Love, Hate & Revulsion: My Perfume Hall Of Shame
“…Can't look it in the eyes
Seconal, Spanish fly, absinthe, kerosene
Cherry-flavored neck and collar
I can smell the sorrow on your breath
The sweat, the victory and sorrow
The smell of fear, I got it
I'll take you over, there
I'll take you over, there
Aluminum, tastes like fear
Adrenaline, it pulls us near…”
(Excerpt from “E-Bow The Letter” by R.E.M)
I discovered that I was a little different at a very young age. My sense of smell was very sharp and I was extremely sensitive to unpleasant odors. Olfactory acuity is definitely a double-edged sword; as much pleasure as I get out of flowers, perfume and other wonderful aromas, so do I experience an equally intense revulsion when faced with something that smells bad. I don’t need to elaborate on what qualifies as bad; we all know that the modern world is filled with obnoxious smells both natural and man-made. I always felt assaulted by this in a way that most people I knew did not, especially since most children have little choice as to what their surroundings are. When I grew out of childhood and I could control my own environment at last, both gardening and fine perfume became my refuges from the world at large.
Even in the world of fragrances, my haven in a harsh modern life, there are a few that stand out as something to be avoided. There are many perfumes I can admire for their qualities but that I would never consider wearing, in addition to the ones I really love. Guerlain Shalimar is in this class – I simply cannot wear it or even “get” it, but I can understand why many people love it. Other fragrances are merely strange and perhaps unwearable for me but as long as I do not get up close and personal with them we can coexist just fine. In this category I would place Montale Chocolate Greedy – the only Montale of those I have experienced so far that is so weird that it’s off-putting and just plain odd – there is something in it other than the chocolate that just does not play well with others, and the cognitive dissonance I get when I smell it is truly jarring. However, I do acknowledge its high quality formulation, and that others feel very differently about it, which saves it from my final category.
That would be the Evil Ones, the few that affect me the same way as a bad odor from a factory or garbage dump – I simply must get as far away from them as I can, as quickly as possible. Mercifully there are relatively few of these in the many scents available today, and most of them are cheap mass-market scents that I can avoid without too much trouble. (It’s easy to walk by the “smell-alike” section in the drugstore, knowing in advance how bad these imitations are. Nor do I pay attention to current celebrity releases from barely legal pop stars, knowing in advance that they are all pretty much the same.) Now I know that many people like these fragrances, and this is just how they affect me personally. (I will, however, go so far as to say that none of the fragrances in my Hall of Shame are universally loved.)
Unfortunately, some of these offenders are very popular, or have been so in the past. My current Nemesis is Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue – perhaps it is not as bad as some others, but it is indeed ubiquitous – I cannot go to any department store without someone urging me to try it on, and the small of it hangs in the air near the perfume counter. This scent epitomizes all that I despise about modern synthetics – it is very sharp to my nose, and almost unbearably ozonic/metallic – I get a headache just thinking about it. It seems to be popular due to its “freshness” which for me translates into something like bug spray combined with the smell of an oxidized tin can.
On the opposite end of the scent spectrum from Light Blue is the equally omnipresent Aquolina Pink Sugar, a smothering mess of sweetness unrelieved by any lightness – an airless confection that smells like the inside of a cotton candy machine a cheap carnival. The name seems to indicate that this is the exact effect they were going for, in fact. I have tried this one several times just to be sure that it’s as bad as I first thought. It is.
Now let’s travel back in time a few years. Do you remember Uninhibited by Cher? If you do, please accept my condolences. This heavy perfume had an overdose of something indolic that made it smell like supercharged Johnson’s Baby Oil™ to me. It was a bestseller for a while as one of the earliest celebrity scents, and also helped to give that category of perfumes a bad name. Ditto for Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds. This clinging, oppressive synthetic floral concoction makes me feel like I have been locked in a funeral parlor with no way out. Why it is still popular is one of life’s enduring mysteries. My younger sister hates it so much she can’t even endure scent strips of it in magazines or mailers – they have to be thrown in the trash and put outside so she can breathe freely again. My own distaste is not far behind hers.
We all recall Giorgio Beverly Hills fondly – NOT! This knockout punch of a “fragrance” is probably responsible for more workplace perfume bans than any other. Its overwhelmingly loud chemical notes were scary enough, and when its high popularity in the Eighties is factored in, this one easily makes the Hall of Shame list. Right next to it stands Dior Poison – I have never quite forgiven Dior for this beast, overshadowing my beloved Diorissimo in sales at the height of its infamy and scenting elevators and offices everywhere with the odor of morning-after excess, head shop incense and stale toasted nuts.
Now let us revisit, if we may, the one I find most offensive of all, Christian Lacroix C’est La Vie. This 1990 abomination was also a product of the unfortunate Eighties vibe of “more is more” and was one of the worst perfumes that ever had a top designer’s name attached to it. (For the record, I also hated Lacroix’s fashions– no one excelled at turned the world’s most luxurious fabrics into the world’s most hideous clothing as well as he did. That’s another rant altogether.) The perfume was ponderously heavy and stiflingly animalic – it had an unctuous, oily smell from an overabundance of cheap musk that made my skin crawl, and it was overlaid with a sickly sweetness. Classed as a “fruity Oriental,” it is thankfully discontinued. One of the reasons this one was so bad for me is the high expectation of quality inherent in a perfume with such a prestigious label, as Christian Lacroix was at the very height of his fame in the fashion world at the time of its release. I am not alone in my dislike of this – I seem to recall that Luca Turin compared it to the odor of a bus station men’s room; though I cannot find the archived article, I do remember feeling vindicated by his opinion. I imagine that eau de urinal cake is not what most people would want to smell like.
In closing, I would like to say that in the huge variety of perfumes out there, I can find something to like about almost all of them. Like Grenouille in the novel and film “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”, it is scent itself that fascinates me, and it does not necessarily have to be “pretty” to do so, though I have no immediate plans to commit perfume-related crimes in pursuit of my avocation. I love many “earthy” natural aromas and I even enjoy some industrial essences that have very little to do with being aesthetically pleasing. What disturbs me is when I am asked to pay good money for something that smells cheap or offensive because some marketing “genius” thinks I should. When the sensationalism fades, there had better be something real behind the hype. The top perfume villains and their creators break faith with those who want quality in their lives. Let us be extra grateful for the good ones, those fragrances that make us feel lucky to have skin to put them on and noses with which to enjoy them.
Image credit: Painting titled “C’est La Vie”, unrelated to the perfume but somehow depicting exactly how I feel about it: from online gallery he-art.dk