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Monday, October 22, 2007

Perfume? Really?

By Alyssa Harad

Alyssa Harad is a freelance writer living in Austin, TX. She writes about books, food, gender and sexuality, feminism, her unsuspecting family—and now perfume. A longtime foodie, she is grateful for her new, non-caloric obsession with scent. You can contact Alyssa at ahperfume at gmail dot com.


“Perfume? Really?” said my friend J., his incredulity laced with contempt. “You mean, like, natural oils, right?”

We’d been smoking and confessing on a sultry Texas evening in the backyard of a ramshackle Victorian at a party with a great deal of food and drink and very few guests. A voluptuous excess. I remember my quick twinge at having said the wrong thing when I thought I was safe: J.—flamboyantly, joyously queer—had just completed a long research project on writers notorious for their queer decadence, including Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose pleasure-seeking narrator in À Rebours used a “scent organ” to play himself into fragrance-induced delirium.

I don’t remember what I answered. I know that I lied, and agreed with him.

Since that day, I have learned to take pleasure seriously. I have met and admired too many women and men who have been punished or denigrated for their pleasures and their desires. I have seen them fight for those pleasures, lose, retreat, and begin again.

But in that unhappy stretch of my life I knew very little about my own pleasures. So little that I absorbed my own lie and it became the truth, so that when I look back I can’t imagine why I would have told anyone I loved perfume. Did I even own any perfumes that year? Perhaps a once-beloved bottle of Elizabeth Arden’s Sunflowers, dusty and denuded of both cap and sprayer. Maybe a couple of Thymes Limited bottles I’d picked up at a high end grocery store: Green Tea, which smelt disappointingly of pink roses, and Fig Leaf and Cassis, which I adored, but which scared me. On the rare occasions I used it I sprayed only once, lest I offend anyone with my scent.

I have no memory of purchasing—or even sniffing—anything else for another five years.

Not all pleasures are equal. It’s the ones that nourish something tender and vital in us that are the most vulnerable and the most stubborn. If J. had said to me—Coffee? You still drink coffee?—I would not have switched to tea. But he said – Perfume? Really?—and, so quickly I hardly knew what I was doing, I accused myself of silliness, of hypocritical decadence, of self-delusion and frippery and luxury and political incorrectness and I backpedaled before I had even committed to anything.

As my unhappiness passed and my self-knowledge grew, my love of fragrance returned and thrived (thanks, in no small part to the gentle passion of this online community). My new cloud of sillage came trailing changes in the way I lived my life and made my living. So much of the pleasure of scent is memory, and perfume helped me recover things I didn’t know I’d lost, didn’t know I longed for: a delight in moving and strengthening my body, a simple love of words and imagining, and running through it all, the silver thread of something I can only name the divine.

But most of all, perfume was a back door into a kind of femininity I thought was closed to me. A femininity certain gatekeepers try to keep locked up in temples of commerce and luxury, held tight within a world of just-so clothes, hair, make-up and bodies. I longed to play with that feminine power, but fled because I could neither live by the gatekeepers’ rules, nor bend them enough to breathe freely.

Ah, but they couldn’t lock up the perfumes. Unleashed from their bottles, those genies led me back to a way of moving through the world that has to do with sex and beauty, yes, and desire too, but also, with my grandmother: an elegant, bossy, Jewish woman who worked the floors of high end department stores in her wicked heels for forty years. It has to do with the box of jewelry I inherited from her that looks nothing like my usual ethnic chunky stuff but has somehow become something I wear every day. And with the bottle of Bal à Versailles she gave me years ago when I was far too young to appreciate it, but which I kept anyway, sniffing cautiously every other year or so. And it has to do with an idea of femme that includes chutzpah and drag queens and fat girls and a thousand other attitudes and creatures undreamt of by the gatekeepers.

Every now and then, in the midst of our conversations on this blog and others I’ve seen worries over the pleasure of perfume: Shouldn’t we be spending our money on something else? Is there a morality of perfume? Or sometimes, a worry over its seeming opposite: a loss of pleasure in perfume, a feeling of being jaded and bored.

For me the answer to both of these worries is to recall the vulnerable heart of my obsession. I love scents for themselves. I love novelty and learning. I love the art of perfume and even the commerce, with all its down and dirty contradictions. And pretty bottles. But it’s the way that perfume makes a specific intangible into something I can smell and wear and share that drives my collecting and my passion.

What is at the secret heart of your perfume love?

For another view on knowing one's own pleasure, please see the wonderful "The Art of Seducing Oneself: How to Select Perfume" on Bois de Jasmin, an article which helped me to clarify and stand by these thoughts.

Image source, noelpecout.blog.lemonde.fr.

32 Comments:

Blogger elle said...

What a wonderful, thought provoking post! I'm in a somewhat jaded phase and this helps push me back towards feeling the excitement and enthusiasm about scents which I normally do. I fell in love w/ perfumes during childhood, as they were the means by which I bonded w/ my gay father, but I've remained in love since they serve as my drug of choice to alter my moods throughout each day and they also are just pure, sensual joy. I'm also addicted to the hunt and the thrill of discovering new scents. I just wish that more new scents thrilled me to the core these days.

10:28 PM EDT  
Anonymous Andy said...

Thank you very much for this wonderful post; a staccato of thoughts! I have to confess that I get "Perfume-Really?" quite often myself. When being asked what I make, when I say that I make perfumes,this "Perfumes, really?" answer is proof of ignorance of many.
Another answer: People start talking about their sex life. But that's another story ;-)

12:29 AM EDT  
Anonymous Leopoldo said...

Andy - lol

In typical (British? Male?) mode, I still get embarrassed when acquaintances ( never friends) find out I'm into perfume. I even blush (I'm a long way from embarrassable normally).

Thanks for your wondrous post.

3:51 AM EDT  
Blogger lilybp said...

Wonderful post! I admit that I am, like Lee, often embarrassed when confessing my obsession to friends--especially academic ones! But they seem to be almost uniformly interested in it when they find out. And Mr. Lily, OTOH, goes around telling everyone, so it's hard to keep in the (perfume) closet!

7:56 AM EDT  
Blogger Beth Gehring said...

What a provocative post....I have loved perfume forever, all of my life it seems. I had a huge trunk of clothes, costume jewelry and shoes that I was allowed to play dress up with and all of my mother's makeup and perfumes. I remember wearing Halston and Orlane cosmetics when my friends were still wearing Loves Baby Soft,Loves Fresh lemon , Jean Nate' and Bonne Bell. At first I think that it was driven by a desire to be different, to appear more mysterious and sophisticated. I was a pretty Jewish woman raised in a very uptight waspy community so being VERY dramatic was a good way to fit in! However, role playing very quickly became love and a fun way of life. To this day, I adore fine fragrance (and even some cheap ones too!) for their ability to change my mood, transport me through time, enhance my costumes and most simply as Elle put it so succintly, their pure sensual joy!

8:42 AM EDT  
Blogger Patty said...

Great post, Alyssa. I get the "perfume- really" thing quite a lot. Fortunately, my obsession bloomed in my 40s, and my ability to truly not care what other people think is well developed.

There seems to be some perception that scent is frivolous, and it is, but it's just one of the most necessary thing to adding beauty to life for a very important sense.

That we all -- bloggers and readers -- attempt to describe it and talk about it seems like one of the most challenging things I personally do. Describe the scent -- well, describe a color, it's about the same attempt.

But playing in perfume and talking about it brings my life a richness it would not otherwise have, so I'm always grateful to everyone out there that will talk about our scented dirty little secret. :)

9:01 AM EDT  
Blogger marchlion said...

"I love scents for themselves." I think you've summed it up right there, beautifully. An individual fragrance can be marketed and manipulated symbolically (this says I am: beautiful; rich; sexy) but a love of fragrance in general? It's sensual, just like food. I don't view it as any more superficial than, say, being into wine.

I share lilybp's experience that mostly when people find out about my little "habit" they're interested more than anything else. A couple of friends have started buying decants too!

10:42 AM EDT  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Elle--thank you! And oh my yes, "pure sensual joy," its hard to think of a more accessible, instantaneous sensuality that's still (mostly) acceptable in public.

I'd love to hear more about how scent connected you to your father. I'm very interested in the way perfume seems to invite connections across boundaries...

11:10 AM EDT  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Andy, thank you for the compliment. I know we are all very glad you persist in making your beautiful creations. Sex lives--hee!hee! It could be worse. I wrote my dissertation on trauma and literature and the stories I got when I told people that, well...

11:13 AM EDT  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Lee--I'm a big fan of your posts, so that "wondrous" means a lot to me, thanks. And I blush far too often...

11:14 AM EDT  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Lilypb-- In my experience, many people I'm shy about sharing my perfume love with turn out to have perfume stories of their own. I've been very surprised, and its made for some great conversation.

As for academics--perfume is sort of tailor made for the cultural studies crowd don't you think?

11:20 AM EDT  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Beth, what a wonderful picture you paint of that dress-up time. I grew up in Boise, Idaho with nary another Jew in sight (its changed since then) and "dramatic" is exactly how I felt.

Halston: it was my mother's perfume, given to her (I later found out) by the grandmother I speak of in my post. Still trying to love it.

11:23 AM EDT  
Blogger Ducks said...

That was marvelous. I have always had a very keen nose and a keen interest in scents... I remember playing with a perfumery set (a toy!) from Avon with a little friend when I was little. My paternal grandmother would dab me with tea rose scent before church; my maternal grandmother let me play with little scent bottles with watered traces of something gorgeous. I thought they were pirate jewels. And my mom and I fell in love with a seasonal fragrance (okay, it was Love's Vanilla)... so I have always searched for a replacement, particularly given her scent-mutilating chemistry.

11:25 AM EDT  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Patty -- yes. And I love how you put it, too.

I'll be in my 40's in about five minutes. I've been carefully taking notes on all my friends in their 50's for whom not caring what others think has become a fabulous take-no-prisoners attitude.

11:29 AM EDT  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

March -- wine, exactly, that's the metaphor I use, too. Especially when I'm explaining why I need so many.

Its so much fun to get friends interested, but sometimes I feel just the tiniest bit like a drug pusher :)

11:33 AM EDT  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Ducks -- pirate jewels! Wow! And I love the connection to church, and both your grandmothers. Let us know if you find your vanilla scent!s

11:35 AM EDT  
Anonymous Divalano said...

Wonderful post, thank you! So many things I could respond to here. Yes, it's about sexuality & sensuality. In our sex negative puritanical culture pleasure is often suspect both from the right & the left.
For me scent is a sensual indulgence, as much for my own pleasure as for seduction &/or self expression. Even though some of my closer friends are hedonistically inclined fetishy ladies, I do find myself sometimes apologizing for the depth of my fetishistic fascination with scent when I bring it up. I'm not sure why ... we all take delight in our frivolous pleasures, & scent certainly isn't any more expensive or decadent than shoes & boots, leather, latex, lingerie or fur. So, I'm aware of my hesitation to share my new scent finds with friends but on the whole, I'm also over 40 & no longer so concerned about raised eyebrows as I used to be. I'm happy to be a power femme sensualist. Thanks for the post & for the encouragment. Insane day here in tech-land, hope I've made a lick of sense.

11:44 AM EDT  
Anonymous AngelaS said...

Thank you for the wonderful article! I don't have much to say except that I agree with every word.

11:52 AM EDT  
Anonymous JenniferR said...

Others have said the sorts of glowing things that I'd like to add so much better than I could, that I'd like to follow up with your response to March's comments about wine--which is the obsession that I've chased all my adult life, while perfume has hovered in the background until relatively recently.
I tend to pair wines and perfumes mentally, not because I'd necessarily want to drink the one while wearing the other, but because the flavors and fragrances evoke similar mental/emotional responses.
And one of the most enlightened emerging wine geeks I know went about sniffing ladies' wrists one night when a group of us got to talking about perfume. He figured it was excellent training for his wine nose. I'm sure the perfume listers couldn't agree more!

1:15 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful and thoughtful post! Perfume is often seen as a flippant and decadent pleasure, a silly indulgence. Incidentally, cigars or fine cars or horses do not carry this stigma. What moved me about your piece is your sincerity and honesty as well as your sensitivity--the quest for pleasure is such a private thing.

Victoria / Bois de Jasmin

4:25 PM EDT  
Blogger Stacy said...

Thank you for this evocative post. You got me thinking about how I sometimes play up my interest in "olfaction" and the "psychology of scent" or relate it to my former life in specialty coffee using sensory evaluation everyday when speaking of this hobby with others. But really, most passions by nature are difficult to share with the uninitiated. I echo your appreciation of this online community...

5:36 PM EDT  
Anonymous Flora said...

Alyssa, what a wonderful piece! I know exactly what you mean - people look at you as if you have suddenly grown a second head if you say you are a perfume lover. It is so often viewed as something frivolous and unworthy of attention. We know better!

For me, it is a world apart, a way of appreciating the finer things in life in the best sense, and I also love the perfumes for themselves - I don't care how much they cost or whose name is attached to them.

Perfume is also something I love because I have always loved beauty more than most other things, perhaps because I knew at a very young age that I would never fit the cultural expectation of being "beautiful" myself - yet I worship at its altar nonetheless. I don't mean the beauty industry, but all things beautiful, whether they are of nature or man-made. Along with fine arts and music, perfume speaks to me of what human beings are capable of, and that their finest, most noble works and achievements can involve the love of art and beauty without shame.

Oh, and of course, perfume is an expression of female sensuality that was the kind of thing that was not allowed when I was growing up - I have learned to celebrate this in my life as well.

6:20 PM EDT  
Blogger tmp00 said...

I could have sworn I responded to this post- I was even a bit long winded! Must have been distracted by something shiny....

Oh well, to recap, great post and welcome to PST!

6:52 PM EDT  
Blogger Anita said...

I've so enjoyed reading both your beautiful and evocative post and the equally fascinating comments! I agree most with divalano. To think of one's self as a "sensualist" sounds so cheesy in my mind, but yet, that's where perfume comes in. It gives me the same feeling of deep satisfaction that I get from closely studying flowers, of savoring a piece of perfect chocolate, or listening to beautiful music. I love this part of myself, that can find such enjoyment in the satisfaction of the senses. So, I am a sensualist, and exquisite smells are part of the secret enjoyment that adds an extra element to my life.

6:55 PM EDT  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Divalano, flora and anita--

Thank you so much for your thoughtful, intimate replies. You've really extended my thoughts. There is indeed a very long conversation to be had about perfume, beauty, art and feminine sensuality. And power, too, thanks for highlighting that Divalano. I'm going to start calling myself a "power femme sensualist," even if it's just in the mirror!

It is present and absent in all the ad copy for perfume, only a few notes played over and over.

8:53 PM EDT  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Stacy-- passions are difficult to share, sometimes. Perhaps that's why I collect people who have at least one obsession in their lives. : )

8:55 PM EDT  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

AngelaS and Victoria, thank you so much for reading! It makes me very happy that you enjoyed the post, and especially, V, that you found it honest and sincere.

8:58 PM EDT  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Jenifferr -- I think sensualists find one another across genres. Wish I had been at that party!

8:59 PM EDT  
Blogger heather said...

Alyssa, I read this last night before I went to bed and it has been in my mind all day. Thank you so much for this insightful and perceptive post. I wondered if I had any "perfume, really?" moments in my life until I realized that as I was speaking to a friend at work today about perfume exploration, a co-worker walked by us and rolled his eyes at the topic. I immediately realized that I've been hiding the little perfume class I've been running at work because I subconsciously expected just that reaction. It was poignant for a moment, and then it p*ssed me off. This was very timely for me and it's a pleasure to read your thoughts on an easily overlooked aspect of passion - shame.

9:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Tom -- oh dear, you'll have to tell me what you meant to say sometime! Thank you for the warm welcome.

9:02 PM EDT  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Heather--thank you so much. It's such a pleasure to know my writing has been useful somehow.

And hey everyone, you should check out Heather's beautiful poetry+perfume blog, Memory and Desire--just discovered it this weekend!

9:09 PM EDT  
Blogger Michelle Krell Kydd said...

Ms. Harad's generousity and candor open the door to a veritable bouquet of possibilities, the most important one (which is being actualized at the very moment you read these comments) is the possibility that the art of perfumery will be taken seriously by those who have yet to discover its endless joys and pleasures. Brava!

11:39 AM EST  

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