scents is perfected, the smell of damp dog is mercifully depressed, but the effect of the pheromones is not (necessarily). So, whatever you wear, and however you apply it, be wary of burly security men and their disarming compliments.
[i] ‘Scents’, Esquire (UK): The Big Black Book (Spring/Summer, 2013), 135.
[ii] H. Hitchings, Sorry! The English and their Manners (London, 2013), 53-97.
[iii] T.D. Hardy, Rotuli de Liberate ac de Misis et Praestitis, regnante Johanne (London, 1844), 115, 137.
[iv] A. Weir, Henry VIII: king and court (London, 2001), 14.
[v] D. Beaulieu, The Perfume Lover: a personal history of scent (London, 2012), 18-26.
[vi] Ibid., 134.
[vii] For the Anglophone reader: ‘Choosing to be yourself is not without its perils. Thank you for taking the risk with us.’
[viii] C. Brien, ‘New season, new scents’, Financial Times Weekend: Life & Arts (February 16/17, 2013), 4.
[ix] M. Tungate, Luxury World: The past, present and future of luxury brands (London, 2009), 4.
[xi] S. Armstrong, ‘Bronze age man’, The Sunday Times: Style (Sunday, 17 March 2013), 62.
[xii] Tungate, Luxury World, 2.
[xiii] T. Payne, Fame: what the classics tells us about our cult of celebrity (New York, 2009), 182.
[xiv] E. Ings-Chambers, ‘Breathe In’, The Sunday Times: Style (10 March, 2013), 18.