For the past several years, I’ve spent my weekends in a number of Central European cities. The museums, the shops, the coffee, are always delightful. My latest holiday was in Munich, the capitol of Bavaria. People from all over Europe and beyond were enjoying this city and my nose had a holiday of its own (with perfume and food, that is!). Having lived in Europe for a long time, my American brain began thinking what I’ve learned from Europeans about perfumes/scents. Here’s what I came up with:
1. Don’t be afraid to wear perfume in public. It is not taboo here, as it is in many parts of America. My WASP mother still looks at me with deep suspicion when she smells anything perfumed in my vicinity, though my paternal grandmother, a southern belle, would never be caught dead without her French lilac cologne.
2. Don’t wear too much perfume. European women almost never overdo it. I’ve noticed some women in North America who do decide to wear perfume are, um, how shall I say, sillage challenged? I also noticed this in Russia when the Communist period ended. The women in smaller towns were going perfume-mad, as they’d been deprived of it for so long, and a great deal of perfume, (sadly much of it counterfeit), was appearing in local markets for incredibly low prices. Perhaps it goes back to Rule #1. Don’t OD on perfume to be a rebel or because you grew up in a No Perfume Zone. Clothing, tattoos, and hair color are better for that sort of expression, I think. Those generally won’t send innocent bystanders into comas (or inspire anti-perfumery laws like in Canada). Be wary of too much Angel….
3. Ignore mass marketing. OK, European teens are waaaay susceptible to this, just like their peers everywhere. But older European women, especially, are really creative and independent in what they wear. They even layer. Bravo! Celebrity scents are greeted with “Meh” by these women. And that’s a good thing.
4. Seek quality. High quality ingredients are more readily recognized and valued. (I see this in the bakery and dairy, too.) Europeans are more likely to save money for considerable periods to buy that one Lutens or Malle, than to spend less right now on cheaper stuff. Many Americans do this, also, but our rush-rush do-it-now culture discourages save-and-wait behavior. Europeans hunt carefully, and eventually, they bag their quarry.
5. Take risks. Wear that strange chypre. Try a really spicy scent. Go woodsy. Try incense. Or an unusal note, like galbanum or coriander or pomegranate. These are not shunned in Europe, so you can smell at least 5 different scent categories in one metro car!
6. (For shops) Stock niche brands. OK, not all of them, just a couple you like. Even small towns in Europe have little perfumeries that carry Etro, Creed, Annick Goutal, Santa Maria Novella, and some houses I can’t even pronounce (mostly local operations). Despite the machinations of the EU and IFRA, which vigorously attempt to ban ingredients as ubiquitous and humble as lemon and bergamot, small houses still thrive in Europe, as they have for centuries (millennia, even?). Most niche perfumeries in the US are on the coasts, inaccessible to 90% of the population except through the Internet. On the other hand, North America has a much stronger tradition of do-it-yourself, and a lot more people there make their own aromatherapies, incense, and even perfumes, than you’d find here across the Pond. You can find good essential oils and supplies in most American towns. They aren’t easy to find here outside of certain apothecary shops.
7. No such thing as a signature scent for life. European women particularly wear different perfumes to match the weather, their mood, the time of day, and their outfits. You’ll rarely find just one or two bottles in their boudoirs.
Well, that’s enough cross-cultural musing for now. Time to go out to the shops and find something weird and wonderful!
The first illustrations is by Marla.